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PHOTO: Joseph Gruenthal

The term “agile marketing” has had an alluring mystique for some time now. Developers love it and more and more marketers are singing its praises. While entire books outline exactly what agile is, an important primer to understanding it is the knowledge of its fairly unseen history. 

Though it might be considered somewhat of an obscure marketing buzzword that most executives don't entirely understand, knowing the history of the approach can demystify its purpose and the thinking behind it.

Agile’s Beginnings

Though developers are likely familiar, many marketers might not know that agile has actually been around for a very long time — 20 to 25 years, in fact. The proto-agile method began in software development and coalesced with the early days of the internet. At the time, developers were faced with quickly evolving protocols as they strained to see and exploit what might be possible with the web.

It was difficult to predict what was going to work in the future. Because of this, they had to find an alternative to the traditional waterfall planning process that was based on their ability to confidently plan into the future. This led to the development of agile practices and methods which ultimately culminated in the articulation of an Agile Manifesto. 

By giving this new approach a name it allowed developers to build a community of practice which ultimately expanded and refined the approach. The manifesto has become a north star that keeps development teams aligned on how execution and iteration could be handled swiftly and efficiently in a newly emerging and volatile space.

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Understanding the Cynefin Framework

At about this time, a man named Dave Snowden created the Cynefin Framework. Snowden built out IBM’s Knowledge and Differentiation Program, and would go on to found The Cognitive Edge, an organization specialized in promoting the Cynefin Framework. Why is this important? This framework would eventually help contextualize the agile philosophy as it applied to developers, and would later clue marketers in to understanding how the agile method could work for them. The framework suggested that problems can be categorized into domains:

  • The simple domain, where a clear relationship exists between A and B (ex. If you do A, then B will happen).
  • The complicated domain, where the relationship between A and B is not immediately apparent but, with analysis, one could understand it. For quick context, this is the domain in which waterfall works well, as good analysis of the data could lead to a good solution.
  • The complex domain, wherein there is not enough historical information to necessarily lead to a confident solution, but one can be found with iteration. Think about the game Battleship where you do not have any information about the other side of the board until you start sending missiles into the field. As the game continues, you steadily get an idea of the landscape, which becomes more clear as you adjust to the info you learn.

This is where the idea of agile clicked with both developers and marketers — continually iterating to get a more clear picture. A core part of the agile philosophy is the ability to make quick iterations over time that eventually lead to a more accurate summation, rather than betting the house in one shot.

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Fast Forward to 'The Agile Marketing Manifesto'

As time and tech have progressed, marketers ended up managing more software than ever before. The ecosystem of technology that is available for marketers is evolving very quickly, and because of that there is a significant amount of uncertainty. Marketers are being challenged to work with an unpredictable future in a way very similar to how early developers were and, as a result, beginning to look more closely at the Agile model as a solution. On the web, an emergence of marketing technology (martech) providers begins to pick up steam, with the number of providers rising to 7,000 from 150 between 2011 and 2018. This massive explosion in technologies coming to market in such a short time speaks to the unpredictability that marketers were being faced with, and reinforced the gradual adoption of agile.

An interesting side effect of that explosion is an increased interaction and cross-over between marketing and developer teams. In many cases, if development teams were already employing an agile method to work with software, it was to the benefit of the marketers to learn and understand that method for smoother communication and collaboration between teams. Eventually, another manifesto came into being — the Agile Marketing manifesto — which would pave the way for how agile would be interpreted for marketers moving forward.

Related Article: Step Up Your Agile Marketing Game

The State of Agile Today

Agile appears to be catching on now more than ever before. Google Analytics for the search term “agile marketing” shows a steady increase in interest over the past decade. What’s more, some of the biggest firms are beginning to adopt and promote the agile mindset, giving providers of agile training increased visibility. The depth of agile’s footprint in today’s marketing landscape is well beyond the scope of this article, but agile’s history is a vital gateway to understanding how it can be incorporated into many modern marketing challenges.

Agile, at its core, was designed a long time ago to handle challenges that we would face today and years down the line. Given the immense and unpredictable leaps that the marketing landscape continues to make, it stands to reason that the agile method will turn more marketers’ heads and win over more executives with each passing year.