Marketing teams are being forced to run at a new, faster pace, driven by the need to juggle a growing array of tools and technologies in an increasingly digital context. The foundation of today’s marketing is the need to stand out in the supercharged media world, where it’s harder than ever to create impact. But the only variables that marketers can control are these: moving faster, and using new tools to support that. The challenges of transitioning from inspiration to execution are considerable, and require today’s creative teams to become much more agile. But agile thinking isn’t enough: marketers will adopt new technologies that support faster execution even as the work becomes more complex.
This report was sponsored by Wrike. The content was developed by Gigaom.
2 The Biggest Challenge: Standing Out
When asked about their biggest challenges in a recent survey by Wrike1 — and leaving to one side the existential purpose of marketing: to drive more sales — these are the complex of issues that animate marketers today: standing out, moving fast, doing more with less, and getting up to speed with new marketing tech. And the heaviest concentration is given to ‘developing creative, innovative campaigns that stand out in the market’: 37.2% of all surveyed said that is their first or second biggest challenge.
Some of the elements of this complex of needs are out of the hands of marketers or even the CEO: the pace of the market or innovation by competitors can’t be slowed. Likewise, the need to make more sales and doing more with less is an economic imperative, so to meet the most critical challenge — standing out in the market — the only variables that can be controlled are the blue and orange bars above: moving faster, and applying new tools for these new times. And if you consider those two closely, learning about and integrating new marketing technologies can be considered as one aspect of moving fast to keep up with the market. So, it’s clear that moving faster is probably the best lever that marketers have to gain an edge.
3 Going Agile
The most proven technique for accelerating how work gets done is agile, a set of principles that has grown from its initial use in software development, and now is spreading to many other disciplines and domains.
At the highest level, agile can be considered as an acceptance of iterative, incremental, and evolutionary work practices or patterns, also called ‘bottom-up’. This is in distinction to top-down, or ‘waterfall’ approaches where some project — like a marketing campaign — is planned in detail at the start and where there is little or no modification of the plan during its execution.
The problem with top-down is its inflexibility. Imagine the case where some feedback about the marketing campaign comes back in the first week suggesting reasons to modify the campaign in some way. In the agile approach, the possibility of modifications is anticipated, and the team is looking for opportunities to improve. The world is moving too fast to pretend otherwise.
The methods for agile marketing share some basic assumptions. One is that not everything can be fully analyzed in advance, so it’s best to assume that requirements for any activity or project might change. Another is that regular and open dialogue between the participants leads to the best decisions. As a result, agile methods — with names like Scrum, Kanban, or Lean — emphasize short ‘sprints’ of work by the team, with daily, weekly, or twice monthly periods of activity. After whatever length period is being used, the team convenes to assess results, and to adapt a plan of action for the next sprint.
Note that followers of agile techniques — in whatever domain, whether software development, marketing, or manufacturing — generally rely on graphical supports for the planning around their sprints. These can be blackboards on the factory wall, whiteboards with a cascade of post-it notes in a meeting room, or as is more generally the case these days, using an app to capture and share the information associated with plans and status of a sprint: tasks, assignments, deadlines, and so on.
In recent research2, marketing teams indicate a growing transition toward agile techniques: 24% say they are using an agile approach to manage their work today, 50.3% have been embracing some aspects of agile methods, and only 6.8% say they don’t use agile at all.
4 Being Agile
To better understand the lay of the land, I spoke with a number of marketing professionals who have adopted agile in their work, hoping to corroborate the idea that those who have made the greatest investment in agile would see the greatest return on that effort.
I spoke to my dear friend Deb Lavoy, who recently founded Narrative Builders after decades in marketing exec roles, a marketing consulting firm oriented toward business narrative. She observed that marketing teams are generally operating around a group of initiatives — research, advertising, web development, and so on — and team members are constantly having to jump back and forth from one initiative to another. As she said,
What I have found is that the most efficient way to manage marketing is to come up with three or four major ‘big rocks’ for the year, with a lot of white space, to be responsive to feedback, changes, and interrupts, like how things shift on the sales side, a new conference pops up, a competitor’s new new release.
She adopted agile years ago, and lays out the ‘big rocks’ as she calls them, each with its own Kanban boards, with task lists for the initiatives. As she says, ‘that was the first thing that was natural enough to not feel unnatural. Kanban is the only methodology I’ve been able to keep teams to. The only one that worked.’
The most important goal is to create ‘a common operating picture’ shared among the team. This winds up — in her case — being a combination of work management and document technologies. These — when integrated well — allow for the rapid context switching needed by a team hopping from one initiative to another.
Deb worked at least six years remotely: at one company she simply stopped going to the office after a reorganization led to her having no co-workers in the building. She believes that the agile approach she adopted allowed her distributed team to operate as effectively as it may have if colocated. She uses a two meetings per week approach: one meeting focuses on operations — coordinating work, planning next steps, and so on — while the second is explicitly about thinking, which is more futures oriented while operations is past and present focused.
Much of what Deb laid out was supported by Andrea Fryrear, a marketing manager at SurveyGizmo and MarketerGizmo, and a well-known advocate of agile marketing, and the author of Agile Marketing Styles: Your Guide to Finding the Right Agile Approach For Your Marketing Team. Her original motivation was exasperation with fat marketing plans that attempted — and failed — to lay out a two-year marketing plan in detail.
She has adopted — and she leads workshops on — a sprint-oriented agile approach. She explains it this way in a recent article:
Here’s how it works. For starters, your marketing team agrees on a list of priorities. Based on those priorities, you decide which tasks – including content marketing tasks – are most important. The team agrees to focus on those tasks that it can expect to accomplish during the next “sprint” (typically somewhere between one week and one month) – and it puts all other tasks on hold (on the “backlog”).
A sprint is a set period during which team members aim to complete a set amount of high-priority work that’s connected to a long-term plan. Teams work through one sprint after another, reassessing priorities each time.
When someone brings you a new request during a sprint, you may stop and address it only if it’s more important than what you’ve committed to. Otherwise, you assign it to a future sprint and return to your priorities.
An Agile approach enables you to become more effective without working more. You may get more done – or you may not. The point is that you’re more likely to get the right things done.
Her team has gone through ‘everything’ before settling on Kanban as a way to manage the status and plans. They found that a whiteboard and sticky notes are inadequate, so they’ve worked with various work management tools. The important thing is to be able to track status to avoid people waiting on others. This is compounded by marketing’s high level of reliance on freelancers, which raises issues about control.
One major related issue is the need for interdepartmental agreement on tools. Andrea believes the overhead is too high if different tools are used in departments that are working closely together. And she’s encountered internal resistance to adopting tools, what she calls the ‘Don Draper complex’ where people won’t change their ways, no matter what. So adoption is an area of real importance, and requires a great deal of work.
Andrea also suggested that marketers need to ‘be agile’ not just ‘do agile’, by which she explicitly said ‘even the method needs to be flexible.’
Morgan Norman is the vice president of marketing at Dialpad, and much of his experience gibes with Deb and Andrea’s. Like them, he tried many techniques originally because the companies we worked for were under-resourced, and he had no choice but to be lean: he experienced a lot of failures.
One important observation is that leaders have to adopt the agile mindset for it to work operationally. He didn’t thread the needle, but I will. If leaders don’t go along, agile marketing — or agile anything — won’t work.
Morgan also learned that not all members of a team want to be — or need to be — involved in all aspects of a sprint. That may be an instance of a general rule: he found that leaner, ‘pocketed’ teams were most likely to succeed with agile, but larger teams — aside from strategic policy setting — could run into problems.
And he found that the team members have to become adherents:
If you don’t pass the torch — where the people don’t believe that it’s good for them — it rapidly slows down.
That sounds like an echo of Andrea’s Don Draper complex: there has to be real adoption of the mindset, and not just tool use. Agile means experimenting, pushing new ideas out there, to try to learn from the customers. But tools are essential:
You really have to use a tool, because things can change so fast.
Like Deb, Morgan has had success with designated meetings on designated days week-by-week. One day, a sales meeting with pipeline review: a second for sales. Other days for financials, sign-ups, engineering: obviously, this needs to be adapted based on the specifics for the marketing group.
As an interesting aside, Morgan said that Dialpad has everybody work from home on Tuesday and Thursday, with no regular meetings on those days. Along with people being more engaged and happy, obviously this is another rationale for a shared tool across groups.
5 Conclusions and Takeaways
Agile thinking, methods, and tools are becoming increasingly commonplace as marketers are finding that it can become the motive force behind a new and faster tempo for marketing activities.
I spoke with a few battle-scarred veterans about agile marketing, and got strong support for our core thesis: those that invest most broadly in agile thinking, methods, and tools get the biggest return on that investment.
Here are the top level takeaways from the give-and-take I had with Andrea Fryrear, Morgan Norman, and Deb Levoy:
- Leaders’ support is essential to success. Getting adoption is hard, whether leaders or rank-and-file, but it is key.
- Agile works better in smaller social contexts, so stay as small as possible, in meetings and status updates.
- Whatever flavor of agile is being used, a weekly timeframe for meetings and updates seems normal.
- All of our experts swear by Kanban as a structuring approach, after having tried ‘everything’.
- The practitioners agree a work management tool is essential to manage the status of work planned and accomplished, and they cautioned about the friction and contention that can arise when a company adopts multiple, conflicting tools and techniques.
The implications are clear: modern marketers are becoming agile because they have few alternatives to run at the pace needed in today’s blistering economic race. And to make that work, adoption of Kanban — and a supporting work management tool — are essential factors for success.
1. How Marketers Get Things Done: The State of Agile Marketing Survey of 800 marketers, by Wrike, 2016.
2. How Marketers Get Things Done: The State of Agile Marketing Survey of 800 marketers, by Wrike, 2016.
7 About the Author: Stowe Boyd
I consider myself a work futurist and researcher. My focus is the future of work, and the tectonic forces pushing business, media, and society into an unclear and accelerating postnormal era.
I coined the terms ‘social tools’ in 1999, ‘publicy’ in 2009, and ‘hashtag’ in 2007.
I’m head of research at Gigaom, with a personal focus on work technology and the future of work.
I have over 250 stitches in my head, mostly from brain surgery.
I’ve spoken at dozens of conferences and events worldwide, including Web 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, GigaOM Net:Work, Reboot, Next, Mesh, Shift, Lift, SIBOS, Defrag, SxSW, SocialNow, and various TEDx events. I’ve contributed widely, to Fast Company, Back Channel, and dozens of other publications.
I was awarded a Master of Science in Computer Science, Boston University; a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and Natural Science, University of Massachusetts Amherst, with honors, magna cum laude; Phi Beta Kappa.
I was a software researcher/lecturer for ten years, an accidental entrepreneur, and have worked for numerous journals and analyst firms.