Specialist or generalist? This is not a trick question.

The decision on whether to hire a specialist or a generalist marketing agency will come up many times. The answer is not as obvious as you might think.

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By: Neil Edwards on 18th August 2021, 6 minute read

I was involved in a pitch presentation recently to a prospect in the financial services industry. Just as I was getting into my stride, I was hit with a question:

"Financial services marketing has been universally crap for decades, why should I choose somebody who specialises in financial services?"

I hastily spat out a defence for the industry (it can thank me later), but it does raise a very good question about the advantages and disadvantages of working with a specialist.

Authored by a specialist, you might expect this article to go only one way, but hang in there, it might just surprise you!

The case for the defence

Let's start with the case for the defence.

I like to think that our work in financial services steeps us deeply in the market. By virtue of having so many clients in the same field, we are well-versed in the industry language, the players, their products, and the latest developments. We know a lot of people and I also think that we have an ability to make effective connections.

From the many campaigns that we have planned and run, we have benchmarking data at our fingertips and we know what success looks like, which means we can quickly correct a course of action if activity is not performing as expected.

And then there is compliance. We have worked with many Compliance functions and respect the work they do to protect their clients. By keeping up-to-date with the regulatory framework, we don't lose time having to rework campaigns each time they go into Compliance for approval.

In summary, our clients don't have to pay us to learn. We understand their products, we know their markets and we've probably encountered the opportunities and challenges they face many times before. Don't get me wrong, we've had our share of failures, but each one of them has provided valuable experience that we can pass on.

In a fast moving, dynamic industry like fintech, this all adds up to enabling our clients to execute at speed, allowing the leadership teams to draw on our knowledge and focus on strategic decision making.

The arguments against

So that sounds great, but it can't all be upside, can it?

Well, specialism brings with it a risk of being myopic. I'd vehemently deny it of course, but when you've worked in an industry as long as we have, it is human nature to see things a certain way.

This means we might not see the opportunities for crossover between industries as quickly as we would like. Is there a B2C e-commerce solution out there that would blow the doors off everything we're doing in the B2B finance space if correctly adapted and applied? Possibly. A generalist might be able to find solutions that a specialist like us may only latch onto later. For the people operating at the cutting edge of their industry, crossover is where innovation thrives.

I would also accept that we can get drawn towards industry norms and standards. There is an area outside of which clients and their customers start to feel uncomfortable, so we generally don't go there. Financial services marketing, even at the bleeding edge of fintech, tends to be conservative and anything designed to challenge or shock the consumer can get labelled 'too risky' (are we all too young to remember the Benneton ads of the 1990's?).

Then there is the perceived risk of a conflict of interest. Confidences are never shared. We bind ourselves to confidentiality in our contracts and know our time would be short-lived if we did this once, let alone habitually. Nevertheless, I can understand the concern.

So, which way should you go?

I think it all boils down to where you are in your growth journey and what you want from your agency.

If you are a young business, with demanding investors and aggressive early growth targets, I would say go with a specialist who can get the wheels spinning and your marketing up and running in the shortest possible time frame.

Equally, if you are an established business lacking in one or more specific areas of your marketing, the specialist is likely to be able to fill that gap, and bring with it all the relevant context you and they need.

On the other hand, should you want to experiment, have the time and budgets to fail in the pursuit of success, and the courage to try and turn your market on its head, then it is hard for me to argue that you shouldn't try an agency that works across markets. That fresh pair of eyes could be exactly what you need.

I would say too that a business with severely limited budgets is likely to find an agency that does a little bit of everything more within its price range than a specialist that may charge a premium for its knowledge.

At the end of the day, though, whether specialist or generalist, marketing is a people business and the key is to choose an agency that you feel you can build a lasting, collaborative relationship with, an agency that will challenge you when it’s right to do so, but also knows when to say yes. Only then will you achieve your goals.

Photo by Usman Yousaf on Unsplash

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Neil Edwards


Neil Edwards

Neil is a Chartered Marketer and Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing with many years' experience in marketing, brand and communications.

CEO / The Marketing Eye

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