‘Faster, slicker, smarter’: Meet the marketers rethinking agility

Agile working offers marketers the freedom to get things done at speed, but starting small and learning to pace yourself is key.

AgileWhether you see it as a way of working or simply a mindset, agile is a concept discussed by marketers the world over. With its roots in software development, agile working in its purest form is based on the principle of collaborative teams prioritising individuals over processes, customers over contracts and responding to change rather than following a restrictive plan.

Far from being daunted by the notion of scrums, squads and sprints, marketers are making significant gains by adopting agile ways of working that go well beyond just speed and efficiency.

But successful agile working requires a clear goal and framework, set against the backdrop of regular ‘retrospectives’ to assess progress and pivot if necessary.

Focusing as it does on non-hierarchical teams with clearly defined roles, agile working enables marketers to work with far greater autonomy, explains senior director of the global production ecosystem within GSK Consumer Healthcare’s marketing Edge division, Sandra McDill.

“Putting those basic foundations in place allows you to be much more agile from a mindset perspective in that it speeds things up and creates those efficiencies. It gives you the ability to test and learn quickly, because you’re doing it within a framework,” she says.

“If you approach it from the perspective of ‘We’re just going to do things faster’, unless you’ve got some roles in place you won’t be able to measure it and it will all fall down. It contradicts itself in that sense, so you need some foundations in order to really get this moving.”

We’ve got to keep that mindset of challenging the established norms, moving at the right pace, but not sacrificing creative quality to get there.

Pete Markey, TSB

McDill explains that agile is embedded into the GSK organisation as one of the key principles for success.

Her team within Edge (which spans global media, operations, capability, content and partnerships) pivoted from annual planning to monthly prioritisation, with a focus on delivering at speed rather than an obsession with perfection. Teams are drawn together based on their skills not seniority, working on projects rather than attempting to “revolutionise the whole business”.

“You don’t have to come in one day and sweep across everyone and say suddenly ‘We’re all agile’. In teams we can start to adopt those practices and we can start delivering some of our projects in that way,” McDill explains.

Taking inspiration from the way Spotify sets up its squads, the rule of thumb is, if the team can’t be fed with two pizzas it’s too big. She tries to limit each scrum meeting – held jointly with agencies Publicis Production and Tag – to around six to eight people. The thinking is that you can’t tackle more than three meaty topics in a 30-minute meeting.

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Before introducing this agile approach, McDill’s team sat down with their agencies to define what agile means to them, determine the objective of the scrum meetings and identify the benefit of the retrospectives. GSK and its agencies then set up shared work boards to track progress and agreed to meet twice weekly, including a retrospective.

“You need to agree on what your brand of agile is between the two of you, so you don’t come at cross purposes,” McDill explains.

“It’s brilliant. I can log in and see the top 20 things that collectively I and the agency globally are working on. Having access to that information is so important, particularly when we’re all working from home.”

The big rethink

At TSB, agile processes are used for delivering specific projects, with a view to breaking down the walls between teams to make things happen. CMO Pete Markey used the development of a ‘friend get friend’ referral scheme 18 months ago to bring agile thinking into the marketing team. He organised the team in an agile formation, who then delivered the scheme within six weeks.

Markey is a big believer that you can train an agile approach. The important thing is understanding your objective and selecting the talent needed to bring the project to life.

“It’s about framing the exam question the right way and working with colleagues in the business. At an executive level, it’s about asking ‘How do we together get alignment on what we’re trying to achieve, because ultimately we all want the business to succeed? So, how do we agree on the way we get our resource to work to make that happen?’”

That thinking informs how the marketers deliver campaigns, think about the customer experience, analytics and performance management, which has proven particularly relevant in the context of the pandemic. Markey, in fact, credits Covid-19 with helping his team rethink what is possible.

You don’t have to come in one day and sweep across everyone and say suddenly ‘We’re all agile’.

Sandra McDill, GSK

“It was a real breakthrough moment when we found if you reframe your thinking suddenly you can do things you might not have thought you could do before. Yes, you can brief films and get them out in two weeks’ time. You can produce letters and other comms really quickly when you need to,” he reflects.

“While the Covid experience has been challenging for everyone, if we’re taking any positive learnings out it is reframing the art of the possible, reframing how we work with agencies and each other to get stuff done faster, slicker, smarter and better.”

Agility is also considered one of the key leadership capabilities at Mars Petcare and is core to the company’s philosophy on change management. There are three key components – being at ease with the pace of change, dealing with ambiguity and having the ability to challenge the process.

The notion of continuous improvement and being ‘good enough’ rather than aiming for perfection is key, explains marketing portfolio director Arthur Renault. He acknowledges, however, the shift to agile thinking has taken time to implement.

“It’s not just agile, it’s even the notion of a post-mortem and learning from your mistakes. About five or 10 years ago in FMCG it didn’t feel comfortable to tackle that. Starting to look at our failures as opportunities has accelerated over the past two or three years,” he explains.

Learning from previous mistakes and moving at speed helped Mars Petcare get pet food to its customers during lockdown. It launched a direct-to-consumer website for its natural dog and cat food brand, James Wellbeloved.

“We went for simple technology, it was just an add-on for the website and they could order products. Is it the most sexy website? No, but it was more than good enough to serve the pets and now on a monthly basis we review and say ‘How can we make it better?’” Renault explains.

Trust the talent

While agile working practices are not necessarily appropriate for all products all the time, you can use agile thinking to shift a legacy brand into the next gear. Sales of cat litter brand Catsan, for example, surged with people working from home and cats spending more time indoors, encouraging Renault’s team to rethink the marketing strategy.

“Catsan is a legacy brand that’s been quiet in terms of news over the past few years, however we had a few weeks to get above the line and therefore part of the team worked in an agile framework,” he explains. “It’s not about a whole team or whole department, it’s about leaders and the certain moments you need to embrace that agility.”

An agile mindset, coupled with a conscious decision to trust the talent in the team, is helping Noble Foods adjust to the uncertainty of Covid-19.

The company had an in-store promotion planned for its Happy Egg Co brand focused on young families. But price promotion and off-shelf activity in supermarkets stopped, encouraging the brand manager on Happy Egg to suggest using influencers to reach families and the production of a cuddly toy Freda – the Happy Egg brand mascot – to entertain kids.

“We weren’t going to get the same level of coverage, but actually it engaged the audience in a really relevant way,” explains marketing controller Matt Davis. “There was freedom for [the brand manager] to work directly with the agency, knowing that she could come to me with those ideas and I’d back them.”

Happy Egg Co
The Happy Egg Co switched its focus to talk up the vitamin D properties of its eggs.

Likewise, as consumers started looking for natural ways to boost their immunity, the marketers decided to ramp up messaging around Happy Egg’s vitamin D quota. The team switched the budget into a TV campaign, adapting an existing 10-second ad to focus on vitamin D. From seeing the trend emerge, the marketers got the new creative on air within five weeks.

The marketing department also started contingency planning around ‘Lockdown 2.0’, thinking about how to adapt the Happy Egg message depending on the shift in consumer needs. They devised different forms of content on a tiering system, mimicking the UK government’s three-tiered Covid restrictions.

“It’s helping us to work smarter. We have got content that can be adapted, but because we’re approving things early the agency is able to adapt that message very quickly depending on where we’re at. It keeps us on brand,” Davis explains.

He believes a successful agile mindset comes from being clear on the objective, understanding the challenge at hand and having confidence in your strategy. It is also crucial that a leader gives their team the freedom to pursue the right solutions, he says.

“In one way it’s challenging them, but in another way it’s giving them that freedom. It’s judging them on their outputs and what they’re trying to do with their ideas,” says Davis. “If they come with well thought through ideas they’re going to get the backing to see them through.”

Pace yourself

Anyone thinking of adopting agile working is advised to start small and borrow the ideas that best suit marketing. It is important to remember change will take time and to continually review the system.

“The second you make it feel like it’s alien to marketing that’s when people get lost, so it’s more thinking about those agile frameworks and things you can borrow like setting up small teams, having a visual work-board, or setting up scrum meetings,” McDill suggests.

“Do you want to do it because you want to get projects delivered faster, or do you want your content to be more effective to consumers? If you think about those things and work back it’s much easier. Even simply looking at your talent and thinking ‘How can I make life easier for all of these people and make sure the marketing we’re doing is more relevant for our consumers?’ Between those two spaces there are small changes companies can make to be more agile and it builds over time.”

Renault agrees it is best to start with a small project as there is less at stake and the post-mortem won’t be as painful. Investing time in continuous improvement helps fuel the confidence to move on to a bigger project, he says, although change should come from the top.

It’s not about a whole team or whole department, it’s about leaders and certain moments you need to embrace that agility.

Arthur Renault, Mars Petcare

“If you as a leader tackle feedback from a positive angle people will be delighted to join those sessions and see the benefit. If you look at it from a punishment angle and you go there with stress, because the top management are going to be critical and negative, you continue to have people running away from it,” he says.

Markey advises marketers to find a challenge or opportunity they want to address and then galvanise other people in the business around it, finding allies in other teams. He believes the best issues have a commercial imperative, for example to grow in a certain segment or deepen a relationship.

“Then it’s about saying ‘We can’t just address this in the way we always would have done, because otherwise we would have fixed it sooner. How do we work in a way where we get a mini team of people together from different units to make that happen?’ Learn from stuff as you go, but start by getting that question right,” says Markey.

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While agile working practices prize speed and continuous development over a search for perfection, if the benefits are to be felt by marketers they need to get into a healthy rhythm.

Markey recognises the push to work fast, especially at the start of lockdown. But over the past few months his team have started to prioritise and pace themselves.

The quest for speed should not, therefore, be at the expense of quality. Markey sees a tricky balance to be struck between maintaining pace and agility, while also keeping the excellence bar high.

“We should never shortcut on quality. If I look at creatively where all brands need to go next, while I’m really proud of the work we did in lockdown, I don’t think you can stay in that mode. I don’t think forever and a day we want to see Zoom ads in people’s houses and two months from now our appetite for creative will change,” says Markey.

“We’ve got to keep that mindset of challenging the established norms, moving at the right pace, but not sacrificing creative quality to get there. I’d rather have the same energy and drive, but create more time to make sure the creative is super high quality.”