I always thought the way to become a specialist was to focus on one area. Until I put it to the test in my own career, and discovered the opposite was true.
You've probably heard of the T-Shaped Marketer - a marketer that has broad knowledge across lots of areas as well as deep knowledge or expertise in just one or two. For example, an email marketing specialist may also have experience of SEO, paid search and social media.
It's a model that has been floating around for a decade or so now, and like all familiar things it's easy not to give it too much thought. But it carries within it two interesting assumptions: that marketing is an incredibly broad field, and even so-called specialists within marketing are generalists too.
They're certainly assumptions I could have related to five years ago, when I'd been working in a series of broad marketing roles within the publishing sector. (OK, some of them had 'digital' in the job title and one of them even had 'product', but I'd say they were all marketingy.) And being a detail-focused individual - some would say a perfectionist - I was keen to specialise further. But what area should I specialise in?
I had an aptitude and fondness for the web analytics part of my workload, in particular tagging and implementation. And so I decided to completely segue from marketing into analytics in order to develop more of a specialism. Farewell, email newsletter templates. Goodbye, social media automation.
How naïve I was! Oh, I made the career change successfully, with practical and moral support from CRAP among others. But putting it in terms of a Venn diagram - by moving completely from marketing to analytics, I was adopting the entire analytics set, not just the intersection:
Just as there are parts of marketing that don't fall into the analytics set, so too there are parts of analytics that don't fall into the marketing set. And because I hadn't encountered those as a digital marketer, I had very little understanding of them.
My knowledge of conversion rate optimisation: minimal. Ability to query databases: little to none. And let's not get started with statistics! I had wrongly assumed that analytics was less broad than digital marketing because I'd only been exposed to a small part of it. A rather painful example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.
It gets worse! Even the areas that I was competent in, such as tagging and implementation, may have been niche skills for a digital marketer but they were much more run-of-the-mill for a competent analyst. So by focusing on one area, I had turned myself into less of a specialist than when I started my journey. My expertise was the same, but somehow I was no longer an expert.
So if going deep doesn't help you develop a specialism, what does? Counter-intuitively, the way to develop a specialism is to go broad. Let me give you an example.
Two of the largest pieces of work I won as a brand new freelance web analyst were both with publishers looking to implement Google Ad Manager. Publishers with dedicated sales teams often want a tool to target and deliver ad campaigns on their own web properties, and GAM enables them to do this. It was also a tool I'd had experience of when working in-house as a marketer.
I'd thought at the time (with my 'I Love Analytics' hat on) that the way GAM handles ad targeting was very similar to the data layer for Google Tag Manager, and I'd even written on my website about a way to use your data layer values in your Google Publisher Tag.
Those two publishers had both seen my incredibly niche technical writing about GAM and reached out to me for help with their implementation.
Now, there are lots of people out there working in ad ops with experience in GAM. There are also plenty of web analysts who are able to implement tools through tagging and check that the data is being passed correctly. And there are plenty of people with a publishing background who understand a publishing sales team's particular requirements.
But I would warrant that there are relatively few people who have had exposure to all three of these. I, however, had - and while I wouldn't have called myself an expert in any one of those areas individually, the three together made me a specialist. In short:
Generalism + generalism + generalism = specialism
Or to represent it as another Venn:A specialism is, in most cases, simply an intersection between generalisms. What you're aiming for, I suppose, is not so much deep knowledge as it is unique knowledge. It's much easier to be the only person who happens to know something (or a combination of things) than the person who knows a well-known thing the most.
I started this article by saying that one of the assumptions inherent in the concept of a T-shaped marketer is that even so-called specialists within marketing are generalists too. I now see that this isn't a negative, but a prerequisite - the way to become a specialist is by generating intersections through broad generalist knowledge.
And this whole approach, as well as being useful career advice, is also a way to generate fantastically unique ideas. I have a soft spot for SkyKnit, where a comedian used artifical intelligence to generate knitting patterns that a knitting community are now attempting to knit. Who would have thought comedy, neural networks and knitting had any sort of crossover? But they do, and the result is glorious.
So don't make my mistake of focusing on the thing you love. Focus on the things you love, and on the points where they meet.
The diagrams in this article were cobbled together using a combination of the Whitehead Institute Bioinformatics & Research Computing Venn Diagram Generator, Classtools.net Venn, and PowerPoint. Much thanks!