Navigate the Sea Change in Marketing Management with Agile

This article breaks down the theory of agile development methodologies and how they can be applied in the context of modern marketing management [12-minute read].

Marketing can feel like a rough go these days. 

From internal demands and dynamics to outside forces, the pace of change is mind-numbing. 
Agile marketing has emerged in the last few years as a way to tame the never-ending demands of modern marketing. 

Ion Interactive co-founder and CTO Scott Brinker was one of the early proponents of agile marketing. In his book, “Hacking Marketing,” Brinker makes a compelling case for the use of agile software development methodology as applied to marketing management.

The Theory of Agile Marketing

I spoke with Brinker as well as Russ Lange, managing partner of management consulting firm CMG Partners and Gavin McKelvey, head of North America marketing for Level 3 Communications, to gain further insights into the challenges and opportunities inherent in the adoption of agile marketing within the context of a large enterprise.

To say this approach is a big shift for marketers is an understatement. It is as much about rethinking the leadership and culture of marketing as it is about rethinking the management and operations of the marketing function.

What Is Agile Marketing and How Does it Differ From Traditional?

Marketing used to operate in what was considered a waterfall-type process: marketers developed strategies (sometimes over the span of many months), created plans to support the implementation of the strategies, and executed tasks — a very linear and usually very predictable process.

That's no longer the case. In many cases, this approach doesn’t work anymore, for internal teams or for customers. The real-time nature of digital engagement and customer expectations requires a quicker and more streamlined approach. But oftentimes organizations aren’t set up to meet those needs.

Agile marketing proposes an almost continual test-and-learn environment to determine what will work best to meet your marketing goals. A caveat: not every marketing initiative is suited to agile; for example, a global rebranding initiative. Brinker defines the “values” of agile marketing in the book as:
· Many small experiments over a few large bets
· Testing and data over opinions and conventions
· Intimate customer tribes over impersonal mass markets
· Engagement and transparency over official posturing

The “Agile Marketing Manifesto” dives deeper into agile marketing's values and Smartsheet provides a chart comparing waterfall, agile and other lean methodologies including Scrum and Kanban. You can take a look at a comparison chart here.

The Market Forces Driving the Adoption of Agile Marketing

Marketing has become a “software-powered” discipline. Ask anyone who currently works in marketing and they will be feeling the effects of this shift — juggling multiple different tools to manage campaigns, content, marketing automation, email, analytics, media buying and social.

The sheer proliferation of marketing software is also a factor in agile's rise. One quick glance at Brinker's “Martech Software Landscape” supergraphic - which says the martech landscape grew AGAIN by 5X between 2016 and 2017 - will make the complexity of digital marketing tools, platforms apps, and services clear. But marketing technology tools are really just that — tools to help us execute. 

Brinker identifies five digital dynamics facing every marketer, which agile helps to address:

· Speed: The rate at which people search and the consumption of content are e34the overarching factor dominating digital. Communication happens faster and spreads more quickly across the internet and social networks to create what Brinker calls a “culture of now."  

· Adaptability: Unlike the physical world, the "digital world is almost infinitely malleable and adaptable; changes can be deployed at almost any time, very quickly, and usually at low cost; thus customers are beginning to expect a customized, one-on-one experience made 'just for them.'

· Adjacency: Everything is closer and faster in a digital world. This means certain customer actions and interactions become upended, such as the traditional idea of competition or the "information asymmetry” that sellers used to have over buyers, where salespeople had all the information and the buyer had to engage to get what they needed.

· Scale: Scale includes the volume of data; how quickly content can be distributed across networks; and the algorithms replacing human decision-making. This requires “finding the right balance between automated scale and human judgment” and is an ongoing management challenge for digital marketers.

· Precision: Digital affords us the ability to be very precise when it comes to quantifying our actions as marketers. We can measure pretty much anything and everything which adds yet another layer of complexity to the mix.

Lange and McKevey both pointed to the VUCA concept as a driving force. VUCA is a management consulting term and framework which stands for Volatility-Uncertainty-Complexity-Ambiguity. As an organization and as an individual, you have no choice but to respond to the dynamic nature of the world we live in.

Your Biggest Challenge Is Change

All of these digital dynamics can be difficult to manage when all we’re really trying to do is get closer to customers and create personalized interactions in the moment.
Agile marketing helps solve these difficulties but is at odds with the channel-specific way most marketing organizations are structured (e.g. the silos of brand marketing, social, email, search, etc.). But customers don't view their interactions by channels, so why should your marketing organization?

As Brinker puts it, “Think of it this way: The #1 challenge that marketers face is change — an overwhelming thunder of change — on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. So (as a marketer) you’re looking for strategies to deal with change better — handle a higher volume of change, execute changes more quickly and respond more effectively. And we can break out the facets that are changing very quickly from those that are more foundational capabilities that don’t change as quickly – but overall we need to change faster."


Agile marketing sounds great in theory: a sort of Holy Grail that answers all the current challenges of marketing in a digital world. But in practice, it requires a huge shift in marketing management and operations. 

In a recent conversation, ion interactive Co-Founder and CTO Scott Brinker, Russ Lange, managing partner of management consulting firm CMG Partners and Gavin McKelvey, head of North America marketing for Level 3 Communications all shared practical advice and tips for those contemplating agile marketing.

Distinguish Between Agile and Evergreen Initiatives

According to Brinker, figuring out when and how to switch to agile marketing depends on the structure of existing marketing department and the existing culture – don’t bite the whole apple at once! 

He recommends finding a sub-group within the marketing team to pilot agile, with the web group, the content marketing group or potentially the social media team being good candidates. Of the three, content marketing group sounds perfect: they get the benefit of planning things out which fits nicely in this framework. What can you put out in the marketplace, get feedback and then iterate? 

Larger and more “evergreen” types of marketing initiatives, such as branding, are not the best candidates for agile. They serve more as a foundation upon which shorter agile marketing initiatives and programs can be launched. Brinker said, “when you translate this to the marketing function, there is a lot of process and managing of decision rights — and empowering the front lines of marketing — to make more decisions on their own instead of going back up the chain” for approvals. Lange noted agile marketing, “Starts with the persona — then go back up the chain to look at product, segments, campaigns etc."

Agile marketing also “lays the foundation to build something bigger and then iterate to fulfill that learning agenda in terms of how the organization is delivering value. Is the performance there? If not, why?”

There is good news here. Agile marketing also has a productivity side effect: it kills the ineffective strategies and inefficient process which benefit the organization vs. the customer benefit.

Don't Dump Your Current Marketing Habits Cold Turkey

Lange doesn’t recommend going “cold turkey” with implementing the change. Instead, he suggested, "Think of it like learning a sport. You have to start training with a certain goal in mind. If you go too fast you might hurt yourself, get discouraged and give up.

"It’s progressive and it builds upon each step and iteration. You might also think about it in terms of training to compete in a particular sport: if you invest the energy to learn, you will be better off in the long run and eventually master the skill.”

Lange said it usually takes about a year for an organization to see the full benefits, because “the application is where it’s at — what value is being developed? Agile organizations are intrinsically human … it’s not just a cookie-cutter approach, it’s wholly dependent on people embracing a new way of working together."

Having the whole organization shift is too overwhelming, for team members and leadership. Lange recommended a large enterprise plan for somewhere between “one to three pilot teams adopting the methodology — get some lessons learned and realize some success — then start to expand to more teams, say six to nine pilot teams” for the second phase of the pilot, and build from there.

Increasing Marketing Metabolism Requires Discipline

Agile marketing drives “marketing metabolism” and according to Lange, time boxing and two-week sprints help keep people focused on the learning agenda. 
This can create some discomfort as it doesn’t allow people to become complacent in their tasks. It also gives structure to the process to help the team deal with distractions and keep them focused on a few things each week. 

What value could your organization deliver to customers over the next two weeks? Thinking this way completely shifts your mindset as a marketer and helps build better customer intimacy. Organizations that are doing this get to know their customers so much better. “Think of it like compound interest rate — this (agile marketing) grows the value of one’s investment so much faster than an annual rate of interest," said Lange.

When Transitioning to Agile Marketing, Remember Leadership, Culture, and Process

McKelvey recommended organizations exploring an agile marketing pilot start by rethinking the concept of top-down management. Empowering people on the front lines, those lower down in the organization and closer to the customer, with more decision-making power and authority, creates a level of accountability that drives ownership. But this kind of change requires governance and guardrails. 

Leadership also needs to commit to the agile switch. Not that every team in every department needs to adopt agile marketing methods at the same time, but as with any new initiative, the organization needs to see leaders buy into the methodology and support it. Once they do, people will get behind it. Running a small pilot allows people the opportunity to buy in before they jump in. The pilot invigorates people and results in productivity. 

In McKelvey's experience ultimately, “People want to believe in something.” So if the value proposition is there, and there's a demonstrated leadership commitment, people will understand the switch was a good idea because, “it’s the same work, but we will enable you to get the work done better and faster.”

Adopting agile marketing offers cultural benefits as well. According to McKevey, “Millennial and post-millennial workers want more empowerment and ownership in what they’re doing. They want a sense of purpose. Organizations that don’t provide this may miss connecting with an entire generation of workers. But Agile speaks to the very things this generation is looking for in the workplace."

Is Agile Right For Your Organization?

Where are you heading with your marketing this year? If you’re unsatisfied with the performance of your content or marketing approaches, the speed by which you’re operating, or the experiences you’re delivering to your customers, then perhaps a new approach is called for. 
Is it time to make a shift within your own organization to make your marketing better, stronger and faster? 

Let me know in the comments below if you're getting ready to try implementing agile marketing or if you're currently using agile marketing. If not, why not? If yes, how is agile transforming your leadership approach, your organization, your culture and your marketing results?

A Final Note

Thank you to Scott Brinker for generously sharing his time and thoughts during the interview process. I also wish to thank Russ Lange and Gavin McKelvey for their contributions to this article — comments and opinions are their own and not representative of or endorsed by their employers.

About the Author
Linda Saindon is the founder and Principal Consultant at Alchemic, where she helps clients achieve better business results by identifying opportunities, strategies and organizational recommendations that support innovation, brand development, communications, a seamless customer experience, and digital marketing.

Author's Note: A version of this article was originally published on CMSWire as a two-part series, “Why Agile Marketing is the Antidote to Constant Change” and “Shift Your Marketing Metabolism into High Gear with Agile.”