What does Agile mean for marketing?

In small loops to big impact

Peter Desmyttere
April 30, 2020
⏱ 11 min. read

Each marketing team wants to work as efficiently as possible within an external environment that is becoming increasingly agile, uncertain and complex. Agile working – in which multidisciplinary teams search for concrete results via result-oriented sprints and short cycles – is presented as a potential solution. Agile experts know for sure: a sequence of targeted, short-term actions works better than long-term campaigns in certain cases. But is that really the case? And if so: how do I get started? Marketers are left with a lot of questions when they want to introduce agile working within their organisation. In this article I list the most common questions (and answers) for you.

What is Agile marketing?

The ingredients of agile marketing are multidisciplinary teams, a series of sprints, experimenting, deleting and holding back. It is an agile, flexible way of working that originated within IT departments. It's just about the opposite of working at a waterfall where a project is brought to the market via predefined steps or processes. Spotify is regarded as a perfect example of agile working, as this video clearly illustrates.

The idea behind agile marketing is that campaigns or projects that do not produce the desired results also cost relatively less money. After all, when results are disappointing, you stop. If the results are positive, you put more money and energy into it.

Agile emerged as a movement in 2001 when 17 software developers wrote their so-called Agile Manifesto. In doing so, they wanted to oppose the overload of processes and tools, the excessive focus on documenting processes, the lack of co-creation with customers and the resistance to question predetermined plans.

For which marketing projects is agile marketing meaningful?

The basic principle of the authors of the Agile Manifesto was that pre-defined processes work great when developing standard products, but they stand in the way of innovation. Too much organization or rules stands in the way of the creation of successful new projects. When innovating, an organization has to adapt quickly, work no-nonsense and throw unnecessary rules overboard. Achieving success thanks to progressive insight, learning by doing in short cycles in which concrete results are paramount. 

Should everything on the right side of the column be ignored? No, they are only less suitable for innovative processes, projects or campaigns.  Within a marketing environment I am thinking of launching a new product, entering a new market, developing new strategic marketing tools (e.g. webshop), repositioning marketing messages or responding to new customer needs. In these scenarios, it is certainly worth considering working agile within your marketing team.

What is the difference between Agile, Scrum and Lean in marketing?

If you read the literature on Agile, you will learn that agile and scrum are very close to each other. They are both built around a flexible way of marketing products, projects or campaigns through a series of sprints and are regarded by many as the same. Wikipedia sees scrum as a part of working agile. Spotify has gradually thrown 'scrum' overboard as a term and put 'agile' at the forefront as a central work culture within the organisation.  

Lean working stands for throwing everything that does not lead to customer value overboard. Rather, it is aimed at structuring complete organizations, limiting them to their pure essence. However, there are also many similarities between agile and lean because both focus on the end result and constant improvement. 

Is Agile at odds with a planned way of working?

The answer to this question is double. On the one hand, agile does away with long-term planning, predefined processes and hierarchical control by management. But it in no way means that agile would be synonymous with chaos, lots of ideas but no deeds, freedom, joy, impulsive decisions or lack of vision. After all, opponents of agile working are quick to raise these words.

The diagram below proves that plans are at the forefront of agile methodology. Because every sprint is experienced as a learning circle or learning curve, the plan will be adjusted or refined after every sprint.

Agile marketing therefore follows the same basic logic as a 'normal' marketing campaign that usually starts from a long-term planning in which various marketing actions are launched and results are measured at a certain point in time. However, the most important differences are:

  • the plan is adjusted after each sprint or learning curve
  • the focus is on the design and development of short-term actions 
  • the testing and analysis of results happens much faster 
  • at the end of the sprint a decision is made each time: stop, adjust or extend the marketing actions in their entirety?

A plan or vision is therefore indispensable in order to successfully get started with agile marketing. Within that vision, people will respond quickly, adjust and interact with colleagues and customers. In this way, the plan becomes stronger and more market-oriented every time. Growth through progressive insight, in other words.

Compare agile marketing with a long journey in which the final goal is determined, but the route towards it can be adjusted as soon as there are new insights, other developments or changing circumstances. Working agile feels a bit like a new way of working, doesn't it? Marketers or marketing teams often need a new mindset for this. After all, you don't 'do' it, you 'are' it.

How do I make my marketing team Agile?

I repeat: by 'being' agile, you make a difference. Marketing managers who want to work more agile and flexible within their team based on pre-defined plans, processes and tools prefer to save effort. Agile marketing is at its best in an organizational culture where control is not central and where team members are allowed to make strategic and operational decisions.

Does it surprise you that agile marketing is picked up the fastest in start-ups and scale-ups? Isn't it? After all, they already have a communicative culture in which competent people get the confidence to make decisions. Marketeers in large organisations will more often fight against the principle that new ideas first have to go through one or more managers, consultation committees or board meetings. 

Step 1 in making your marketing team agile is defining one project or campaign with which you will learn to work agile. It is impossible to make your entire marketing strategy agile. As mentioned above, agile has little added value for standard projects or always-on campaigns where there is no discussion or where there is little innovation. It is important that the project has a clear long-term vision or objective: e.g. a better user experience, more leads, more customers from a certain region, more turnover by existing customers, ...

Step 2 is to appoint a project owner (agile coach, scrum master, squad leader, ...). He or she has the role of 'facilitator' who ensures that the agile process runs smoothly and that the agile process is implemented correctly. Attention: there is no authority or leadership as the team itself decides which direction a sprint will take. 

Step 3 is composing the project team (the squad). You lay the foundation of your project team with colleague marketeers who can work well together in a multidisciplinary team. This is complemented by stakeholders within the company who provide added value in order to achieve results from action plans to action. These can be, for example, colleagues from sales, product or IT. Think carefully about adding managers to the project team. After all, there is a risk that they will not get out of their role as managers. If different agile teams are at work, then managers often have more added value on letting the teams function well instead of wanting to score within a team with their own success. It is extremely important that teams don't look up to each other for solutions first! 

Finish your team with much needed externals. That can be a client, a freelancer, someone from your marketing agency or an (agile) coach. Teams with little experience are often assigned an agile coach. The role of clients should not be underestimated either! Customer collaboration' is one of the 4 pillars of the Agile Manifesto.

An important point of attention is the size of the team. The bigger, the less agile your team becomes! Spotify limits their squads to a maximum of 8 people. I think that's an excellent benchmark for those who want to get started with agile.

In step 4, the project team gets to work. On a regular basis (weekly, fortnightly, monthly, ...) they talk to each other, sharpen the plan, develop actions that they launch in the market, give feedback to each other and perform targeted analyses that lead to a new sprint. Very important is the analysis that follows at the end of the sprint. What are we going to keep? What are we going to stop because it doesn't work? What are we going to reduce? What are we going to increase? These decisions will be taken into account in the next sprint. In this sprint, new actions will be launched that in themselves will lead to new decisions. This is how that progressive insight is created that makes Agile marketing so fascinating.

What tools exist for Agile Marketing?

Please never let this be the starting point for agile marketing! Agile is - as described earlier in this article - a mindset, not a technique. Still, tooling is an important phase within the agile marketing process because plans, ideas, actions and analyses require minimal documentation or planning. During the first session the question will obviously be asked how the team will pick this up, how they will communicate with each other and how they will report. 

The smaller the team, the easier the choice. After all, each team member brings a micro-organization with their favourite tools to the table. It is therefore a special challenge for the project leader to quickly determine an overarching way-of-working. Frequently used tools in agile marketing are:

  • whiteboards with post-its
  • office365 structures (combination of Excel planning, Word-docs, PPT presentations and chats in Teams)
  • project management tools such as Jira, Trello, Asana or Monday
  • marketing project management tools such as Husky
  • agile marketing tools such as Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)
  • Ready-made format software such as https://www.mindsettlers.com/ to experiment with agile

We use Husky as an agile marketing tool in our team (of course). In short, we use Husky as follows:

  • we create the agile project
  • the initial plan is described in the project notes
  • the sprints, milestones and actions are bundled in the planning of the project (see screenshot below)
  • the tasks of each team member hang within the project
  • any budgets are managed within the project
  • objectives are managed in a KPI dashboard within the project
  • discussions within the project take place in Husky (not by mail to avoid fragmentation of internal communication - see screenshot below)
  • files we hang on the right item in the project
  • at any time we can download a project status (PDF) to make reporting fast and easy
  • we can grant access to the project to colleagues, management, stakeholders or external parties who are not in the project team (read-only, no editing rights).

That way we have all the information before, during, between and after the team meetings in one central place. Husky is an all-in-one solution for agile marketing projects. Husky is also our planning tool for non-agile projects. This allows us to keep all projects and schedules in one central tool.

What advantages and stumbling blocks will marketing teams experience working with Agile?

You read it previously: agile requires a significant shift in mindset and collaboration within the organization. Teams without experience will have to discover and grow in the way they apply agile in the organization. However, the bonus is worth it, I promise you that. Within the many literature you can read many concrete benefits where one is already more tangible or measurable than the other.

From my personal experience with working agile within our marketing team, I can already confirm these 3 concrete, tangible and measurable benefits:

  • the motivation and involvement of the team is much greater
  • the time to market is shorter
  • results are more quickly measurable and available

The stumbling blocks that I personally experienced when working agile in marketing teams are:

  • the organization is not ready for it (no agile culture)
  • the team is multifunctional, but fails to work well together
  • Due to lack of experience, the agile thought quickly goes missing (the whole thing bores to 'meetings' in itself).
  • there is no project owner, so the momentum and enthusiasm of the project is lost
  • there's no time to experiment (management is pushing its method)
  • there are soloists in the team who do not work together enough and do not have an eye for the expertise of others (they constantly fall back on their own micro-organisation).

However, all the stumbling blocks described above do not have to completely undermine agile thinking and working in your organization. They can be countered ab-so-luut by:

  • giving agile a chance (if necessary as an experiment)
  • Assemble teams based on 'enthusiasm' (colleagues are free to choose whether they are part of the team).
  • a strong project owner with a lot of emotional intelligence
  • give a project time to blossom

A final word with tips on how to introduce Agile in your marketing team 

Have I convinced you - as a marketer - of the importance of working agile in your marketing team? That's good. I firmly believe that in the future marketing teams won't be able to cope with just long term campaigns and always-on communication actions built around existing products and markets.

Start your agile marketing mindset with a small, flexible campaign. Don't make it too complex from the start. Realize that learning-by-doing is not only your destiny, but also a technique that will give your team joy of work and personal enrichment. Think from a concrete vision or need and involve your clients in your agile project(s). Start a quest for the ideal project team and accept that not everyone in your team can or wants to work agile. Test quickly, fail quickly and above all, learn quickly from the results. Keep the end goal in mind, but enjoy the route towards it.

Good luck!