Become a specialist if you want a career in digital marketing

Early specialization improves your chances to have a career in digital marketing. In this article, I explain why.

Become a specialist if you want a career in digital marketing

There are 1000x more generalists than specialists in Digital Marketing. Linkedin lists 1.4M people with the role of Marketing Manager but only 1,100 Technical SEOs, for example. The chart below shows an overview of specialist and generalist roles in Digital Marketing, plus their median annual salary and number of job occupants.

About the data
The chart above compares salary with the number of occupations of a digital marketing job role. The raw data is in the table below. I pulled the job postings from two of the biggest platforms, Linkedin and Glassdoor, and annual median salary from Glassdoor. I chose postings from two job platforms to have a more robust view. You'd expect inventory to be almost the same on any platform because job postings are a commodity, but it's not. Monthly search volume (MSV) comes from SEMrush to give a bit of perspective on how many people are searching for those jobs on Google. The overarching questions I tried to answer were “what jobs are people most looking for vs. which ones are offered?” and “how high is the compensation?” in Digital Marketing.

Scope Job role Median Annual Salary (Glassdoor) Linkedin members with job title Glassdoor postings Linkedin postings MSV
Generalist Demand Generation Manager $84,172 2,196 1,976 719 170
Generalist Growth Marketer $81,078 1,074 648 6,318 250
Generalist Head of Marketing $136,340 164,337 3,549 2,671 260
Specialist Email Marketing Manager $81,078 4,007 10,712 6,760 260
Specialist Technical SEO $65,200 1,175 998 1,919 480
Specialist Content Marketing Manager $81,078 20,814 16,366 6,057 590
Generalist VP of Marketing $173,157 145,665 2,972 4,015 880
Specialist Advertising manager $72,768 34,972 10,358 15,700 1,300
Generalist Digital Marketing Manager $73,114 86,534 18,766 11,631 1,300
Specialist SEO Manager $84,172 22,879 3,168 6,325 1,600
Generalist Marketing Specialist $50,528 331,741 15,290 19,324 1,900
Generalist Marketing Manager $81,078 1,416,508 53,665 72,038 13,000
Specialist Social Media Manager $55,199 139,062 13,309 13,002 18,100
Generalist CMO $170,456 37,272 812 728 22,200

And yet, I recommend Digital Marketers who want to be CMO one day to specialize first and then broaden their skills. Even further, I think that the T-shaped Marketer model is misunderstood and not the optimal approach for most people.

Let me explain my reasoning and try to provide some sound career advice for those who are just starting out in Digital Marketing and those who consider a change.

Career success is driven by value

Let's start with what drives a successful career: value.

However you define a successful career for yourself (more in the gray box below), you need to be able to create a certain value. You need to know how to do the required tasks, build emotional intelligence, and be well connected (I’ve never seen a CMO or VP who doesn’t have a robust network). Of course, luck also plays a role, but I think optimal preparation and usage of opportunities allow you to minimize the factors you can’t. So, I would define career value as hard skills + soft skills + network.

Increasing your value is easier as a specialist than a generalist. You can connect better and faster with people because the field is smaller. You can build out hard skills quicker from deep knowledge in one thing, compared to shallow knowledge in many things. Soft skills are necessary for both functions but more crucial for managers. Those are good reasons to aim at starting out as a specialist. But there's more.

The Employee Pyramid

Career success is subjective

Having a successful career can mean different things to different people. I don't think everybody has to be a manager or have a career at all. What I think everybody should find is meaning. Some find it in getting a certain title, others in the impact of their work, but most of all find it in all these things. We all need (a certain amount of) money, but it's not enough to find meaning in work. We often experience that when we have a certain salary and can cover our most important needs.

In his book “P.E.A.K.”, Chip Conley explains that a fulfilling career provides us with three needs, such as money, recognition, and meaning. They are layered on top of each other like a pyramid with money at the base, recognition in the middle, and meaning at the top. We need money to survive, recognition to succeed, and meaning to transform ourselves. If those needs are covered, a job can be transformative for us.

Polymath or Monomath?

The Renaissance period coined the term Polymath, someone with deep knowledge in several fields. Examples were Leonardo DaVinci, Aristotle, and Bertrand Russel. You could even categorize Elon Musk as Polymath, as he’s revolutionizing space travel (SpaceX), autonomous driving & electric vehicles (Tesla), mobility (Boring Company), and electronic payments (PayPal). Polymaths were universally educated, which is where the term “university” comes from. Universities educated students in many fields before offering specialized tracks.

Leonardo DaVinci, the ultimate Polymath
Leonardo DaVinci, the ultimate Polymath

The opposite of Polymaths is Monomaths, individuals with deep knowledge in one field. Examples of Monomaths are Michael Jackson, Tiger Woods, or Bobby Fisher. They all were talented in their disciplines but capitalized on it by honing their craft from an early age. Tiger Woods, for example, started playing golf by the age of 2 and Bobby Fischer won his first chess tournament when he was 12.

It’s important to understand, though, that Polymaths attain the same depth of knowledge as monomath in more than one field. Being a Polymath sounds like the ultimate goal but not everybody is capable of being one. Most people have to choose between being a Jack of all Trades with broad but shallow knowledge or a specialist - unless they're able to be really good at one thing and then transfer that depth to one or two other things.

The concept of Monomaths and Polymaths should highlight two things: first, there is a lot of value in specialization. Second, becoming a good specialist is often more likely than becoming a good generalist - at least in the beginning. From a Digital Marketing perspective, there are pros and cons to both and both are needed.

Let's look at the pros and cons.

The pros and cons of generalization

To be clear, when we're talking about Digital Marketing Generalists, we're talking about roles like Marketing Manager or Product Marketing Manager. They often oversee many fields at the same time.

Being a generalist is like eating from a buffet. You can pick anything and as much as you want, but the likelihood that you get something really well prepared is lower. Most world-class restaurants don’t serve buffets.

Pro Con
More robust career “Jack of all trades, master of none”
More valuable for young companies and startups Less demand in mature companies
Lower bar to enter More competition
Often higher salaries at high levels Harder to advance to the next level

Generalists often have shallower knowledge of a broader range of skills and disciplines. That results in a more robust career but also makes it harder to go deep in any field. Generalists are especially valuable to young companies who can’t hire a specialist for each field, but the more a company matures, the more it tends to hire specialists. Generalists roles have a lower bar to enter because shallower knowledge can be attained quicker, but it also means more competition. Generalists often have high salaries at high positions, but it’s also harder to advance through the ranks when you start out as a generalist. It's a clear trade-off of depth vs. breadth.

Specialization is for insectsNaval Ravakant on the Joe Rogan podcast

It's harder to start out as a generalization because multi-disciplinary knowledge doesn't manifest as quickly as single-disciplinary. David A. Sousa, author of the book “How the brain learns”, explains the brain retains memory better when information is relevant and when it makes sense. Consuming and learning information within the same field is easier. So, generalizing early on is harder because the deeper you go into a topic, the more relevant things appear and the more they start to make sense.

Digital Marketing Generalist

The pros and cons of specialization

When we speak about Digital Marketing Specialists, we're speaking about professions like Technical SEO or Email Marketing Specialist. They are part of a larger field like SEO but focus on a smaller part and often need deeper technical skills.

Being a specialist is like ordering à la carte in a nice restaurant. Your choice is limited but the likelihood of eating something special is higher.

Pro Con
Faster career advancement Higher risk of role becoming obsolete
Higher demand for role More difficult to attain knowledge
Easier to focus Narrowed view
Better for reputation building Harder to generalize later on

Specialists often have it easier to accelerate their careers because they face less competition and higher demand but are also at a higher risk of job loss or change (think of PPC Managers being replaced by machine learning, for example).

An analogy from the animal kingdom would be pandas versus rats. Pandas can only survive if they’re close to Bamboo. Rats can survive under almost any condition.

The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing.Archilochus, Greek poet

But demand for specialists is often high because it’s more difficult to attain the required deep and technical knowledge. Specializing allows you to focus on specific tasks, but can also narrow your view because you're dealing with just one thing. You can fall prey to availability bias (“When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”). It’s also easier to build a reputation when you’re deeply specialized, but it takes more effort to generalize later on, for example when you want to become a manager.

Digital Marketing Specialists

Why you should be a specialist before becoming a generalist

As you’ve seen in the Pros and Cons, no path is always good or bad and no decision is bound on time forever. You can start at one end and then change your mind. You don’t even have to be at the beginning of your career. You can switch at any time.

However, if you want to “get to the top as quickly as possible”, specialize early on and generalize later. Go deep and then broad. Become a Monomath and then use your value to become a strong generalist or Polymath.

Adam Smith
Adam Smith

Adam Smith, one of the founding theorists of the modern economy (#influencer) wrote in "Wealth of Nations" that the division of labor leads to an increase in productivity. He basically makes the case for specialization. He argues that if people specialize in specific steps of a process instead of doing everything, the process is done more efficiently and productivity increases. We see this a lot nowadays, for example with Smartphones. No single person knows how to make a complete smartphone, but some are experts in computer chips or antennas. Each step of the supply chain is split up and handled by specialists.

In fact, the best path to becoming a CMO often leads through domain expertise. In her book “Getting to the Top: Strategies for Career Success”, Kathryn Ullrich surveyed 226 CMOs and found that  24% got the job by building out deep expertise in an industry or marketing field first.

Having deep knowledge in something opens the doors to connect with helpful people, build a strong resume, and work at valuable companies. It will also make it easier for you to gain substantial knowledge in other fields because you know how to acquire deep knowledge. Learning something to an almost mastery-like level is a skill by itself, which you can use to learn other things.

It might take a couple of years to become a good specialist. Use them to build a strong network, hard skills, and an overview of the industry. Make a name for yourself in the industry. Then, pick the right time to generalize, e.g. when you go from individual contributor to manager. Use the skills, network, and perspective you have to get good at another skill.

Why the T-shaped marketer model is not the best way to go

Now that I explained why I favor specialism first, you're probably thinking that the T-shaped marketer model must be the best way to specialize. The t-shaped marketer is a concept that describes marketers who are specialized in 1-2 disciplines but have some knowledge in the other ones.

While I think the T-shaped model makes sense for some at some point in time, it does not for everyone all the time.

First, we have to take the factor of time into consideration. Being T-shaped is possible and helpful at a certain point in your career but in the beginning, you’re more I-shaped. You just know a little about one thing. Then, achieving a T-shaped state should not be the end. The next step is to become π-shaped (“pi”), i.e. adding another specialty to the one you have and trying to get the same depth of knowledge. The last step should be M-shaped, which is three deep fields of expertise. In fact, combining 2-3 specialties is probably the best trade-off between uniqueness and expertise but that's where it stops. 4 specialties are simply too much. 3 is already a number most people probably won't ever achieve in their lives.

pi-shaped and m-shaped marketers
The concept of pi-shaped and m-shaped marketers

We also need to consider different levels of depth vs. variety. Building expertise is limited because you only have so much time and energy. So, we could say that a person has a capacity of 100%. She or he can invest that go really deep into 1-2 disciplines or super broad into 10. You cannot go deep into unlimited disciplines. You can spend your time to go broad in four disciplines and then deep in one, i.e. 10-10-60-10-10, or super broad in 10 disciplines, i.e. 10-10-10-10-10-10-10-10-10-10. Going deep into three disciplines would be 33-33-33.

Not that this is how you spend your time, not the knowledge you gain. But since many fields develop rapidly, you need to keep up with them. It's not enough to acquire knowledge once and then move on. That's why I see 3 specializations as a maximum: splitting your time between more than 3 fields don't allow you to go deep enough.

We need to add other models to the T-shaped marketer: Pi-shaped (two specialties) and M-shaped (three specialties). After three specialties, I think it gets really hard to be efficient. It will probably take you 5-10 years to become a deep specialist in one discipline, so becoming a specialist in three and keeping that up might take 15-30 years, depending on your focus and pace of learning.

You can also specialize in industries, not just disciplines. Being the top technical SEO in e-commerce, for example, can accelerate a career even faster because you can stand out more and offer even deeper knowledge. In fact, it’s not uncommon for marketers to stay in a certain industry lane over the whole course of their career.

Great Individual Contributors are not always great managers

It’s often argued that specialists become managers because they have previously done the job of the individual contributors they lead. That's not wrong but we need to be careful with that assumption because it implies that everybody wants to become a manager. Wrong!

The typical career path is to start as an individual contributor and then work your way up to a manager. Most generalized Marketers were individual contributors in a specialty before they become managers and took a broader role. However, I've also seen and met many former managers who found out that they actually hated managing people.

Mind you, not everybody should be a manager - and not everybody wants to. I recently tweeted that “90% of people are being promoted to managers without any guidance or training” and got strong reactions to it. The comments show not only that most people who are promoted to manager positions aren’t properly trained for it but many people agree that great individual contributors are not always the best managers. In fact, making your best IC a manager could be stupid because you're taking the strongest player off the field.

Luckily, it’s becoming more common to also provide paths up to the highest levels for individual contributors. Companies like Google or Facebook have individual contributors, like Ray Kurzweil or Jeff Dean, up to the highest ranks.

The choice to become a generalist and manager depends on your career aspirations, possibilities, abilities, and personal preference. If you want to be a specialist and individual contributor forever, most of this article probably isn’t relevant to you. Specialize early on and stay on that track.

One important point to realize when you become a manager is how you spend your time changes and that’s what many former specialists struggle with. As a manager, you have much less “maker time”. It’s a completely different type of work and the higher your title, the more “manager time” you have (Paul Graham wrote a great essay about maker vs. manager schedule).

Specialists are not automatically the same as individual contributors and generalists are not the same as managers. There are broad roles like Growth Marketers or Marketing Specialists who are individual contributors. There are also specialist managers like Head of technical SEO or VP of Demand Gen. However, if you want to become a CMO, Head of Marketing or VP of Marketing, you have to generalize at some point.

Conclusion: specialize early, generalize late

The right answer to the question “should you specialize or generalize as a marketer?” depends on many things: your personal inclination and personality, the field you want to specialize in, whether you want to be an individual contributor or manager, what opportunities you have, and time. But if you want to pursue a manager career and be CMO someday, I suggest specializing first and generalizing later.

When you look at the chart and data I show at the beginning of the article, you’d think that settling for a median salary of $80K/year for a marketing manager position is not a bad thing. You shouldn’t. Beyond the fact that some of those roles are probably manager positions and you wouldn’t start out with $80K/year, chasing the money too early could get you stuck later on.

The world does need both, specialists and generalists. There will always be a need for the two of them. Just as much as you need deep expertise, you also need someone to put the strings together on the other end. However, good generalists were often good specialists before that.

Build universal skills

No matter what path you choose, it’s smart to build universal skills, i.e. skills that can be applied to all disciplines. Doing so allows you to mitigate risk because you can easier swap roles. It also prepares you for management positions and makes you a better individual contributor.

Let me suggest a couple of universal skills to build out:

  • Continuous learning and staying curious is the best way to mitigate the risk of becoming obsolete or pivoting your career when you want. It also embodies a certain humbleness, which is very useful in Digital Marketing.
  • Self-awareness is to understand how you work best, your strengths and weaknesses, and your optimal balance between private and work life. Good self-awareness ultimately leads to a strong work ethic, which is rare to find these days.
  • Decision-making is a crucial skill that’s connected to most other skills. Making the right decisions puts most things into place, but making the best decision is a hard skill to master.
  • Data processing and analysis mean being able to pull, process and interpret data. It’s a data world. Having the right data gives you an edge over others.
  • Writing is not just communication but thinking.
  • Design Thinking is an iterative approach to a solution based on prototypes and feedback.
  • Managing yourself means to optimally plan your time, energy, and focus. It’s an art and key to productivity.

When you struggle to figure out what to do with your career

If you are struggling to figure out what you want to do with your career, sampling might be the right way to go. Try everything and then decide where to go deeper.

A sampling period could take 6-24 months and come in the form of a few internships or a Marketing Rotational program, which some companies offer. At the end of it, you should have an idea of what field suits you best, what you’re most talented for, and what you’re curious about. Make sure to have an honest conversation with yourself about why you want to narrow down on one field. Try to shadow people within the program and interview them extensively about their career.

Apart from that, helpful questions to ask yourself if you struggle to make a career choice are:

  • Who do you look up to (and why)?
  • Do you admire specialists or generalists (and why)?
  • What could this say about your career aspirations?
  • What are you really good at?

Personally, I think you should forget about “following your passion”. Passion is created, not found. Find something that's at the intersection of what you're good at and enjoy. Grind for 10 years and the chance of finding yourself in the middle of a great career is maxed out. In the process, you will find something you're passionate about.

If you don't care about my personal advice, take a look at the responses I got on Twitter to the question “What’s your best advice for young people struggling with the choice which career to pursue?”: