man balancing on a chair
Agile marketing is as much about rethinking the leadership and culture of marketing as rethinking management and operations PHOTO: Lechon Kirb

Marketing can feel like a herculean task 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 earliest 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.

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 your 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 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, automation, email, social media and analytics. 

The sheer proliferation of marketing software is also a factor in agile's rise. One quick glance at Brinker's “Martech Software Landscape” supergraphic will make the complexity of digital marketing tools, apps, platforms 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 search and consumption of data happens is the 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 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. web, brand, social, email, search, etc.). 

Customers don't view their interactions by channels, 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 can we 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."

So that's the theory behind agile marketing. Check back in tomorrow when we will explore what it looks like in practice.