flip upside down
Marketing is agile by nature, or at least it should be PHOTO: Alessio Lin

The term agile marketing has been bandied about for a few years now. A recent article went so far as to suggest 2017 will be the year agile marketing goes mainstream

So should already stressed out marketers add agile marketing to their long list of things that keep them up at night? Should they even care?   

What Is Agile Marketing?

Agile marketing takes its inspiration from agile software development. Agile software development (to really oversimplify things) breaks down software development or running projects into short, iterative sprints that consist of a somewhat self contained units. One of the primary advantages of this method is how it constantly tests the work, learns what’s working and course corrects if and when needed.            

That's the essence of agile marketing: using data to test a running campaign's effectiveness and then using that insight to course correct, adapt and iteratively improve the ongoing campaign. Which requires a discipline of using data and a collaborative marketing team.   

Is Agile Marketing New? 

As someone who has transitioned from technologist to marketing, I’ve managed both marketing teams and software development teams. 

In software development, Agile was a major change in how to get things done, especially in comparison with the legacy Waterfall method, which was characterized by long development cycles, annual major releases and a fairly rigid “go away we are building a big and important thing here” mindset.  

Marketing doesn't have this legacy. Marketing is agile by nature — or at least it should be. 

Every marketing plan is broken up into campaigns. These campaigns run for a finite time. You measure their effectiveness and if they worked you ran it — or some similar iteration — again, and if it bombed, you moved on and tried something else. 

In parallel with Agile software development, these marketing iterations are done within a given framework. In software development you could be building a software product or implementing a website against requirements broken up into user stories. In the same way marketing campaigns have always been built within a framework of a brand message and a set of personas to target. 

Yes, our reaction times need to be faster in the digital age, we need to compress the turnaround times from idea to results. We have the data and tools to help us pivot, without having to wait for the print ads to run, the data to come in about our new TV ad or the door drop to indicate an uptick in sales calls. 

We often hear about the value of “failing fast.” 

While this compression of timeframes requires agility, it is a product of the current marketing environment and the evolution of tools, rather than a different approach or discipline.      

The term “Agile Marketing” seems to be a bleed of techie terms making it into mainstream language, much in the same way we don’t share advice, we write “life hacks.” 

Being an agile marketer (small "a") is a personal or leadership attribute that is a requirement of the role. And this isn’t new.   

A Quick Look at the Trends

As a modern marketer, the arbiter is often in the data. I wondered if there was a buzz that would sway my opinion. 

Google Trends shows “Agile Marketing” is unpopular as a search term, when compared to other marketing disciplines. On it’s own, yes you can see a rise over the last five years, but side by side with other marketing subjects, it barely lifts itself off the flatline of the x axis. 

side by side comparison of marketing trends

Could it be that it’s still early days and, like other disciplines that emerged from the chrysalis of buzz to become real (looking at you content marketing), we can find a pattern or read into the slight uptick of interest as a sign of things to come?

According to Google Trends, “content marketing” was as popular a search term back in April 2009 as “agile marketing” is today, but the five years after that it steadily grew. That’s not really the same story for Agile Marketing, which emerged as a concept roughly the same time. Additionally, Google Trends shows “Agile Marketing” has not broken out of North America.  

Buzz indicates people are talking about something, not that it is a real, grown up, mature thing. When “content marketing” became mainstream (as folks are predicting for agile marketing in 2017), it already was a significant trend on Google. 

A Trip Down Marketing History Lane

Granted, a cursory glance at search trends for a short article is not terribly scientific. Just because we aren’t talking about it (or searching for it) doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t. 

But for me, there isn’t enough here for it to stand apart as a discipline.

Marketers are the creatives in the business, the people who due to their curious nature are always looking for new ways to engage with the consumer, to experiment, to fail fast. I'd argue the craft of marketing is agile by nature.     

So yes, I would readily call myself “agile” — though I suspect it's as bad as calling yourself “cool.” But I just don’t think 2017 is “the year that Agile Marketing becomes mainstream,” if for no other reason than it has always been mainstream. 

A better marketing historian than I could probably pinpoint the year we decided on a brand story, told it in campaign chapters, started measuring the success of these campaigns and making decisions based on those metrics, but I suspect it’s not 2017.