Generalist? Specialist?

Generalist? Specialist?

It's oranges and lemons

A little question for marketers. What is pound-cost averaging? If you know the answer to this, you are probably in financial services. If not, you may well be a generalist marketer.

Both of you are gorgeous and useful, it’s just that you have different skills.

It’s quite likely that some financial services marketers wouldn’t know the answer either, which is also fine.

And some will think my question so easy-peasy that it hardly merits a response. If financial services is a niche, then there are oodles of niches within that niche. Anything from wealth management to corporate and professional insurance.

Whether financial institutions employ specialists or generalists is often a subject of debate in the industry. In my view, that’s a false dichotomy. Both are essential; both are good.

Most marketers at the top of retail banks are smart, intuitive, fast-thinking generalists. They instinctively understand their audience and know that emotion is one of the few seams of distinctiveness they can offer in a commoditised sector. That’s especially true in financial content marketing, in which Highbrook, ahem, specialises.

Bringing generalists into specialist areas, however, carries dangers. The main being that they don’t know what they don’t know.

When I was a boy, I decided to learn the guitar. Being an arty smart-ass, I determined that I would not take lessons nor follow a book. When I played, I thought I sounded hugely original. In fact, my twanging was the same as everyone else. But not as good.

In four years as Commercial Editorial Director at the Telegraph –  producing sponsored content for clients ­– I’ve seen plenty of examples of this.

Stating the obvious

A few years ago – when obsession with keywords was at its height – I was at a media buying agency. We were talking about a project offering advice for small businesses. Halfway through, a boffin was summoned to talk about SEO. She told us she would research what the best themes would be for this campaign. The meeting was in awe. This was science.

Two weeks later she gave us a report. The best keywords, wait for it, were ‘business tips’.

Knock us down with a feather.

Generalists, however, bring good things to the financial party. They tend to have more spirit. They are unafraid to ask awkward questions. They merrily try different approaches, and value humour and humanity.

Financial services marketing is changing. Asset managers and investment platforms no longer feel the need for everything they do to be ‘blue-chip’ (and often in blue).

There are better ways of building trust with customers that don’t involve being posh, long-established and formal (probably involving a coat of arms).

Kill the jargon

Generalists are also good at questioning the use of language, especially the use of different words for the same thing. Why do we say shares, stocks and equities? Portfolios, assets and investments? The swapping of such terms may be a good indicator of our facility with the subject, but they can confusing for those starting out. Such professional mystique is a turn-off.

Equally, the phrase pound-cost averaging, which is just a hoity-toity way of saying drip-feeding money into investments.

Picasso was a superb technician, but having mastered his art, he stripped away technique for a raw power that transcended what had gone before it.

We all need to be generalist-specialists. We must know our subject so we can be original and expert. But we also need to remember our audience and why they need us.

Get our newsletter for insights into modern comms