Buying into the philosophy of agile marketing

‘Agile’ means different things to different people but at its heart is a responsive approach all businesses can use, as Marketing Week’s roundtable in association with Workfront revealed.

In a 24-hour economy where there is no such thing as clocking off for the customer, agile marketing is supposed to be able to absorb the changes from a rapidly evolving marketplace and adjust its responses, while making sure it does not lose sight of the company’s end goals.

Definitions of ‘agile’ vary, from a formalised process of product development to a more general attitude towards change, but in any case responsiveness is key. It requires a seamless interplay between different departments and disciplines across the organisation to deliver the whole package of customer experience. Speed, quality and flexibility are all vital attributes.

This is the theory. Attendees at Marketing Week’s roundtable on agile marketing, in association with Workfront, found the reality somewhat different.

“It’s all because the buying transaction has moved from being business-driven to customer driven,” said Pippa Collett, programme manager at Cisco. “Customers inform themselves, which means we’re no longer in control of the message.”

Alex Bates, marketing director at Page Group, added: “As a business, you can now react to what people are saying and doing. This creates an environment where it’s all about test-and learn.”

Fast feedback

Marketing plans of old may have been neatly built and executed but it often did not become clear for some time how effective they were, according to Jane Bloomfield, head of sales and marketing at Kantar Millward Brown.

The panel agreed that a process of test-and-learn is vital if brands are to work effectively. Ideas need to be generated, built  on and released in the shortest of lead times. The faster route to market is usually the best. 

Test-and-learn is becoming a core procedure and for executives who have experienced it, there is a stark contrast if they move back into a traditional structure.

Customers inform themselves, which means we’re no longer in control of the message.

Pippa Collett, Cisco

“I used to work in a very small, agile team where we were doing things, failing fast and moving on. Now I have moved into a big team where it’s so slow. We’re looking for ways to energise ourselves and move beyond annual planning cycles where the day it’s done, it’s out of date,” Cisco’s Collett said.

Although the buzz might be about agile today, that is not to suggest that agile marketing exists in a state of polished perfection or that it is the only acceptable way of working in the modern world.

Premal Patel, commercial director for Sainsbury’s at Catalina, admitted: “The market has changed, habits have changed and consumers aren’t loyal any more. Even at board level there’s a lot more tolerance around trying new things. We don’t need to get things perfect any more.”

READ MORE: Santander adopts agile marketing approach as it looks to increase effectiveness

Managing mindsets

Interestingly, while Patel mentions that there is a tolerance at board level for agility and a less-than-perfect approach, this experience is not universal, warned Sandrine Martin, global campaign and analytics lead at GfK. She said: “Agile is a trendy word but more importantly it’s about how you change the mindset in the company.”

It was reiterated time and again how vital cultural alignment is to agility. A truly agile organisation needs the moving parts of so many different departments to all work together that if only half of them subscribe to the idea, the company creates roadblocks for itself.

From left: Sandrine Martin, GfK; Anouschka Elliott, Royal Bank of Canada; Russell Parsons, Marketing Week; Simon Griggs, Workfront; Sara Demonti, Apple; Alex Cullen, M&S; Premal Patel, Sainsbury’s at Catalina; Jane Bloomfield, Kantar Millward Brown; Alex Bates, Page Group; Pippa Collett, Cisco

Cultural alignment, it was agreed, involves alignment on metrics and key performance indicators, as well as an agreement on how fast the organisation needs to move to achieve results. Executives admit that it is more difficult for some sections of the organisation to accept the agile mindset than others.

“If you’re in a sales environment, it’s about winning. If you’re looking at agile culture, you need to accept that not everything works every time,” warned Bates, at Page Group.

Leadership in this case, is everything. “It starts at the top. If someone is very focused on the customer and clear on how they are going to engage with them, it will naturally filter down,” Kantar’s Bloomfield suggested.

Many aspects fall under the umbrella of leadership but attendees agreed that clear accountability and responsibility are important, as is the need to delegate. Martin at GfK said: “I need to know when it’s important to say no. I need to trust that I can pick the best person to fit this project to and I need to step away from the micromanagement. We need to trust our teams.”

Delegation has to be intelligent, however. There has been a tendency, some executives suggested, for leaders to take a shopping list of needs and rain the tasks down on individuals. These people then find themselves swamped in multiple deadlines, all colliding and leaving no time to think.

Agile is a trendy word but more importantly it’s about how you change the mindset in the company.

Sandrine Martin, GfK

Martin said: “It’s important not to overwhelm people. Learnings need to come across every week and we need to find better ways of getting the messages across.”

Cisco’s Collett also pointed out that globalisation can create a “midnight monster” – continuous emails at unsociable hours preventing employees from switching off. “You have to think about how teams can work across different geographies. We consciously pick teams that are going to be able to work globally.”

Making sure technology is used wisely is at the heart of the agile organisation. Open messaging groups make sure everyone shares the same version of the truth and save time on catch-ups. However, email tends to limit unnecessary chatter, allowing people to get to the point. In such a fast moving environment, making good use of time is essential.

The irony is that working fluidly and flexibly with rapid accountability and the opportunity to work with fewer boundaries works only if there is structure.

“The paradox is that, particularly at the start, you need more structure to support you through change,” claimed Anouschka Elliott, global head of marketing and brand at Royal Bank of Canada Investor and Treasury services.

Catalina’s Patel added: “Working across a big retail group you have to have data experts in with the marketers. If they’re locked away in a separate room, you miss so many opportunities and you simply don’t unlock the value. Building cross-functional teams with data and a bit of operations and marketing fosters a lot of great ideas.”

Providing structure

It was pointed out during the session that adding structure and bringing teams together is not necessarily a physical change. Indeed, it can seem as though nothing has changed on the surface. However, encouraging staff to move around the organisation and share ideas is incredibly important.

Agile marketing is, ultimately, the fusion of a fast, iterative way of working with the traditional values of staying focused on  the end goal and tying all activity to defined KPIs and business outcomes.

Apple head of channel communications Sara Demonti said: “Culture is important and [so is] making sure that when brands work together there is alignment on what agility means. You need to know what those KPIs are and how fast to move to get results.”

Alex Cullen, head of brand for the convenience category at Marks & Spencer explained that it is easy to get carried away. It is therefore important to have someone in a project management role.

Workfront EMEA vice-president Simon Griggs suggested: “Have an approach that allows a central project manager to take control but then have value conversations with the people actually doing the tasks to move that project forward.”

A statement of the intended vision may also be helpful, but whatever the approach it is clear organisations need to get their teams to collaborate and buy into the philosophy.