For and against agility: Our thinkers duel on it

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Is Agile the godsend antidote to help steer your business or just the latest trendy buzzword overriding common sense? Our thinkers duel on it.


The case for Agile Marketing

I’m not going to argue for one moment that Agile methodologies are the panacea for all life’s problems – they aren’t.

I also won’t throw around lots of numbers and references as I have a more philosophical and cerebral view on the case for “Agile Marketing”.

Sure, there are the tangible benefits Agile methodologies bring to the performance of actual Marketing activities but then there are the just as important intangible benefits Agile practices bring to people and the way they work.

And no doubt there are many great marketing teams and companies doing excellent marketing that aren’t “Agile” but that isn’t a strong enough argument against “Agile Marketing”.

But first – what do we mean by Agile Marketing?

Depending on who you ask Agile Marketing may mean the following:

  1. Marketing practices that are more responsive, customer focused, based on test and learn with a reliance on data and facts rather than gut feel as well as an appreciation for the impact of technology on the way consumers engagement and behaviours with brands has changed
  2. The Application of Agile methodologies for organising, co-ordinating and managing Marketing teams

Both are right in my books. They are not mutually exclusive and can (and should co-exist) however I think focusing on the second one is a good way to get to the first one.

So, what are the benefits of applying an Agile methodology to your marketing teams (and ultimately marketing)?

 

The tangible

The highly stereotyped conversation below is one that I have been privy to many times in many organisations with successful marketing teams where you don’t think they would happen.

 

Conversation 1

“How did our last campaign perform? What could be done better? Where did we go wrong?”

“Don’t know… not sure… and we don’t really have the time to sit and dig on it – we’re busy doing the next campaign – but don’t worry we seem to be doing all right as overall sales are up”

 

Conversation 2

“Why is the call to action blue, against a sea of blue text and a blue background?”

“Our brand guidelines dictate blue on blue for lead campaigns in this category..”

The conversations are common and, in many ways, wrong.

Why? Because they ignore the obvious – a lot of marketing is not that effective. Often the heavy lifting is done by a small amount of marketing.

In a waterfall world you can wait an awfully long time to find out all your effort is for nought.

Agile seeks a different path.

That video idea you think is awesome? do a small version on YouTube, provide it works before putting it on TV. That subject line you aren’t sure about? Send it to less people and see what happens. That new brand? Get the core right then expand it over time as you need to.

And the conversations I hear show an indifference to the ultimate thing marketing is asking people to give up - a most precious, irreplaceable thing.

 

Time.

Time to view, to engage, respond and to go and buy. People are being more discerning in how they spend their time and that means quality of marketing is important.

And at the centre of Agile methodologies are smart fundamentals that increase quality – focus on what builds value for the customer, reduce activities that are wasteful, seek to continually be better and use data and insights to shape and inform your decisions.

Agile means you use time in a more considered way. Your time and your customers.

Agile helps with prioritisation, questioning, analysing, improving, rejecting and ultimately collaborating to work towards the best outcome. Your marketing will be better for it and your teams will enjoy a better working environment.

Which leads me to my next important point…

 

The intangible

Well we’re often sent out into our working life (in my experience) - if we are lucky - with a good education, some tools of the trade (the “technical” how) and maybe a vague idea of our purpose or what we love (the “why”).

We will have had the opportunity to work alongside and occasionally together with people we naturally congregated towards (school) or who shared a professional common interest (bigger school.. college .. university) and then we end up in the complex world of work.

Here in the world of work you are asked to achieve hard things, in complex environments with a group of people often not of your choosing. And rarely, in my experience, are we given the tools of the trade in how best to co-ordinate ourselves and work together for the common good – especially in a team.

You often muddle along together – like a sports team with no real rules - under the guise of hitting dates and delivering things. There may be a rhythm or there may not – often it can border on chaos. The benchmark is often as good as the experience of the people you are working with.

This can mean either fantastic or subpar performance. Often based on luck. There might be the occasional team day but often the focus is on improving leaders, enhancing culture or ensuring clear communications.

The situation has been very common in corporate environments in my working career and from what I have observed as if not more common in creative or service agencies.

And that is where Agility comes in. An agile methodology lifts the bar in how teams work together. They help provide “A” framework – at least a starting point where often there is none.

Agile is neutral and provides easy to understand tools and methods to help people co-ordinate effectively, work together more collaboratively, sustainably and prepare better for an increasingly unpredictable world.

The philosophy is good for people and good for business. The manifestos make sense. They don’t solve every problem but can be applied in many circumstances.

Agility is as much a philosophy and positive mindset as much as it is a framework. This can only benefit marketing teams and their activity.

If you’ve never been formally trained in these areas it can be a godsend. Sure, it can be uncomfortable, difficult and another thing to learn but it provides some guidance to help steer everyone in the right direction – to focus on things that are important.

Despite the buzz around Agile many of us don’t or haven’t worked in technology teams or start-ups who naturally embrace Agile work practices.

Something must be right about Agile work practices though – they have helped Toyota rule the automotive industry¹*, Tesla transform cars, solar and space exploration², Facebook steal your soul and the United States be better at blowing stuff up³.

It’s not just marketing that benefits – if you are in a product, sales, or even management team I think Agile is a great way to give you a starting point to start asking the question “How do we be better not just at what we do, but how we do it together”.

 

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The Dark Side of Agile

“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”  Martin Luther King Jr. 1929-1968
When Marketing Heads are known to spend copious amounts on big agencies and big ideas, sign-off crazy partnerships and sign poor commercial deals, it doesn’t surprise me to learn that when it comes to basics like data, only 30% of marketers know what they are doing.

The weak marketer falls back on excuses for a poor performing campaign. They’ll change the campaign prematurely, pull back on spend, disrupt the channel mix or further overdose the market on a poor idea.

 

And this is where it begins.

A few years ago I worked with a travel organisation who did the same marketing year on year. You’re right, they weren’t agile….

You’ll be surprised to learn though: they were awesome at marketing.

They’d found their secret sauce. Having cornered the market, they understood it better than any of their competitors, had a clear reason why customers bought and consumed the product, and delivered an amazing experience.

They weren’t jumping the gun on latest and greatest. Lazy you think? No way. They were strategic, focused and – surprisingly – very digitally advanced, using programmatic advertising to push destination creative to search. Tell me another organisation that forward thinking in 2006?

So why would regressing to the ignorant state above - making less informed decisions, stepping stone changes with diluted budgets and less strong campaign message – have made their marketing better?

Fact: A well thought-out proposition and an integrated campaign, smart channel mix and data driven insights - is how the world’s best brands deliver and kill it in conversions.

 

Fiction: Agile Marketing is always the answer to marketing prayers; It will help you:

1.     Get a budget

2.     Get an idea of what you’re doing

3.     Sound trendy

4.     Go faster

 

Getting a budget

Important people often need convincing to spend money on marketing, especially when on average only 12% of overall company budget goes to marketing. Using terms like agile marketing gives the weak marketer a leg to stand on.

Agile can easily be used to justify a small amount of budget. A small amount you’ll probably waste. Reason? You haven’t got any idea why you’re using it for.

“Agile marketers” talk about a validating learning. I have zero idea what they mean by this. Could learning from they do now? Or did years ago? Is it an excuse to  test another bad campaign again? My only conclusion, more budget to spin more wheels.

 

When you’ve no idea what you’re doing

Expecting agile marketing to bring back the magic in the boardroom is a mis-alignment. And that’s a segway to my next example, using agile as the poster-boy instead of a good idea.

Back a year or two ago, I consulted at this company for a CEO. I sat with him and queried why he thought he could build a product as good as LinkedIn, and 6 month marketing campaign, with a total budget of $1m (and a timescale of 3 months). He brushed me away, saying I wasn’t pro-agile.

Ironically, he was right.

Cue the large consulting firm. Their “vision” – really a hallucination - impressed the Board. Their technical jargon, alarmed about the supposed oncoming Dooms Day when they wouldn’t be around, agreed to jump on the train to Digital Marketing Nirvana.

The agile method was often used and abused; adapting some common agile structures and satanic ceremonies as I refer to them. There was no hierarchy in the team (as is common in agile) and that meant no one could make decisions, the backlog was just massive (but the end product wasn’t), timescales were just unreasonably quick; and it was all twisted to be a way for people to shout loud and push agendas. Go MVP!

The result was a disaster. A waste of over $2m on technology – ah yes the agile method meant basic functionality needed to extra money to get anything that looked half decent. The campaign got zero results, the product flopped, because the customer didn’t know why they needed it, and it was removed from business in 6 months.

It makes me really angry when companies waste money and blame agile. It’s the classic example of using agile to paint over a bad job in strategy; sadly I have countless examples of companies hiding behind agile to deliver bad products and terrible experiences.

 

Sounding trendy

I can’t see how agile marketing is it’s true-self: scrum isn’t the right philosophy for agile marketing if you’re trying to sell it as an easy way to respond to the market. If the sprint isn’t complete, you can’t jump on competitor activity, i.e. you miss the boat to market.

Cue the half arsed trendy approach – otherwise known as Kanban. Kanban is just purely common sense – prioritise bits of work and get on with them (with a few constraints around capacity).  Kanban is not really a radical change in delivering an outcome: it’s just about getting it done sensibly.

And this is why when people talk agile marketing, I think they confuse it with the mindset of data driven direct marketing. But that’s not agile. That’s just digital.

 

Moving faster

If you don’t have a plan and have to keep going back to the drawing board, I think agile slows you down, it doesn’t speed you up.

Here’s an example, you use one channel in market. It drives a mediocre return. Your plan is to test another channel. With a quick read on the data, I’d just try it. With agile you’d have to have a meeting - prioritise it against a backlog - justify it with a hierarchy of factors that say if it will or won’t work (and then go and have lunch to second guess yourselves).

The time you spend prioritising it is lost sales and learning. If we’re honest to ourselves; you can circumvent.

So, let’s be clear to any marketers who want to succeed in this world. Learn how to get things done the right way. If you don’t know – try with data smarts - stop saying we need to go agile as it will make a massive productivity boost to marketing.

If you need to label some new way of thinking – fine - call common sense “agile”; but in my experience, prioritising, thinking hard and learning from your mistakes is just what you do, and anything else is just ignorant.


The post-Waterfall era is upon us.

When agile is taken as the the “sum of all parts”, a framework to be open to change, and to give new ideas a go (whatever the outcome), no one can argue against the positive influence it can have.

Agile has been a wise choice for many companies in the 2000’s. Maybe agile has not as the sole contributor to all company successes – but whatever the negatives, should “PRINCE2 Marketing” have existed way back when, one thing is for sure, it wouldn’t have been quite as successful or disruptive as agile has been.

 

The world of Agile Marketing is emergent.

Wholesale adoption of Agile Marketing needs careful consideration. Agile Marketing isn’t a reason to exist (unless - like us - you are in the business of selling it), but instead agile should be applied appropriately over the top of a well-defined product and brand. 

Whatever your opinion on Agile Marketing, we at Divide By Zero are not into cults (…unless it’s Star Wars related, of course). If you want to talk about simple and straight forward approaches to delivering amazing marketing – and for the purposes of this conversation – call it using “Agnostic Marketing”, then let’s talk.

 

By Dana Teahan — Founder / Divide by Zero & Peter Lines — Digital Strategist / Divide by Zero

 

¹*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toyota_Production_System
² https://280group.com/product-management-blog/tesla-agile-development/
³ https://www.infoq.com/news/2014/05/DoD_agile

 
Dana Teahan