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Long live the generalist!

In the dim and distant past, well…30 years ago, I joined Nestle as a Marketing Trainee. I was joining a marketing department that was structured just about like all others, along the lines of that first created by Procter & Gamble. Above trainees were the Assistant Brand Managers, then Brand Managers, Senior Brand Managers and Marketing Managers, all ruled over by the head honcho, the Marketing Director (the days before the Ameriacn title takeover). Each level worked in teams based on product category with each person responsible for a brand or group of brands within that category.

My initial position in the department was to be Marketing Trainee on Frozen Vegetables but first, I was given a set of keys to a company car, a territory and told to learn was it was like ‘on the coalface’ as a salesperson. Seven months later, having learnt a huge amount about our product range, the customer, what the sales team require to do a good job and how to prevent freezing my b*******s off inside numerous walk-in freezers, I went back to Croydon and started learning about marketing.

And, my word, within the structure described above you really learnt a lot about marketing. We were all involved in every single aspect of marketing a brand: strategy, planning, pricing, sales forecasts, advertising, sales promotion, PR, packaging and new product development. We were generalists, responsible for developing a brand and managing everything that happened on that brand. We had a broad, helicopter view and got involved in the detail. We developed rounded marketing knowledge and experience, vital attributes for a brand marketer.

I’m not sure the young me today joining a company as Marketing Executive (read Marketing Trainee) would learn as much about brand building and have as much fun as I did 30 years ago. The reason is the structure of marketing in many companies today is siloed, divided by function not by product category. We now have departments of strategists, of data analysts, of digital marketers, of advertisers, of communication specialists, of trade marketers and so on… with the overview and direction provided by the CMO. Many marketers have become specialists with an expert but limited skill set with no brand responsibility.

From what I can make out, marketing departments moved from being brand focused to function focused as a result of ‘digital’ marketing. Digital marketing was perceived as being different to brand marketing, a separate arm, therefore it had to have it’s own department. Then, along came big data which also needed specialists and all the other fucntions followed. So the way I see it is that this change came about, not because it was better for the brand but because it was a more convenient structure.

I’m a marketer so, by defintion, in favour of progress. But progress should improve, be of greater benefit. Brand insight and execution is no better today than it was 30 years ago. I don’t have any big data to prove this – I’m going by my own marketing instinct and intuition, something else I learned at Nestle all those moons ago. The expert specialists of today provide no better insight than the jack-of-all-trade generalists of yesteryear. And, I would argue, specialists have less understanding of how to build a brand which, after all, is what marketing is all about.

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