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Q&A: Contemplating Agile Marketing

Q&A: Contemplating Agile Marketing Article Featured Image

An agile marketing leader shares her insights into the popular approach.

After attending an agile marketing boot camp a while back, Patricia McManus found her curiosity piqued. So recently, this vice president at The Lacek Group reached out to her instructor, Andrea Fryrear, cofounder of AgileSherpas, to learn more. What follows is their wide-ranging conversation, which includes defining agile marketing, discussing its benefits, and detailing how a team can begin to go from zero to agile. Read on to learn more.

Pat: I believe in agile marketing and its power to transform our practices. In fact, I’ve spent the last year working with my team, talking about the agile mindset, agile terms, and more. But let’s start at the beginning: First, for people unfamiliar with the term, please define agile marketing.

Andrea: Agile is a marketing approach that deliberately acknowledges we can’t know everything up front, that our plans will always be imperfect and, therefore, we deliver value to an audience as quickly as possible, we learn from that delivery, we improve on what works and we move away from what doesn’t. Rather than relying on the big-bang campaign once or twice a year, agile marketing is a much faster and more iterative approach. While the day-to-day adoption will look different, any brand can use agile marketing. Benefits include efficiency, speed to market, improved morale, doing the right work at the right time, alignment with the business, and more.

Pat: That’s a great baseline to understanding agile marketing. But how does it differ from the work agencies and enterprise marketing organizations are doing already? 

Andrea: The agile marketing manifesto is less than a decade old. It’s a refinement of practices that a lot of high-performing marketing groups and agencies have sometimes done intuitively. The agile label allows us to access more rigorous practices and streamline ways of working. For more traditional, highly regulated organizations in industries like finance, they’ve tended to follow a more waterfall process, not moving to the next step before completing the prior step. For these marketing organizations, it’s a 180-degree switch, which is what makes agile challenging. Agencies often mirror their clients — they follow the same processes. So if a client is more agile, the agency is likely to adopt that practice too.

Pat: Your company’s name, AgileSherpas, provides a clue that agile marketing is a relatively new concept that needs expert guidance. Can you talk about how “sherpas” help companies adopt agile marketing?

Andrea: We took on that name deliberately — we wanted to convey that we’re going to be there to support people throughout their agile marketing journey. It’s not just a matter of giving a client all the equipment needed and then sending them up the mountain alone. We’ve walked this path before. We know where the bears are, we understand about high altitudes, we know what to do when a storm hits. We help people navigate the entirety of their agile journey.

Pat: That’s a great metaphor for taking on a new challenge and makes sense as organizations launch into the unknown. I’m wondering why you think more and more organizations are adopting agile marketing? 

Andrea: One of the biggest reasons for the growth of agile marketing is the increasing digitalization of marketing. If all you have is print and television, for instance, it’s quite hard to iterate a print ad or a TV commercial. It’s out there and done. But if you have a more digitally leaning campaign, you can constantly adjust a landing page, optimize for conversion, test this and test that. And that goes for a full scope of a campaign — content, social ads, digital assets. When it’s in digital form, it’s much easier to adopt that test-and-learn mentality. So that’s a big driver for changes in marketing.

A second reason is the volatility of our profession and the world. A year ago when we were all doing annual planning, for example, TikTok wasn’t a force in the advertising world. But now it’s got a life of its own and a huge user base. For brands for which TikTok is an appropriate channel, marketers have had to get in there, learn about it, do it, adjust, and adapt. Actually, it feels like every new channel is coming on the scene more quickly these days and getting adopted faster. As marketers, we have to be more responsive to be relevant. As the world changes, we have to change with it, and agile is made for that.

Third, there’s an audience expectation piece in terms of our ability to deliver value. Honestly, our customers and prospects don’t care that we’re not Amazon or Netflix. They’ve come to expect the instant gratification, the personalization, that degree of responsiveness. Releasing a campaign after six or eight months is no longer acceptable. People aren’t going to wait that long to hear from us. They’re going to forget who we even are. So we have to be able to get stuff that is meaningful, relevant, and valuable out in front of people much faster. It’s delivery the way that software delivers — features come out all the time and that’s what end-users expect. Marketing has to work that same way. It’s a faster metabolism and that’s what agile marketing is designed to do.

Pat: Your comments are reminding me of internal discussions we’ve had around the idea of speed to market. Certainly that’s a key component of the agile framework. But how do you balance the idea of quick iterations with maintaining quality or a changing scope of work. Is there more than just speed?

Andrea: Yes, absolutely. Doing crappy work faster is not the goal. Especially as marketers, being the stewards of brands, we can’t just leave all of that behind. I tell the teams that I coach all the time: Scope, time, quality — pick two. You can’t have every side of that triangle fixed and expect agile to work. It depends, for example, on the level of brand compliance that you need to maintain. Some teams have more restrictions than others. Some have leaned into speed and feel OK about making mistakes. In contrast, if you’re on a financial services marketing team, you can expose yourself to quite a lot of liability if you move too fast. You have to know what that balance looks like for your team.

Pat: So what I’m hearing is that there are differences in the types of marketing within the agile framework. But are there some marketing types that shouldn’t be run using agile?

Andrea: I think every type of marketing can use agile — it’s just a matter of the implementation. That “scope, time, quality — pick two” concept is also about team empowerment. Marketers must be allowed to engage in those discussions, as opposed to having a fully baked brief dropped on their desks and told to make it happen. That too is why just reading an article on agile marketing or even getting a Scrum Master Certification for one framework or methodology isn’t enough. We have to approach agile marketing with a critical mindset and say, “Knowing what I know about how my team works and what we need to do, what are the items on the agile buffet that I need to make it work for us?” Agile offers a big menu, so we have to make smart, relevant choices for our team, our culture, etc.

Pat: That’s a great segue to another question: How do agile marketing methodologies align with an organization’s current project management office (PMO) methodologies? In other words, must we abandon current methods, or can agile marketing strategies complement what we’re doing now to manage and deploy marketing? 

Andrea: You don’t have to strictly use one or the other, or reject more traditional PM tools — you can marry the two approaches. Where we get into trouble, however, is when people who’ve come up in a very traditional project management style expect to still run their super-strict Gantt chart or adhere to all deadlines. Agile is much more about accepting that despite our plans, they’ll never go exactly the way we think they will — something will change those plans. What’s that line? “Planning is important, plans less so.” Agile is there to help manage uncertainty.  

Pat: I’m really happy to hear you say that you can marry the two approaches and still be effective.  I’m in charge of governance and process development for one of our large accounts. I always try to remember that plans are often just words on paper. We have to overlay those plans with common sense and practicality. Are there tools that can help a marketing organization do that and become more agile?

Andrea: The tools conversation is one that people want to have — if you have a tool that supports you or holds you back, that matters. Our client teams that were agile before the lockdowns went into place last spring say that daily stand-up meetings saved them. Likewise, there were many teams that didn’t have such tools, went into lockdown, and realized they needed to change the way they worked.

The tools you select depend on the size of your team and the complexity that you’re willing to bring into your process. There are lots of really easy tools to help you get started. For example, I’m a Trello fangirl — it works a lot like sticky notes on a wall, but they’re digital and can hold attached files. Also, during trainings lately, we’ve used Miro. It’s designed to be a digital whiteboard. Another good one is All of these tools are easy to use and have a low learning curve to get up and running. I recommend going for these kinds of options before you go spend a whole bunch of money on a big project management system that may just be overkill.

Pat: You mentioned the pandemic and how companies began to shift the way they work. Can you share an example (or two) of clients that successfully use agile marketing? 

Andrea: One great example is Workiva, a cloud-based reporting compliance platform. What they’ve managed to do this year is create visibility around their whole scope of marketing work. A lot of people external to that function didn’t know what they were working on. Once they got that visibility, in part by using the tool by the way, it allowed them to really get their day back. People now better understand their workload. Now they can focus on high-value work instead of just work. Having that visibility and openness has been really powerful.

Another strong example is HSBC, a multinational investment bank and financial services holding company. They’ve been so amazing to work with because of their organizational commitment to agile marketing. They’ve devoted the time and resources to figuring it out and making it work. They’ve also allowed some of their teams the latitude to say, “We’re super excited and want to adopt this now.” They’ve given them the tools and the freedom to go and experiment, and then collect all those lessons — here’s what works and here’s what doesn’t.

Pat: So, for all the companies out there considering agile marketing, what advice would you give them to get started?

Andrea: Leadership buy-in is huge. It’s rare that you see a team within a larger organization pick up agile marketing on their own and expand — they’re going to hit walls if no one is supporting them outside of their bubble. I’d also say don’t use agile on individual projects as a way to get started. Agile frameworks are designed to work on the team level. People run into trouble when they do a pilot project. It feels like a low-risk way to try agile, but it doesn’t work. An agile team works 100% in agile. Projects, no. Teams, yes. It’s harder—I won’t lie—but it works.

Pat: In other words, you shouldn’t pilot agile with projects?

Andrea: That’s correct. Even if you devote all of your projects to agile, that won’t work. For example, if you’re a content marketer and you’re on five agile projects as the content contributor, then you’ve got five daily stand-up meetings. That’s not how this is supposed to work. The power of a daily stand-up is that you go to one for 15 minutes and now you have perfect clarity on what you’re supposed to be doing for the next 24 hours. Agile only works at the team level. That said, you can do this functionally, for example, with a content team. Best-in-class teams break silos and form cross-functional teams organized around one goal — a single stage of the customer journey or a persona, for example. Now that team has one stand-up and one backlog with all its work in it. That’s where the magic is.

Pat: Because the success of agile is so dependent on a team, the team leader role must be critical, right?

Andrea: Yes, the team leader can make or break the agile process. The team leader is the single point of entry — whatever work goes to that team goes through that leader. It’s a big job. Getting the right person into that seat is important.

Pat: What’s the number-one thing that makes an agile marketing organization successful? 

Andrea: This sounds a little self-serving since I run a training organization, but I think it’s education. You have to equip an agile team — educate them broadly about agile ways of working and not just Scrum. They need to understand what Kanban is; they need to understand waste reduction and limiting work in the system, and more. You wouldn’t tell someone to go build a car without providing education and training. The nice thing about where we are in the agile marketing revolution is that there are a lot of ways to do this — marketing certifications, webinars, and more.

Pat: Agencies differ from enterprise marketing organizations. But they also share the same goals. How do those similarities apply to agile? Do you see differences?

Andrea: An agency has multiple clients, so it can be more challenging to offer full transparency — if we have a cross-functional team that’s serving multiple clients, it can’t necessarily show all the clients all the things they’re doing for every client. In fact, they don’t really want to do that. And so, it can be challenging to manage multiple inputs into a team’s backlog. But ultimately, everyone benefits when the agency and brand-side marketers are agile. If there’s a shared understanding of what that means, the two can work better together.

Pat: That’s great to hear. In our agency, we’re having more conversations about agile and our clients are as well. Knowing we can marry some of our methodologies means that getting to an agile transformation is hopefully the next step. That’s a good thing.

Andrea: I agree!

Pat: Thank you so much for sharing your time and your insights. It was such a pleasure talking to you!

Andrea: You’re most welcome.

Patricia McManus serves as vice president, account director, at The Lacek Group, a Minneapolis-based, data-driven, loyalty, experience and customer engagement agency that has been delivering personalization for its world-class clients for more than 30 years. The Lacek Group is an Ogilvy company.

Andrea Fryrear, cofounder of AgileSherpas, oversees training, coaching, and consulting efforts for enterprise agile marketing transformations. She specializes in organizational design and executive coaching, and supports her team on their own coaching and training efforts. Andrea is one of the co-authors of the ICAgile Marketing Agility curriculum, as well as two books on marketing agility: Mastering Marketing Agility and Death of a Marketer. She also holds numerous agile certifications. Prior to founding AgileSherpas, Andrea spent over a decade in marketing, working as a content strategist, content marketer, project manager, and editorial assistant for both brands and agencies.