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What is Agile Marketing Again? [UML]

What is agile marketing?

Agile marketing is a project management technique for accomplishing a set of priorities in a short period of time called a “sprint.”  For example, a team agrees to a list of priority tasks and collaboratively decides which tasks to accomplish first and which to hold off for later. 

Agile is one of those phrases everyone in marketing seems to be talking about, but with very different ideas about what precisely constitutes “agile.”

This isn’t unusual for a profession where both creativity and data are important.  For example, if you ask 10 different people to define marketing or PR, there’s a good chance you’ll get 10 different answers.

However, those terms have been around a while, and the legacy means there are usually some common threads.

Definitions of marketing usually include some aspects of understanding needs, creating a customer or defining a market.  Definitions of PR often count words like credibility, reputation and third-party validation.

Yet descriptions of agile, which I have seen instituted as a very precise software development process (see graphic below), are all over the map in marketing.   In fact, one of the sources included below cites The State of Agile Marketing in 2016, which concludes as much.

The report identifies seven barriers to agile marketing.  The top barrier? “We lack training or knowledge about Agile approaches (23.5%).”  To that end, I’ve made agile marketing the focus of this week’s Unscripted Marketing links [UML].

As always, you’ll find three articles on a given topic that I’ve vetted, underscored a key point, and commented on below for your perusal.

(click here or image for larger size) what-is-agile-marketing-again-scrum-small-2

1) What is Agile Marketing, Again?

In a piece for the Content Marketing InstituteHow to Stop Working So Hard: Agile Marketers Work Smarter – writer Andrea Fryrear says it’s not really a case of doing more with less as some suggest.  You may or may not get more things done, she says.  The goal, however, is to get the right things done.

“Here’s how it works. For starters, your marketing team agrees on a list of priorities. Based on those priorities, you decide which tasks – including content marketing tasks – are most important. The team agrees to focus on those tasks that it can expect to accomplish during the next “sprint” (typically somewhere between one week and one month) – and it puts all other tasks on hold (on the “backlog”).

A sprint is a set period during which team members aim to complete a set amount of high-priority work that’s connected to a long-term plan. Teams work through one sprint after another, reassessing priorities each time.”

What happens when the good idea fairy – the executive that casually suggests a marketing idea and the entire team drops what it’s doing to cater to him or her – shows up?

Ms. Fryrear writes, “When someone brings you a new request during a sprint, you may stop and address it only if it’s more important than what you’ve committed to. Otherwise, you assign it to a future sprint and return to your priorities.”

To that end, agile marketing adds organizational discipline.

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2) Redefining Process and Policy for Agility

Agile promises to transform marketing organizations, and while most marketing leaders embrace the idea, the actual process implementation is misaligned or falls short.

In my experience, the larger the organization, the more dysfunctional the marketing processes.  Marketing spends more time justifying the job than doing the job.  Marketing can’t use the restroom in a large organization without a hall pass signed by 11 different vice presidents. Of course, I’m exaggerating for effect, but if you laughed at that, it usually there’s a little bit of truth in it.

McKinsey & Company gets after this point with a bit more polish in a piece titled Agile marketing: A step-by-step guide.  Co-authors Jason Heller, David Edelman (who is now a CMO with a large organization in a highly regulated market) and Steven Spittaels write:

“An international bank recently decided it wanted to see how customers would respond to a new email offer. They pulled together a mailing list, cleaned it up, iterated on copy and design, and checked with legal several times to get the needed approvals. Eight weeks later, they were ready to go.

In a world where people decide whether to abandon a web page after three seconds and Quicken Loans gives an answer to online mortgage applicants in less than ten minutes, eight weeks for an email test pushes a company to the boundaries of irrelevance. For many large incumbents, however, such a glacial pace is the norm.”

The authors go on to note the root of the problem can typically be traced back to a lack of adequate process support from legal, IT and finance.  What they do not note – and I think is essential to understand – is that all of these departments are conservative by training.  A primary duty of these functions centers on reducing risk – preventing lawsuits, data loss and theft, or wasteful spending (financial controls).

The result means these organizations have all developed processes for the entire business. Unfortunately, the second and third-order effects produce constraints that severely limit marketing’s ability to produce awareness or leads in the modern marketing environment.

A good marketing leader has the political savvy to flip this on its head. Rather than working within back-end processes created by other supporting departments, marketing invites those departments to help develop sanctioned – but highly streamlined – agile marketing processes.

As the co-authors of this piece say, “If you’re not agile all the way, then you’re not agile.”

3) Agile Still Requires Thinking and Planning

I have also observed the other extreme – agile marketing becomes an excuse to avoid strategic marketing thinking and planning.  Matt Heinz makes this point succinctly in a piece for his company’s blog titled, Agility is not a replacement for strategy:

“Tactics can be agile. Your ability to move quickly on new ideas or opportunities can be agile. But behind that agility needs to be a strong strategy – with firm objectives, strong customer/target personas, and a general sense for how you’re going to market.”

His piece reminded me of an adage within military planning circles:  you have to know doctrine before you can bypass it. The military certainly rewards initiative and creative thinking, but only after you’ve mastered the field manuals.

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Photo credit: Flickr, RetroRabbit, Mimi gets air (CC BY 2.0) and Wiki Commons, Scrum Framework (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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