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Agencies Agency Leadership

Marketing generalists will supersede specialists in 2024 (and beyond)

By Jon King, UK Chief Executive Officer



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January 22, 2024 | 8 min read

The agency world’s in a constant tug-of-war between generalism and specialism. Here, Croud’s Jon King says to expect a big (and protracted) move to the generalist side of the equation, this year and beyond.

An array of dirty paintbrushes

2024: the year marketing generalists take over? / Steve Johnson via Unsplash

Here’s a prediction that’s not about AI: generalist talent will become more important in 2024 to both clients and agencies. I’m so confident in this prediction that I would expect it to continue through 2025 and beyond.

From fragmentation to integration

Over the past 20 years we’ve done a great job of fragmenting marketing communications into a confusing jigsaw puzzle of specialisms.

This was driven by necessity; technology evolved rapidly and had a fundamental impact on customer behavior. Clients and agencies responded by building teams of people that could get to grips with new platforms and channels.

But this has resulted in narrow team structures and an overreliance on technical expertise as a driver of career progression. And now, the way the market is moving is putting this model under pressure.

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At the macro level there are signs that the pendulum is swinging back from fragmentation to integration: brand and performance teams acknowledging that they need to work more closely together, increasing recognition of the symbiosis between creative and media, and the blurring of the online and offline worlds as everything becomes digital.

At the micro level, platform automation and increasing reliance on data to drive business performance are accelerating these trends. Automation is forcing agencies to appraise the balance between human and machine; as the major platforms let their algorithms drive performance there is reduced reliance on specialist human talent to implement and optimize campaigns. AI (damn, I mentioned it) will undoubtedly only accelerate these changes further.

This raises some tricky questions: how do those people spend their time, and more importantly, what is the value-add to the client - which ultimately justifies the fee?

Generalists can simplify the complex

This brings us back to generalist talent. Whether brand or agency, we need to think harder about how we cut through the complexity and connect the dots. If our structure and capabilities are siloed, this can be difficult; it’s inefficient and just takes too long. We need more generalists who can understand the big picture, think strategically, and simplify – rather than relying solely on deep knowledge of one specific technology or channel.

To a certain extent, this can be driven by bold moves such as consolidating different agencies within the same group, strategic acquisitions, or integrating ecommerce, performance, or customer experience into marketing teams. But I question whether these structural changes alone can create the desired outcome in the absence of a clear talent strategy or investment in training and development.

Plus, job roles evolve. A few years ago, a paid search specialist’s capital was focused on manipulating Google to get the desired outcome. Now, that the algorithm does some of the heavy lifting; their capital is shifting to include the data expertise required to make the algorithm perform, forcing them to develop new skills and expertise, with automation freeing up the time for them to learn and deploy these new skills.

Nurturing generalist talent

We all need to do more to help our talent develop and proactively create the conditions in which generalists thrive. Clients expect us to be agile and flexible and we need to respond - by changing our structures and giving our talent broader experience so they can learn and develop in new ways.

At Croud, we’re encouraging people to explore varied career paths and switch departments as they progress. When channel specialists move into client service or strategy roles, this brings new and different thinking to our teams and client work – in every case. When they move into analytics roles, they help us make data actionable to deliver business outcomes. We’re also encouraging teams to cross-fertilize and broaden capabilities by working in different ways - becoming experts in multiple platforms and technologies.

If you’re reading this as a specialist thinking it’s time for a career change, though, you can probably relax - the digital landscape remains fragmented, and there will always be a role for deep channel expertise. Indeed, we need to make sure we nurture these skills which are critical to innovation and product development.

But we have over-invested in these areas at the expense of developing generalists who can balance depth of knowledge with the breadth to deliver a strategic overview or prioritise across conflicting objectives. That needs to change.

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Step out of your comfort zone

Let’s finish with a rallying cry for the new year. Life’s a learning journey. Doing different things is interesting, energizing and fun. If you work in digital marketing (client or agency side), knowing about a broader range of stuff will make you better at your job and help you progress faster – just look at David Epstein’s book Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World’.

So step out of your comfort zone and make 2024 the year to do something different.

Agencies Agency Leadership

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Croud is a global, full-service digital agency that helps businesses drive sustainable growth in the new world of marketing. With a rich heritage in performance,...

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