Navigating the Generalist vs. Specialist Debate in Marketing | Insights from Charlotte Mostaed, CMO of Health-Ade Kombucha

April 24, 2024

Picture this: you're a hotshot marketer, ready to take on the world. But you're faced with a tough choice — should you be a jack-of-all-trades or a master of one? It's the age-old debate between being a generalist or a specialist.

To help us navigate this tricky terrain, we brought in Charlotte Mostaed, the CMO of Health-Ade Kombucha. Charlotte's got a multidisciplinary background in development studies, which has shaped her unique approach to marketing.

As Charlotte puts it, "This ability to do a very multidisciplinary major really, really spoke to me. And I would say that that's how I've now approached marketing and my brand of marketing, which is very general management focused." Her experience shows just how valuable a generalist mindset can be in marketing. Basically, she's a boss at seeing the big picture.

But before we crown generalists the winners, we’re going to break down the merits of being a stone cold specialist in certain fields.

In this article, we'll dive into the pros and cons of being a generalist or specialist in marketing, look at some real-world examples of successful marketers from both sides, and give you some actionable advice to help you navigate this complex landscape.

But first, make sure to catch the full episode here. Trust me, it's worth it.

Benefits of Being a Marketing Generalist

One of the biggest perks of being a marketing generalist is that you can understand and contribute to all sorts of different aspects of marketing. Instead of being stuck in one specific area, generalists can see the big picture of how all the different marketing pieces fit together. This holistic perspective allows them to create cohesive strategies and campaigns that use multiple channels and tactics.

As Charlotte explains, "I've never just been a creative type or an analytic type or a business strategy type. I do it all in every role that I've had." This versatility allows generalists to adapt to changing circumstances and take on all kinds of challenges. In a world where the marketing landscape is constantly shifting, this adaptability is clutch.

In fact, a study by the CMO Council found that 61% of CMOs and marketing leaders have a generalist background, compared to 39% who have a specialist background. This suggests that a generalist skill set is becoming more and more valuable in today's marketing world, where the ability to pivot and wear multiple hats is essential.

Generalists are also great at collaborating with different teams and departments. By understanding the language and priorities of various stakeholders, they can facilitate communication and get everyone working towards the same goal. This cross-functional collaboration is super important in today's complex business environment, where marketing initiatives often require input and support from multiple areas of the organization.

The Continued Need for Marketing Specialists

While the benefits of being a marketing generalist are clear, it's important to acknowledge that specialists still play a crucial role. As Charlotte notes, "Of course there is an opportunity for specialists to thrive, right? And we need them in this world."

There are certain areas of marketing where deep subject matter expertise is especially valuable. For example, a social media specialist who knows all the latest platform updates, audience trends, and best practices inside and out can bring a level of expertise that a generalist may lack. This granular knowledge can be the difference between a successful social media campaign and one that falls flat on its face.

Similarly, a data analyst who can dive deep into marketing metrics and extract valuable insights is a crucial asset for any marketing team. These specialists can provide the specific knowledge and skills that generalists may not have, enabling data-driven decision making and optimization.

The key is for generalists and specialists to work together like a well-oiled machine. Generalists can provide the strategic vision and cross-functional coordination, while specialists can lend their expertise to execute specific tactics and initiatives. By leveraging the strengths of both generalists and specialists, marketing teams can create a powerful synergy that drives results.

The Power of Being "Dangerously Good" at Many Things

Charlotte describes her "superpower" as being "good enough at many things to be a little bit dangerous." As she explains, "I can dig into the category development data and ask you and look for the drivers of why the business is growing."

This ability to be proficient in many areas allows marketers to interface with different departments effectively. They can speak the language of finance, operations, sales, and other teams, and understand how marketing initiatives impact the broader business. This cross-functional fluency is invaluable in today's interconnected business world.

A great example of a successful generalist CMO is Fernando Machado, the Global CMO of Restaurant Brands International (the parent company of Burger King, Popeyes, and Tim Hortons). Machado's background spans various industries and marketing disciplines, from brand management to product development to digital marketing.

This diverse experience has enabled Machado to lead award-winning campaigns like Burger King's "Whopper Detour" and Popeyes' viral chicken sandwich launch. By understanding the various levers of marketing and how they work together, he's been able to drive significant business results and establish these brands as cultural icons.

Machado's success demonstrates the power of being a "T-shaped" marketer – someone who has broad knowledge across many areas (the horizontal bar of the T) and deep expertise in a few specific areas (the vertical stem of the T). This combination of breadth and depth is what allows generalist marketers to be "dangerously good" at navigating the complex world of marketing.

Developing a Generalist Mindset and Skill Set

For aspiring marketing generalists, the key is to be an avid learner and hone your problem-solving skills. As Charlotte advises, "When I talk to people who I want to join my team, I'm really looking for how do they think and approach problems and are they a hard worker and an avid learner? You don't have to have done this job before."

Seek out diverse experiences and roles early in your marketing career. Volunteer for projects outside your comfort zone, and take on responsibilities that broaden your skill set. The more exposure you can get to different facets of marketing, the better equipped you'll be to take on a generalist role.

It's also important to develop a strategic mindset and learn how to think critically about business challenges. Take courses or read books on marketing strategy, business analytics, and leadership. The more you can understand the broader context in which marketing operates, the more effective you'll be as a generalist.

Networking is another crucial aspect of developing a generalist skill set. Attend industry events, join professional organizations, and connect with marketers from different backgrounds and industries. These connections can provide valuable insights, mentorship, and opportunities to grow your career.

Finally, don't be afraid to take risks and step outside your comfort zone. Some of the best learning experiences come from tackling challenges that push you to grow and adapt. Embrace the discomfort and see it as an opportunity to expand your skills and perspective.


The future of marketing leadership is increasingly pointing towards a need for generalist marketers. As the role of the CMO evolves to require a multidisciplinary perspective, those with a diverse skill set and the ability to think strategically will be well-positioned to succeed.

A study by executive search firm Russell Reynolds found that the proportion of CMOs with a classic marketing background (e.g., brand management, advertising) declined from 61% in 2014 to just 45% in 2020. Instead, more CMOs are coming from backgrounds in analytics, technology, and other areas.

This trend suggests that the future of marketing will require a balance of generalists and specialists. Generalists will be needed to provide strategic vision and cross-functional leadership, while specialists will continue to lend their deep expertise in specific areas.

The key takeaway from the generalist vs. specialist debate is that there's no one-size-fits-all answer. The most successful marketers will be those who can play to their strengths while also developing a well-rounded skill set. They will be able to see the big picture while also diving deep into the details when necessary.

As Charlotte's experience shows, embracing a multidisciplinary, generalist mindset can be a powerful asset in today's marketing landscape. By understanding the various levers of marketing and how they work together, generalists can drive significant business results and lead their teams to success.

So if you're an aspiring marketer, don't be afraid to explore different areas and take on new challenges. Seek out diverse experiences, develop a strategic mindset, and hone your problem-solving skills. The more diverse your experiences and skills, the better equipped you'll be to navigate the ever-changing world of marketing and make your mark as a leader in the field.

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