The T-Shaped Marketer: Jack of All Trades, Master of One
Curiosity is the most important trait of a modern marketer.
Why curiosity? Because things are always changing in the field of marketing!
Plenty of veteran SEOs could still summarize the ins and outs of ranking on Google circa 2004 – and no doubt this knowledge was very useful in 2004 – but it doesn’t help much in 2019, thousands of algorithm changes later. To stay relevant in the field of marketing, you need to be learning constantly, borderline obsessively.
But you already knew that. The real question is, what should you learn?
For the longest time, I thought success meant being the very best there is at one discipline (in my case, copywriting and communications).
Over time, I've realized I was wrong.
Specializing in Being a Generalist
Traditionally, a marketing professional strives to become an expert in a single discipline. This can be illustrated with an “I” shape… gaining deep expertise in one area, such as influencer marketing, link building, or email automation.
A T-shape, on the other hand, demonstrates broad experience in a number of different areas (represented by the horizontal bar of the “T”), with just one or two areas of deep knowledge represented by the vertical bar. (Applying the “T-shape” concept to marketing is first attributed to customer acquisition expert Brian Balfour back in 2013.)
So, why would the T-shape be more valuable than the I-shape in marketing? Because effective marketing is more than just a single activity!
Marketing is Broad and Deep
Imagine that you’re running your own business. Once you put on the entrepreneur’s hat, it’s up to you to market your product or service. Pretty quickly, you realize that you'll need several things to be a viable brand:
A set of marketing objectives
A strategy for positioning your product or service
A good website
A plan for reaching customer segments through earned, paid, and owned media
The tools to measure your effectiveness
Ignore any of these areas, and your business may not survive. Organizations at every level must have an answer to all of these and more – but unless you’re running a huge company, there simply aren't enough resources to hire a specialist for every single facet of marketing. That's why being “pretty good” at a lot of things is far better than being supremely knowledgeable in just one.
Marketing, by its very nature, is a hydra with a hundred heads. There are creative aspects of marketing, such as content writing, web design, and branding, as well as technical aspects, such as front-end development, analytics, and conversion rate optimization.
But here’s the kicker: There isn’t any single marketing tactic that succeeds in isolation.
Putting the “Team” in Marketing Let’s follow this thread for a moment. Say you’re an expert at web design: you can build a beautiful 15-page website for your client. This is valuable, but websites don’t exist in a vacuum – they’re just a tool to support countless other aspects of marketing. Consider this: Is the content on the website targeted to different user personas? How well does the website represent the customer’s brand? Did you consider which search terms to optimize for on each page?
Here’s another example: You’re a public relations expert at a firm. You work to get your company interviews with media outlets, publicize the brand through live events, and even procure native advertising placement in niche publications. But what’s the end goal of all this publicity? Is there a landing page to point all that traffic to? Are you making sales, capturing leads, or gathering data on new visitors to inform future campaigns through descriptive analytics?
The bottom line is, no individual marketing effort can succeed by itself. Even if you get some results with a single tactic, these will pale in comparison to what a multi-pronged strategic approach can achieve.
A Tool for Every Tactic
What makes breadth of knowledge important? It's about the real world – business owners are looking for solutions, not tactics. A good CEO doesn’t approach their CMO or a marketing agency and say, “I just want you to make a great TV commercial.” What they’ll say is, “Get me more qualified leads,” or “Help me boost sales for this segment,” or “Let’s increase customer lifetime value (CLV).”
What would your response to these requests be? Well, whether you’re an individual or an agency, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But what if you get familiar with not just the hammer, but also the drill, hand saw, and tape measure?
Your expertise in a single marketing channel or tactic is valuable, but your understanding of how all of these different tactics and channels fit together is significantly more valuable. You may not be the one who implements every tactic or manages every campaign, but understanding how your one tool relates to the entire toolkit will help you do better work.
Lastly, consider what would happen if the single channel or discipline you’re the expert in becomes obsolete. If Instagram Stories or Facebook Live ends up being a better way to reach customers than organic search, eventually it won’t matter if you’re a Google expert.
Curiosity keeps you relevant.
Your Primer on Rapid Skill Acquisition
I became a T-shaped marketer instinctively, before I even knew what it was. However, as soon as I discovered the term, I realized that it was what I’d been doing for years! With an innate interest in learning, I had taught myself the basics of a range of creative and technical skills in marketing:
Motion graphics and animation
That’s why I love the book “The First 20 Hours” by Josh Kaufman. In contrast to Malcom Gladwell’s infamous “10,000 Hour Rule” for mastering a domain (who's got the time, anyway?), Kaufman describes a technique for rapid skill acquisition, devoting just 45 minutes per day to a new skill for a total of 20 hours minimum. Once you’ve hit that threshold, you’ll often have a strong enough foundation to achieve basic competency in that skill, and it’ll stick with you for the long term.
This is important because you never know when you’ll benefit from being able to jump in and do something that’s outside your area of expertise – and you’re not dependent on a colleague, contractor, or freelancer to do it for you on short notice.
Plus, wearing someone else’s hat temporarily will help you understand what goes into doing their job, allowing you to communicate intelligently with all kinds of technical experts and successfully manage complex projects and campaigns with many moving parts.
Becoming a T-Shaped Marketer
Just as it’s not easy to become an expert in one skill area, it’s not easy to become competent in several different disciplines either. What’s more, not all skills are created equal. That’s why prioritization is key.
If there’s an area of weakness that’s consistently holding you back from achieving your current goals – such as coding, writing, data analytics, or graphic design – then the approach I recommend is to focus on one skill at a time. If you can find a way to learn it and apply it on the job or in your business, that’s ideal, but you can also study and practice any of these skills in your free time.
As for the skills of a T-shaped marketer, if you search for "T-shaped marketer" in Google, you’ll find a number of different frameworks in which to view marketing. You might focus on the subskills of a domain like creative marketing, which includes different marketing channels, media formats, etc. Or you could focus on the intersection of completely different disciplines that inform effective marketing, such as creativity, behavioral psychology, and data analytics.
The overall objective is to be well-rounded and versatile – it’s ultimately up to you what goes into your specific “T.” But if you could only master one thing, it should be this: stay curious!
Do you have questions? Want to learn more about Daniel's marketing experience? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org!