CMO’s: Beware Of Specialist Bias

A specialist knows a lot about a little. Sometimes this is a good thing. Sometimes it’s even vital.

But, not always.

In the realm of cancer medicine, for example, research has found that specialists have a tendency to over-recommend the treatments they are capable of administering.

This phenomenon is very human. And very hard to avoid. It’s known as specialist bias – the tendency for specialists to over-recommend solutions they are capable of delivering. And it’s something CMO’s should be paying close attention to in the year ahead.

“We are no longer doing digital marketing, but marketing in a digital world” says Unilever CMO Keith Weed. And as a result, the practice of marketing has become much more complex and, crucially, much more specialized.

To keep pace, brands are now working with more agencies than ever. According to Forrester, the number of clients with three or more digital shops on their roster grew by 42% in 2016. These agencies aren’t generalists. They’re highly specialized players that go deep in a single niche.

And then there’s technology. A recent Gartner study found that brands are now spending a full third of their budgets on tech. And these days, they have plenty of options to choose from. According to, there are now 3,500 software companies targeting marketers. Most of these are highly specialized.

All of these specialists – agencies and software vendors alike – are naturally exerting some degree of influence on their clients; pulling them into the niches. As a result, the big picture is getting harder and harder to hang on to. Right now, defining and executing a holistic strategy across the full marketing machine is a more challenging task than it’s ever been.

And to make matters worse, it’s a job most CMO’s are now doing without much outside help. In pre-digital times, things were different. CMO’s could rely on their agency of record to act as a “brand steward” and help with holistic planning. But today, the agency of record is largely a thing of the past. And the creative agencies that used to occupy that position are often just one more specialist player among many. More concerned with protecting their turf than staying on strategy – much less steering it.

It’s a sobering state of affairs. Agnostic, holistic advice is growing more vital as the marketing landscape grows more complex. But it’s also growing increasingly rare. Modern CMO’s have access to more vendors and more expert advice than ever. Yet each of these vendors is highly specialized, and their advice is therefore very likely to suffer from specialist bias.

At this point maybe you’re thinking: “What’s so bad about specialist bias anyway? Just because advice is informed by a niche point-of-view, that doesn’t mean it’s bad.”

Not always, no. But remember those cancer specialists with their tendency to over-recommend the treatments they know how to deliver? If your family has been touched by cancer, you know how hard these treatments can be on the patient. And how important it is to avoid over-doing it.

In the marketing world, of course, the consequences of overtreatment aren’t nearly as dire. But the risks are still real. Look around, and it’s not hard to find brands doing too much with no gravitational center to hold it all together. Letting tactics overshadow strategy. Setting the marketing agenda based on vendor capabilities instead of customer needs. Creating a disjointed, fragmented customer experience with too many moving pieces.

So what’s the answer? In many cancer hospitals, specialists are often balanced out with another kind of doctor: the medical oncologists. This role is designed to transcend the niches and bring a broader base of knowledge to bear. And as a result, medical oncologists are much less likely to overtreat.

Marketing departments need the equivalent. A new function or role with an emphasis on the big picture. One that can balance the effects of growing complexity and specialization.

In short, it’s time to make marketing strategy into its own specialist function. One with a clear mission – aligning and focusing all of other moving pieces in a complex, modern marketing department. And, of course, safeguarding against wasteful overtreatment.

This function must be ongoing. Strategy, in other words, must be a practice, not an event. And its remit must be broad. To truly encompass the big picture, this function must be able to see beyond channels and quarterly plans. It must consider how teams are structured, how priorities are determined, how agencies are selected, briefed and managed, how technology is assessed and invested in, and how performance is measured.

The end result will be a steering wheel of sorts, ensuring that your brand stays pointed in the right direction even as the marketing machine grows more complex and moves ever faster in order to keep pace with technology-driven change.