In our recently published Digital Marketing and E-Commerce Careers Guide, we have put together some of the industry’s best advice on how senior digital professionals can improve their career. The advice we received from our contributors was excellent, and in many cases there was a broad spectrum of opinion regarding how best to accelerate one’s career.

One of the questions we asked the leaders in their field was, “Is it more important to have a deep knowledge about a specific area of digital expertise, or all-round digital experience?” In the light of discussions regarding the importance of “t-shaped people”, as highlighted in our report on digital marketing organisational structures, this discussion is particularly significant. 

The answers from our contributors are below.

Luca Benini, Managing Director Europe, Buddy Media

I don’t know that either is necessarily more important than the other, but both are taken into consideration for their own reasons. At Buddy Media I think we look for very specific skills, such as experience at similar tech companies, familiarity with social media and Facebook, etc. But the all-around digital experience is helpful because things change so quickly. Skills that might have seemed important in a job description or interview might be rendered completely useless in three months. So having a wide-ranging background in digital can ensure that a professional is not pigeonholed into a position that ceases to exist. 

Ros Lawler, Head of E-commerce and Digital Marketing, Random House 

I have worked with great people from both backgrounds.  The most important thing at a senior level is to understand how specialists’ skills (eg. analytics, search, social) work together and integrate with the business.

David Paice, E-commerce Director, Merlin Entertainments

To begin your career, specialist knowledge is more valuable as it will be easier to stand out with this particular USP. As you progress and the responsibilities move from tactical objectives to business strategy, it is vital you take a more broad and all-encompassing viewpoint. This could be gained by ensuring you keep fully up to date with everything else ecommerce-related in your own firm but also keeping abreast of relevant blogs, publications as well as training and development opportunities.

Fiona Spooner, Head of Acquisition and Optimisation, Financial Times

This depends on what you want to do and what your business needs.  We need experts in search, social, CRM and more, so if that is your passion then focus on it.  However, the ability to be able to relate your expertise to the wider business objectives and to contribute to strategy is integral.   We all need a balance.

Allison Wightman, Head of eBusiness, Virgin Atlantic

A good grounding in digital would see you getting involved in as many different areas of e-commerce and digital marketing as possible, as it really is the sum of its parts. It’s then possible to specialise somewhat managing a specialist team before taking on a senior leadership role. If possible, it’s important to have commercial responsibility at some point before going for a senior role.

Angus Cormie, Online Director, Dell EMEA 

For digital leaders, you have to make the assumption that they have a support infrastructure of specialists, either as in-house staff or agencies. Some businesses can rely on a single expert with a specific digital expertise, for example where search is at the heart of the business digital performance. However, most businesses require a rich suite of skills that can then be supported by an all-round generalist, knowledgeable enough to be able to point the broader team in the right direction to align to the business and digital and strategies, and knowledgeable enough to know when the specialist is not delivering or going “off-piste”.

Matt Simpson, Head of Digital, EMEA, OmnicomMediaGroup

If only life was as black and white!  Ultimately the top jobs in business are one’s which require a generalist skill set which are rarely based around a specialism.  Specialising can help propel you to senior positions through lack of competition and rapid growth of your specialist area, but the most senior jobs will require you to broaden your skill set at some point.  My advice would be to try and make sure you always know more than others about at least one area, but don’t do this at the cost of having a broad digital understanding.

Russell Gould, Former Managing Director,

I don’t think it matters.  If you have a deep understanding of a particular area you must ensure you also fully understand how this area influences and is influenced by the other areas.  

Claire Higgins, Head of Digital Marketing, Selfridges

It depends on the job role, but if are a specialist in one area, you need a strong overview of how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together to be able to really deliver effectively.

Most senior level roles do however, require well-rounded digital experience. It gives more opportunity for the business to diversify and brings a strong digital voice to the table that can be confident around how the various parts of the digital mix interchange with one another. 

Although, by diversifying you also need to have a good understanding of the key areas to be able to influence, drive change and achieve results. 

Rosalie Kurton, Head of New Business, LBi

At this level (and ideally any level whether specialist or not) you need to have a blended brain. It’s no good having 20 experts in a room every time a client has a brief. You need to think holistically about the solution and how all the component parts will work together. From there you can direct a team using smaller groups of specialists to deliver the solution at the appropriate points.

The other thing to point out is that typically under the pyramid model, the higher up you get in an organisation, the more operational the role tends to become which results in more admin and people management rather than being able to share discipline expertise with the client or the team.

As the digital industry has matured so rapidly it means that senior experts can be spread thinly at a time when they should be spending more time with senior clients given the maturity and importance of digital to most organisations.

Alison Lancaster, CMO, Kiddicare, and Marketing Director, Morrison’s Non-Food

Ideally both!  In the early days of .com and digital marketing, there were so few of us, we all had to do everything and learn it all along the way!  Now the market is so much bigger, there are lots of specialists and experts working in silos.  Personally, I prefer more rounded digital experts who can take a bigger picture view and work across different dimensions with a portfolio of tools in their tool kit.  However, it largely depends on the size of your team and budget! The common primary focus is the customer and how we use digital expertise to create better brand and online user experiences – whatever category, service or department we operate in. 

Andy Harding, Director of E-commerce, House of Fraser

Having a deep knowledge about a specific area will ensure fast progression within that area but to progress into senior digital management and beyond requires a solid understanding of the mechanics of all disciplines. 

Chris Ketley, Head of Digital and E-commerce, Bupa

It really depends on the role and responsibilities. You will be perceived as others as the digital expert so need to ensure you can manage and deliver against expectations.

Paul Wishman, Group E-commerce Director, LV 

For me the ideal person is someone who has demonstrated their ‘depth’ in at least one area and then shown versatility to propagate experience across a range of digital techniques. I say this as I believe to lead from the front you need to have proved to yourself and others that you have sound knowledge of the mechanics and how to effectively use them to attain optimal results.

Your thoughts?

What do you think? Is it more important to be a generalist, or a specialist? With the amount of information out there, can you be both? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

For further information, download our free Digital Marketing and E-commerce Careers Guide (registration required) or find out more about the other free reports offered by Econsultancy.