June 22, 2019


by: Ben M Roberts


Categories: Comb-Shaped Marketer, Marketing

What is a Comb-Shaped Marketer, and why you might want to become one?

Being a comb-shaped marketer sounds a bit odd. It sounds a bit like a buzzword, like something that may be interesting on the ear, but has no substance or value. If you think that, you are about to have your mind blown open.

It is not just a phrase, it’s a way of being, it’s a philosophy of marketing that individuals can follow. It’s a way of defining a marketing generalist. Those people who don’t want to be a specialist. Marketers who want to lead and manage teams, not be a specialist within them.

What does it mean to be a comb-shaped marketer?

Being comb-shaped, means not being a specialist in a particular niche of marketing. It means having a broad understanding of how marketing works, how it fits into a business model. It means having enough knowledge to be able to effectively manage specialists, but not so much that it becomes their daily work.

Being a comb-shaped marketer is a marketing philosophy. It’s a deliberate way of thinking, even if people don’t understand it as being comb-shaped.

So, naturally we must now ask, ‘why comb-shaped?’

Let’s consider the shape of a comb, or even if you’re feeling particularly three dimensional a brush.

comb-shaped marketer diagram

With a comb, you have a very sturdy, and broad backbone. Consider that backbone as ‘high-level knowledge’. By adding to this backbone, you are building a swathe of knowledge across various specialisms and niches within marketing. This high-level knowledge will help you to understand the roles, importance, and value each person and specialism brings to the overall marketing strategy. It also helps you to understand (from a broad, management perspective) how different areas interact, how they rely on each other, and where the potential pinch points are.

One of the key attributes a com-shaped marketer must have is the ability to really understand the roles. It’s not about just knowing that they exist, some of the acronyms and buzzwords the specialists use such as, ROAS (Return of advertising spend), AEV (Advertising Equivalent Value), programmatic marketing or account-based marketing.

A comb-shaped marketer, will have actively worked hands-on in many of the marketing roles, or carrying out a number of the tasks as specialist also would. They would of written blog posts, put together a PPC campaign, outreached press releases or created an email campaign.

This deeper knowledge is what creates the prongs down from the solid backbone of the comb. These prongs protrude from the backbone to represent the deeper knowledge in those areas, but they do not extend as far as to be referred to as specialist.

It is important to note too that not all prongs have to be equal. A comb is just a representation, a visual reminder of the philosophy. There will be areas of marketing that are of more interest, or specialisms where exposure wasn’t as easy to come by. That’s why as you’ll have noted from the image in this blog post, a comb doesn’t have a full row of equally sized prongs.

What are the other shapes of marketers?

I-Shaped Marketer Diagram

I-Shaped Marketers are specialists. They have a very specific set of skills and knowledge that enables them to be extremely knowledgeable an efficient at their given role. They do not have a wide range of knowledge across different areas of the business.

The I represents deep knowledge – something that is honed over years of work. These are truly the experts in their field. Marketers of this shape are the masters of their own field, and can offer incredible value in large organisations roles where individuals have specific jobs.

However, the downside is that the lack of awareness and knowledge of what else is going on in the business and how their roles fit into the bigger picture. In a team comprised of multiple I-Shaped marketers there is a risk that silos will appear, and the teams’ efficiency will be at risk.

T-Shaped Marketer Diagram

T-Shaped Marketers are individuals who have an understanding of the wider picture, but still have a deeper knowledge and specialism in a specific area. Being T-Shaped means that specialist knowledge is retained, but the overall understanding of how their role works in conjunction with others and as part of the wider marketing efforts.

Having T-Shaped marketers within a team can be hugely beneficial, because they get other peoples roles. They understand how things within a team fit together, and that helps break-down silos and improve cross-team collaboration.

However, a manager who is more T-Shaped can lean to heavily towards specific areas of marketing and neglect others. In addition, they can also assume that their general, high-level knowledge means they know other peoples’ jobs. They have to strike a balance between knowing what the job is, and how long it actually takes to perform. “Knowing of”, and the “understanding of” are two different things.

Pi-Shaped Marketer Diagram

Pi-Shaped Marketers are similar to T-Shaped individuals, the difference being that they have two areas of specialism. Marketers of this shape retain all the benefits of having a broad understanding and specialist knowledge, however, like T-Shaped individuals they are still limited by only really understanding two areas of marketing. Therefore, it could also be argued that although these marketers will be better suited to leadership than T-Shaped Marketers, they are still limited by lack of broader understanding.

Pi-Shaped Marketers share many common traits with T-Shaped Marketers. The primary difference is that they are more likely to be able to be both creative and analytical.

Who can become comb-shaped? Should we have more comb-shaped marketers?

All too often we are encouraged to become specialists. To have a niche, to have a specialism that we can dedicate all of our time and efforts toward.

For many marketers becoming a specialist is a great move. It allows them to become an expert in their field, and known for social media marketing, PR or PPC. If you are like me though, you’ll quickly realise, like I have, that I’m not a specialist. I don’t want to be a specialist. I want to be a generalist. I know I am not alone either.

Where specialists are more (not always) suited to carrying out a smaller range of tasks exceptionally well, or directly managing individuals who also work in that niche area of marketing, a comb-shaped marketer is generally suited to, small businesses where all of the marketing activities need to be carried out by one or a few people, or to a larger business in a departmental or business leadership role.

Comb-Shaped marketers understand business and marketing in a wider sense. As more and more marketers are being encouraged to become freelancers, specialists and niche experts, there needs to be some balance. There needs to be a place for those who do not want to do a very similar thing every single day.

Being comb-shaped isn’t for everyone. It can be really tough being a generalist. It can be hard to find a purpose, and it can even tougher to carve out your own individual destiny because other people may not know exactly what you do. It’s not impossible though, even as a generalist you can be known for something. You can still have a purpose.

Do we need more Comb-Shaped Marketers?

In short, I have no idea. We definitely don’t need less. We need generalists to help drive teams, departments and businesses forward. We need comb-shaped marketers, because they help specialists to understand their role within an organisation, and help specialists work together.

It’s not a case of having more or less of either, but it is important that we know how they fit together, and whether you are more suited to being a specialist or a generalist.

Get the latest and greatest Comb-Shaped Marketer Information

Are comb-shaped marketers born or made?

They are both born and made, and a case could very much be made that they are a product of their environment. A key factor being the size and type of business that they work for.

Generally speaking, marketers working for start-ups and small businesses will more likely be comb-shaped. However, their combs will be small (metaphorically of course). This is because they don’t have the capacity, budget or resources to be able to expand their marketing efforts, let alone spend time learning kills and tools they are unable to use in the workplace.

On the flipside of this you have the marketers who work for larger organisations. If these marketers begin working within those organisations from the ground up (entry level or graduate jobs), it is likely that they will be expected to learn one role first, then either rotating through various areas/divisions before a potential promotion to managerial level, or direct into managerial level.

Although you may get comb-shaped marketers within larger organisations it is more likely that you won’t due to individuals more likely being responsible for specialist areas. Even at management level, as a junior manager, you are unlikely to be comb-shaped because your management area will be less broad. However, if the goal is senior management, then understanding the context of marketing within an organisation and/or the specialised roles within an entire department is part of the job.

Of course these are generalisations. Not every business or person will fit into this. However, I must reiterate again that being a comb-shaped marketer is a philosophy, and a way of thinking. There isn’t a defining moment, where you can wake up and say “I’m comb-shaped” – although the thought of doing that anyway would be a bit weird.

How to be a Comb-Shaped Marketer

There is no clear path to being comb-shaped. Because it’s a philosophy and an ideal, it more something you should aim toward without there being a defined ending. Because there is no ending, there is only evolution and change.

Over the course of this project, and accompanying podcast I am going to keep refining what it means to be a comb-shaped marketer. However, I can categorically tell you this; in order to even start to become a one, you must be…

A Comb-Shaped Marketer must be...

Not everyone can or should be a comb-shaped marketer, but if it is, you are definitely in the right place to find out more!