Plan to be Nimble: An Intro to Agile Marketing

October 7, 2021

When I originally sat down to write this blog in 2018, I knew this to be true: The days of fixed annual marketing plans and long runways to launch are behind us. At the time, the average CMO tenure was about 3 ½ years and within that, there were maybe 2 – 3 strategic planning cycles to make a mark. (Sidenote: The average tenure has fallen slightly more in the years since.)

What I, nor anyone, could have predicted though, was just HOW true this would come to be. It’s well-worn territory at this point to say the pandemic upended everything about how we live and work. But it also upended what we “know” as marketers. The tactics, channels and messages that worked yesterday may no longer work, or even be available to us, today.

That’s why it’s more critical than ever for marketers to adopt an agile ways of working. The good news is that organizations as a whole are realizing the benefits of agile, with a recent Adobe Workfront survey finding that, of those organizations not using agile today, 93% have plans to implement in the next year. But a formal all-in move to agile requires a major business transformation at all levels of the organization. If your overall organization isn’t there yet, even just dabbling in it as a small team, or across the marketing organization, can provide real benefits.

What is agile marketing? It’s getting to market quickly, testing and learning, and iterating or scaling to maximize effectiveness. But it’s not just about moving quickly. It’s also about prioritizing efforts and enabling focus. Whether it’s selecting a singular market, bringing in a few early champions within your organization to try out a new process, or other, it’s never been easier to test a hypothesis and show early results—whether to prove effectiveness and secure additional resources or to help you disprove incorrect hypotheses and pursue alternatives. Marketing organizations must always be learning, drawing new insights, imagining possibilities for continuous improvement and creating greater outcomes for customers and the organization.

The need to be nimble is also driving the way marketers engage with agencies. Many organizations look to agencies to provide skill sets not core to the team (in one survey, 44% cited expertise as a top reason for engaging an agency), as well as to quickly scale as needs or opportunities emerge—without being locked into permanent overhead of staff that doesn’t suit a longer term need. (In the same survey, 42% also cited flexibility and 42% cited ability to fill short-term gaps.)

One trend mentioned, which we’ve also been seeing as an agency, is movement towards a hybrid model, in which an agency is embedded part-time, on-site (or online) with the client. This can allow for more close-knit collaboration and a deeper understanding of your organization’s processes or needs, while still providing the agency enough autonomy and distance to provide fresh, outside perspective.

Regardless of where your marketing resources are housed or where you are on your agile journey, here are a few quick recommendations to help you amp your team’s agility:

Know your ultimate destination, and be open to different paths there.

Wrestler jumping into ring

While some organizations have entirely eschewed annual planning in favor of quarterly campaigns, the sweet spot between long- and short-terms lays somewhere in the middle. If you don’t take the time to lay out long term goals, you risk falling victim to “shiny object” syndrome. Marketing departments get stuck in reactive mode, fielding every inbound request with no focus or prioritization, and no way to say “no” to the things that aren’t best-suited to move the organization forward.

On the flipside, if you are too rigidly committed to a particular approach plan, you may miss better opportunities and waste valuable resources along the way. And as a follow-up, communicate early and often with your team to ensure they understand the strategic vision too.

Build trust and empower your team.

Wrestlers commending each other

By nature, we humans like consistency and fear change. Trust is essential in agile marketing. The team must build trust in each other, and in you. Make it known that failure is okay as long as they’re failing fast and taking away key insights to effectively pivot.

And ensure they are empowered to make decisions without always having to go through a chain of command—a sure way to slow things down. The beauty of agile methodology is that it breaks down silos and brings together a small team of cross-functional disciplines with the knowledge and skills to achieve the objective of the project. Lay out clear guidelines for the kinds of things they can manage entirely, and at what milestones you require check-ins or the ability to provide approvals or feedback. Then let them do their thing.

Work your team’s agility muscle.

Two wrestlers. One is holding the other.

It’s very likely you have at least a few folks on your team to whom an “agile mindset” doesn’t come naturally. Consider weekly or bi-weekly exercises that force them to think on their feet, break apart problems to evaluate the complexities and identify uncertainties and develop pragmatic actionable next steps toward solving them.

As an agency, we challenge ourselves in this capacity, doing exercises to push our creativity and problem-solving. In one such exercise, the leader set up the following scenario:

“Assume you’re in an empty room and there’s a full glass of water on the table. Name all the ways you could empty that glass of water without touching it.” (Cue all the traditional answers around moving or breaking the table, throwing a rock at the glass, etc.)

Then he challenged the group to think a little deeper. People began offering up suggestions to heat the room to evaporate the water, or to make it cold enough to turn to ice, etc

But the answers became even more interesting when he said, “You are not bound by the laws of reality. I never said this room was on Earth, or that you had to do it by yourself, or really that there were any rules at all.”

It may seem silly, but exercises like these can get people to think on their feet, build on each other’s ideas and break down the traditional ideas around what’s possible. This sort of thinking lends itself to a strong agile marketing team.

Agile may feel like a buzzword, but it’s not a fad. Ensure you and your team are equipped with the right tools, processes and skill sets to avoid stagnation and capitalize on opportunity.