Trends 2021: Refining agility and bubble trouble

As we approach 2021, Marketing Week has identified the key opportunities and challenges that will shape marketers’ working world. In the third instalment we look at the need to refine agile frameworks and stepping outside your bubble.


Our coverage of the ‘trends’ for the year ahead is slightly different this year.

Yes, we are flagging what we think you should be spending your time and money on, and why, but equally it is a commitment from us to focus on these topics in 2021 to help you better navigate the year ahead.

There’s little point flagging these challenges as important without going the extra mile and offering analysis and insight into how to tackle them.

It’s part prediction, part rallying call, part contents for 2021.

Refining agile frameworks

AgileMuch has been discussed about what a return to the office might look like. From socially distanced desks and sterilised meeting rooms to teams rotating their days in the office, many businesses are considering a hybrid approach for 2021 based on a mixture of in-person and remote working.

The fact working from home has become the norm is something organisations will need to think hard about, especially as a proportion of their workforce may now prefer the flexibility of remote working.

Google and Facebook, for example, expect employees to work from home until at least the summer of 2021, while Twitter told its staff they can work from home “forever”. The social media company claims it is “uniquely positioned” to make long-term remote working successful given its focus on decentralisation.

The notion of the hybrid workplace could certainly prove tricky to navigate. While everyone was working from home the status quo of Zoom calls has been maintained, but in 2021 brands will need to consider how to successfully engage teams when half of the people are in the office and the other half are sitting in their spare room.

Couple with this the rise of agile working practices, spurred on by the impact of Covid-19. Companies have seen the advantages of bringing small teams – or squads – together to work on the fast delivery of projects to meet urgent consumer needs.

Trends 2021: Adopting a two-speed strategy and embracing failure

Pharmaceutical giant GSK, for example, was already well on its agile journey before the pandemic hit. The company’s Edge division, which spans global media, operations, capability, content and partnerships, holds scrum meetings jointly with agencies Publicis Production and Tag. Meetings are limited to half an hour, with six to eight people, and take place twice a week.

The way a brand like GSK has put a framework in place will help it bring the agile working approach to life once teams return to the office. People are selected for squads based on their skills, rather than seniority, and given clear objectives for their short-term projects or ‘sprints’.

The key for marketers to make agile successful in the context of 2021, according to Uber at least, is to give teams “freedom within a framework”. The idea is that teams work best with a universal vision set by HQ that can work across regions and disciplines, but also has the flexibility to be made locally relevant.

Brands that have started to work with a more agile mindset during 2020 will need to think about how to bring that approach to life in the hybrid office environment, especially if they want to deal with the complexity of the new working world. CR

Bursting the bubble

BubbleConcern there is a disconnect between some marketers and their customers has been growing for several years. The last twelve months has only exacerbated the sense there is a gap between how marketers believe customers behave and how they do.

Given the circumstances, it’s perhaps understandable. Out of necessity, more time than ever has been spent staring at spreadsheets in search of the answer to customer need, or the silver bullet to survival and recovery. If there is a marketing bubble, more have retreated into it.

For many, business in 2020 was about survival, but with the shards of light offered by the rollout of a vaccine and (at the time of writing at least) the hope of an EU trade deal, 2021 might offer a chance to get back on the front foot. And with it, the need to step out the bubble. Real life is out there, not in Excel or video conferences with colleagues.

The most successful marketers are those who subscribe wholeheartedly to the Mark Ritson theory on market orientation – you are not your customer. Accept that and you are forced to find out what they think, feel and need. Don’t and you’re left with insight gathered from observing what you and your peers think, feel and need, which is far removed from customers.

True insight can not be found in data alone. Again, the last 12 months will only have served to deepen the devotion that has limited the effectiveness of marketing. We can all likely agree customer behaviour this year is not going to be indicative of what’s next.

This year should be about discovery. CMO turned CEO of Giffgaff, Ash Schofield recently told us: “Marketers have a great advantage in that they can provide an insight-led vision of the future, but they can also describe how we’re going to get there. If you can do that, you’re valued because you’re solving problems for a business.”

This is absolutely the case. But in order to deliver this Venn diagram of customer and company value, they need to invest in research tools, new and old. It’s the only way out of the bubble.

The smart marketers I have spoken to over the last few months know it’s more important than ever to understand customers and offer their businesses the “insight-vision of the future” Schofield advocates. This can’t be done exclusively via Excel, or observation of peers. It’s to step outside and discover. RP