It’s tempting to be cynical but ‘agile’ is the real deal

Agile might be a much derided buzzword but when marketers take their cues from software developers and begin to work in an ‘agile’ way it can offer big benefits to ways of working.


‘Agile’ and ‘agility’ are much derided buzzwords. The much-publicised failures by the likes of Publicis to make themselves agile have not helped the view that it is the emperor’s new clothes.

However, a few recent experiences have changed my opinion. Firstly, I sat with some of the UK’s most respected marketers as they talked through their challenges, all of them using the word agile – and not just as a buzzword. These folks use real agile methodologies.  

The second experience was during one of my regular lecture series. One of the marketers in the room working for an energy company talked about how it would take four to six weeks to get an email sent to their consumers. Hardly agile!   

Third, I have been working through my own 2019 marketing plans and, with a change in the market and a much bigger opportunity facing us than we anticipated, I now have to change our approach to execution, as that part of our strategy has shifted. We simply will not be able to deliver what we need to if we do what we’ve always done! 

Adopting an ‘agile’ approach

You’ve probably heard of agile with respect to software development. It replaced the more traditional ‘waterfall’ approach, which meant creating huge specification documents that were then handed over to developers, who created software to fit them. Inevitably, by the time the project was ready, the requirements had changed and the whole thing would be shelved. When you hear about large-scale IT projects failing, the waterfall approach was often the root of the problems. 

In an attempt to fix this, developers came up with agile methodologies. Its manifesto states that there are “better ways of developing software…that values individuals and interactions over processes and tools, working software over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration over contract negotiation and responding to change over following a plan”.

‘Agile’ does not mean the opportunity to ditch marketing strategy for whatever happens to be the tactic of the day.

Suffice to say, agile software development won as it delivered more visibility, transparency, predictable costs, higher quality and more adaptability to changes. 

Over time, the agile way of working has been recognised as a suitable approach for other parts of a business. And, it would not be a new approach unless it had its own manifesto, so the agile marketing manifesto was created in 2012. It promised to use learning over opinions and conventions, customer-focused collaboration over silos and hierarchy, flexible over rigid planning and small experiments over a few large bets.

Cynics might react like I did: this just sounds like, well, a normal approach to implementing marketing plans. That cynicism might be misplaced, however, as the origins of agile in a marketing context came from startups – mainly tech brands developing websites or apps not FMCG brands in your local Tesco. 

I have some insider knowledge here; the company I work for implements large-scale ecommerce projects for some of the world’s largest travel and loyalty brands. We use agile for software project development in highly-complex, fast-changing environments – in many cases where the client is remote – and there is a lot on the line.

Making ‘agile’ a success in marketing

I have seen the success of agile first hand. I also ran innovation programmes using a series of agile ‘sprints’ where you create ideas, test solutions and roll out prototypes in just five days, focusing on customer acceptance as part of the process. And, yes, it really worked – we launched some amazing new products on the back of this agile process. 

Let’s look at one of the key tenets of agile: the ‘scrum’.  A list of tasks is developed by a team to achieve their goals. The ‘scrum master’ sets priorities, identifies required resources and manages sprints. A daily 15-minute standing meeting is held where each member of the team answers three questions: what did I do yesterday? What will I do today? Are there any obstacles that stand in my way? 

Proponents of agile claim you get more done, get the right things done, adapt faster, build collaborative and self-organising teams and improve communications within a team and with senior management. Notwithstanding the heated arguments for and against the phrase ‘agile marketing’, I don’t think anyone can argue this is a bad way of approaching the day-to-day.

So, let’s really say what agile is: a tactical approach in which teams identify priorities, collaborate and focus their collective efforts. It does not mean the opportunity to ditch marketing strategy for whatever happens to be the tactic of the day. Marketing strategy is not agile but the implementation of said strategy could be.  

As writer Scott Brinker says: “Agile management is a way to execute a strategy when either a  the environment in which you’re operating is fluid and shifting, and you want to rapidly sense and respond to those changes; or b the media in which you’re rendering your strategy has fast feedback loops giving you the valuable option to optimise your execution quickly and cheaply.”

That summarises my current marketing challenges, the issues being raised by the senior UK marketers I shared the room with, and the size of the missed opportunity for the aforementioned energy company that take weeks to send out an email.  

So, maybe we need to take another look at agile. It may not be in a state of polished perfection or, indeed, the only way of working. But maybe the emperor is actually wearing clothes after all! 

Colin Lewis is CMO at OpenJaw Technologies



There are 2 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Simon Hayhurst 18 Jan 2019

    Pedant alert: Its “cues”, not “queues”.

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