Built to a T: The Foundation of the Modern Marketing Agency

Chad Kearns, Vice President of Marketing Services

In the world of digital marketing, there is a growing demand for people who can do it all. Or, at least understand it all.

More and more businesses, from start-ups to well-established brands, are clamoring for marketers who can effectively run or guide an entire marketing program from beginning to end.

In response to this demand, many marketing professionals are striving to become full-stack marketers, believing it’s the leanest way to create value as a professional in our field.

While broad experience is necessary in today’s space, marketers must have a substantial depth of knowledge in at least one marketing channel or element as well.

As we develop our marketing team at Portent, we focus on building T-shaped marketers. Although not a new concept to employee development or marketing, the foundation of it remains tried and true.

The T-Shaped Marketer

Successful marketers need a strong understanding of the different elements and channels of digital marketing. But to generate exceptional marketing results, great marketers need to have in-depth expertise in at least one area or skill set as well.

We approach this concept with an agency model in mind because well, we’re a digital marketing agency. Regardless of the space you find yourself in, whether that be a marketing leader in the agency world, in-house for a brand, or as an independent freelancer, this concept scales across the digital marketing landscape.

Originally coined in the early 1990s by David Guest and later popularized by Tim Brown, T-shaped marketing means mastering the basics and then diving deep to become an expert in a specific area. The horizontal bar of the T represents the width or breadth of knowledge and the vertical bar indicates the depth.

There are many different versions of what this could look like, but for an example, here’s what an SEO practitioner’s skill set looks like at Portent:

T Shape Digital Marketing Stack


An idealized representation of a T shape can be a bit intimidating.

“Marketing” covers a wide swath of focus areas, and these Ts seem to imply that a marketer must possess a nearly superhuman command of an incredible set of skills.

Becoming a T-shaped marketer does not mean you are expected to know it all. The depth of knowledge you possess in a few areas will supplement the breadth of knowledge rounded out by an individual’s skill set.

What’s important when developing T-shaped marketers is that they understand the foundations of digital marketing and, just as importantly, understand how they leverage each other.

Just as there’s no magical formula for a perfect digital marketing strategy, there is no one-size-fits-all model of a “perfect T.” Instead, envision a flexible model where the shape of the T is unique to each individual. What’s unwavering in that flexibility, however, is a deep technical understanding in at least one marketing channel or element.

Building T-Shaped Marketing Teams

When building a marketing team for your brand or the next client you engage with, think about the entire spectrum of marketing you need to support. A successful T-shaped team should include people who are really good at a few key areas, have a solid understanding of the digital marketing landscape, and have a thirst for learning and sharing what they know.

At Portent, we achieve this by prioritizing the hiring of T-shaped marketers around the services we offer to our clients—each with their own passions and specializations.

When we do this, we get a collaborative, cross-functional team that can see the whole picture and support each other’s strengths and weaknesses. These cross function teams understand how their work leverages each other.

Hiring for the Soft Skills

Approaching the T shape is a great way to identify tangible industry experience, but there is more to becoming a great marketer than mastering the technical skills—especially when you’re putting together a full-stack marketing team.

In 2015, Irving Wladawsky-Berger wrote an article that discussed what he called The Rise of the T-Shaped Organization. He argued that today’s businesses must place a higher value on soft skills and look for people with adaptability, cultural competence, 360-degree thinking, intellectual curiosity, and empathy.

In the agency space we live in, hiring for soft skills is just as—if not more—important than finding people with great technical skills. At Portent, we look for six attributes when hiring, that are at the core of our philosophy. SHIFTS is everything to us—it’s how we approach our work every day and it’s how we test ourselves against everything we do.

We don’t expect people to know everything from the start, but we don’t compromise on our core values. We do look for people with personality traits that align with our goal of developing T-shaped marketers. Doing that allows us to find the right people to build our team around.

We look for marketers who are strong communicators.

We look for marketers with high emotional intelligence.

We look for marketers who are genuinely curious about their craft.

We look for marketers who are fearlessly accountable for their work.

We look for marketers who love to teach what they do.

And we look for marketers who want to give back—to our agency, the digital industry, and the communities around them.

Yes, the digital marketing world is always changing. But being on the cutting edge of the latest trend or technology doesn’t mean forgetting “old school” principles of open dialogue, teamwork, and problem-based learning.

Building successful marketers and marketing team starts with bringing together people who are passionate about what they do, show compassion and empathy for others, and possess a desire to share and learn. Industry knowledge is essential, but so are the soft skills to bring it all together.

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