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Agile marketing sounds great in theory. But in practice it requires a huge shift in marketing management and operations PHOTO: Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious

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 goes back 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?” 

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

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 take 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 Switching to Agile Marketing, Remember Leadership, Process and Culture

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 try 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 results?

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.