B2B marketing – is there room for generalists?

By his own admission, Jonathan Rose ‘fell’ into B2B marketing quite a way into his career. He had no formal training or qualifications. This, possibly coupled with the fact he entered the profession at a management level, has meant he has always been a ‘marketing generalist’. Its not something he’s ashamed of and it hasn’t held him back. On the contrary, having a broader view of the world is something that’s contributed to a very successful marketing career. We asked Jonathan what it’s like to be a B2B marketing generalist and why its beneficial to have them in a business.

So, Jonathan, tell us a little bit about your career background

I studied to be an economist and have always worked in business, but my first marketing role came after completing my MBA in the early 90s. I had gone into a commercial role at National Tyres. Shortly after, there were some senior marketing shake-ups. HR noticed I had marketing on my CV and suggested I step in as interim head of marketing! It ended up being an eight year stint as these things do. So, I pretty much became a marketer by accident!

The MBA taught me how all the pieces of a business fit together and rely on one another. It showed me that, as a discipline, marketing only worked if it was in harmony with finance, HR, and other operational functions (and vice versa).

This conversation is very much about being a ‘jack of all trades’ in B2B marketing. What are your opening thoughts on this?

That it’s a very good thing!

In business, context is everything. While domain specialists are invaluable to marketing as much as they are in finance or procurement, generalists are too.

Marketing strategy that doesn’t reflect or respond to business strategy is not going to deliver what the business wants. Marketing communications can work well in isolation if businesses are flourishing, but when there’s a challenge to address, that broad business experience inside the marketing team is crucial.

With the growth of business data, analytics and digital, marketing is getting more scientific. Don’t you think this is demanding more specific skillsets and the days of the B2B marketing generalist are numbered?

Yes and no.

Skills are evolving for sure and there is certainly a growing demand for experts required to focus on digital, martech and data analysis. Equally, some of that new technology is likely to replace those human skills over time, meaning the current surge in these areas could dwindle thanks to AI where the generalist might survive.

On the other side of the coin, the ability to interpret data is not traditionally a marketing fiefdom. Data science is a broader discipline and the ability to understand what data is telling us is something that lies much more at the core of the business. So, core skills will become more important in marketing, not less so.

Added to this, in my view marketing used to me a more isolated discipline. The growth of digital and the ‘always on’ nature of communications means that today marketing increasingly runs through every vein in the business.

Do you think sales and marketing should be more integrated under generalist commercial experts?

Absolutely, and the customer is the glue.

Add customer service and account management alongside sales and marketing and ask, why is the ‘single customer journey’ presided over by three or four separate business functions, rather than one?

Inbound marketing has triggered a massive change. Business functions used to pass the customer down the chain – from marketing, to sales, to customer service. Now, through content and digital channels, businesses are talking to customers all the time at all stages of their journey. Marketing generalists have a role to play in gluing these conversations together and turning the entire business into marketers I their own way.

Generalists help to put the customer at the centre of marketing decisions, rather than approaching from a specific marketing discipline or channel standpoint. Like the conductor in an orchestra, it’s about knowing what each specialist does and when to ‘bring them in’. You don’t need to know how to play each instrument to do that.

How should the marketing generalist operate internally within the business?

A lot of my roles have been in B2B service industries – logistics and distribution for example. The service to the customer is delivered by people right across the business, from accounts clerks to lorry drivers. It’s a common misconception that marketing owns the brand. Marketing protects the brand but it’s the people across the business delivering the service that make the brand what it is.

As a senior marketer I’ve spent a lot of my time on internal communication, travelling and meeting with the thousands of people who were delivering our brand to the customer. It was important for me to hear their feedback about customer interactions.

To be in touch with the brand, you need to be in touch with the business. Once again, the generalist business view is crucial.

What skills does the marketing generalist need to possess?

For me, my MBA gave me broad business understanding; this has been invaluable. So is having a problem solving mindset, plus a good mix of literacy, numeracy, attention to detail and good old common sense, so that you can evaluate things from different perspectives.

Its critical to understand the wider context of business decisions and actions so that you can advise on the likely impact this will have on marketing. Finally, good communication skills are prerequisite. Stakeholder management is such a big part of the job and things like communication, reading body language, and Neuro Linguistic Programming all help.

Finally, if you could offer just one piece of advice to other marketing generalists, what would it be?

Stay abreast of as much as you can and stay flexible. Be the voice of reason and remember that the only constant is change!

Photo by Paul Felberbauer on Unsplash

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