Will Specialization Limit Our Future CMOs?

Peter Weingard

By the time I reached my first VP title, like many young marketers of my generation I’d spent years in the advertising trenches doing everything from writing copy, planning media, overseeing budgets and managing ofttimes grumpy clients. I went on to building digital ad products, exploring audience data and segmentation, planning CRM strategy - and picking up whatever odd sales and marketing communications needs arose. Ten years into a career, I’d worn many marketing hats and still had much to learn (I still do!). My colleagues were similarly exposed to broad ranges of work experience early in their careers as the companies we worked for strived to build broad competencies in their future marketing leaders.

For the past several years, however, I’ve seen what I think is an accelerating trend toward hyper specialization in marketing. It’s not uncommon now to find someone who has spent their entire career in social media or who defines their skills as narrowly as a ‘SEM marketing’ or a ‘email lead generation.’ Those are all great skills, of course, but if they are developed at the expense of a wider understanding of marketing, or for that matter, business in general, I fear we’re failing to train a generation of marketers for the multidisciplinary needs of the C-Suite leadership. I’m not alone in this concern. According to an Accenture study published last March, two in three CEOs today don’t believe that their current marketing leads have neither the leadership skills nor the business acumen required for the role. 

The trend toward specialization isn't new, nor is it confined to marketing, but it does pose a dangerous limitation on our ability to recognize broad patterns and, as the expression goes, 'see the forest for the trees.' Evolutionaries author, Carter Phipps, wrote in the Huffington Post in 2012 that “In discipline after discipline, experts have raised concerns that our knowledge base has privileged depth and detail over breadth and context.” In marketing, for sure, we’ve created experts in how to optimize digital ads and operate the MarTech stack, but we’re not doing enough to train marketing generalists who can synthesize information across specializations to garner insights, build strategies and lead organizations? Generalists, Phipps says, have “a passionate but broad curiosity that fans out across culture and sees connections, patterns, transitions, and trends where others only see discrete facts and details.” 

Isn’t that the essence of what a marketer should be?

One reason for the movement toward specialization, I believe, has been the onset of in-house digital media management. While having direct control over social and digital advertising media has unlocked great efficiencies and opportunities for brands, it has also pushed the marketing conversation down the sales funnel to being that of media valuation and measurement versus other business growth levers such as product, customer satisfaction, positioning and brand management. In essence, the availability of self-serve digital media platforms has given rise to siloed, mechanical proficiency over broad-based strategic thinking.

Another reason, perhaps, is that specialization is easier in the sense that making connections between lots of different parts of our knowledge and experience requires more of a cognitive load and a fluid intelligence, versus the more mechanistic “10,000 hours” of practice to acquire the skills and learning for a more narrowly defined area. “I believe this specialization gets rewarded. At least early on in your career,” said Michael Diamond, Academic Director of the graduate marketing and PR programs and Clinical Assistant Professor at NYU’s School of Professional Studies. “your value add is much clearer, and often by being the specialist or the expert you are operating in less ‘contested’ space.”

I think many would agree that we’ve experienced increased siloing of marketing teams, especially between the more data-centric and analytical groups on one side of the business and the creative or design-led teams on the other side. Never has this been more apparent than at the conference table with a visiting advertising agency, who brought along the brand team, the social team, the digital team, the media agency and the brand activation team. Coordinating all these specialized functions has become the key function, it seems, of marketing leadership today. 

Darren Woolley, founder and Global CEO of management consulting firm, Trinity P3 told Marketing Interactive “Generalists, who have a working knowledge of all the available options make the best CMOs.” The strength of the generalist as a marketing leader is in their ability to form the big picture in strategy and objectives and manage specialist resources in their team to deliver the results as a coordinated team. 

Additionally, hyper-specialization among marketing professionals may be contributing to the CMO's current C-suite stagnation. “The impact of marketing specialization is having a grave impact on CMO succession,” says Norm Yustin, global head of Russell Reynolds Associates’ Marketing Officers and Customer-Centric Growth Officers practice. “A number-two marketer currently has less than a 1 in 5 chance of getting his or her boss’s job, primarily because he or she does not have the full suite of experiences to be in the C-suite. This has also caused an even faster churn of top marketing talent, with the highest level of turnover reported among CMOs, nearly 10 percent more job changes than in 2018 and 15 percent more than in 2017.” 

And for those training future generations of marketers, managing this balance must be a key priority.  “Marketing education must reflect the realities that marketing is both human-centered and data-driven,” said Michael Diamond.  “Emerging young professionals need the broad-based ‘soft’ skills like intellectual curiosity, structured problem-solving, presentation and storytelling to provide context and agility for the detailed work they do across digital, analytics, and classic brand marketing.”

As marketing leaders, it is our responsibility to develop and inspire our teams of future leaders, and to do so, it means breaking down specialist silos and encourage cross-disciplinary learning. 


Peter Weingard is an award-winning CMO who has helped iconic brands such as West Elm, The New York Times and Food Network unlock their purpose, transcend their categories and become more relevant to the next generation of consumers. Peter's industry-acknowledged reputation for innovation includes being at the forefront of the podcast revolution with the launch of WNYC Studios, building about.com's branded content studio before the term existed and building Live Nation's first digital marketing program. Peter has been named to Forbes CMO Next list of the 50 most innovative marketers and the CMO Club’s CMO of the Year. Adjunct professor of integrated marketing at New York University.

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