What Happens When a Marketing Department Adopts Scrum

Devon-McDonald by

Recently, I had the opportunity to catch up with Richard Delahaye, the Director of Digital Marketing at Intronis at the Boston Agile Marketing Meetup. Intrigued by commitment to using Scrum (a form of Agile) to manage his team’s marketing efforts, I asked him to answer a few questions about his experiences, challenges and successes with the methodology.

Richard, can you tell us a little bit about your team at Intronis?

I have a team of five full-time marketers in the digital marketing team and we are primarily responsible for email marketing, web marketing, and marketing operations. At Intronis, we sell backup solutions to IT service providers so our targets are a very specific type of business which means many mass-marketing channels are too broad for our purposes. We’re also in a crowded marketplace so one of our biggest challenges is figuring out who to stand apart from the competition.

The main priorities for my team are lead generation through the digital channels and feeding the Sales team with a constant flow of fresh leads and names for them to pursue. We also care about lead quality and look closely at the number of opportunities and deals that come from the leads we pass to Sales. We’re using an Agile methodology called Scrum — or at least a loose adaptation of it.

To round out the marketing group at Intronis under CMO Aaron Dun we also have additional people to cover content, event, database, and lead qualification functions.

What does Agile marketing mean to you? How do you define it?

Back in the day I was a web developer before switching to marketing so I have a limited idea of what software development is like. That’s where Agile was born. As I understand it the basic premise is that the software market moves too quickly for companies to be successful in taking on large, lengthy projects because by the time you finish the project, market needs have changed and what you built has become an expensive, useless relic or ‘white elephant.’

An example of this might be if you imagine you were at a company in the early 2000’s that decided to build a website that competed directly with MySpace.com — remember MySpace? Take too long on that project and guess what — your well-planned, well-built, tested-to-death, and perfectly-executed web site is obsolete because Facebook showed up and changed the game while you were still somewhere in the middle of your plan-build-test-launch cycle.

A way to move faster

The way this applies to marketing in my mind is that the marketing landscape is growing and changing all the time and if you aren’t able to adapt your marketing efforts quickly you will lose ground to the competition. Agile gives you the principles and tools to run your marketing in such a way that enables you to move faster. You can identify and stop doing mediocre activities while scaling up your best campaigns to produce a ‘lean, mean marketing machine’ that leaves your slower-moving competitors in the dust.

How were you introduced to Agile marketing?

About two years ago, working for Frank Days, who along with John Cass produces the Marketing Agility Podcast series and helps organize the Boston Agile Marketing Meetup Group.

As a team member under Frank, Agile really appealed to me. I came from a world where written, multi-page marketing plans that required endless review cycles were the norm. I’d find myself in situations where in Q3 of this year I was building a plan that detailed what I’d be doing all the way through to Q4 of next year. These plans have two major flaws: either they are 1) followed to the letter which usually results in under-performance, or 2) what is eventually done looks almost nothing like the original plan. Neither of these eventualities makes much sense so this approach always seemed strange to me.

What did you like about the Agile marketing approach?

Visibility

Another thing I really like is the visibility Agile provides into what the whole team is working on without long team meetings. At my previous company we had three-hour team meetings every 2-4 weeks where people had spent hours building beautiful PowerPoint decks about what went well while hiding all the problems. With Scrum meetings you get daily visibility into the good and the bad. If you have questions you can ask them while the work is being done instead of waiting for someone to provide a flowery summary for you after the fact.

I also liked the feeling that we were building, testing, and modifying a marketing ‘machine’ instead of just stringing together a bunch of individual, somewhat unrelated campaigns. The parallel in software development here is the idea of releasing new iterations of your software program so that at the end of each sprint you 1) have something that works, and 2) have improved on what you had before.

Marketing Oil Wells

An analogy I heard recently was the idea of building “Marketing Oil Wells” instead of the more common approach of filling a calendar with various campaigns. The oil well analogy appeals to me because marketers today need to go and find sources of targets and then build “oil wells” to tap those resources. An example of an oil well might be a blog on a particular topic that matters to your customers or an annual trade show that you and they attend every year. Furthermore, these oil wells need to be continuously monitored and adjusted for maximum efficiency and each new one built from the latest, most advanced blueprint.

When you have enough optimized, high-output oil wells in place, more and more of your lead targets each month will be fulfilled automatically, leaving you and your team breathing room to spend less time chasing lead goals and more time thinking creatively about growing your business.

How are you using Scrum today at Intronis?

Let me start by describing what it was like before we started using Agile. Here are some of the problems I encountered when I arrived:

  • Poor communication/collaboration between team members: I would hear people say “Oh that’s so-and-so’s area, I don’t know anything about that you’ll have to ask them.” This is inefficient, frustrating for the person asking the question and has the effect of putting the Marketing team in a bad light to name just a few of the problems with this statement.
  • “Important” projects delayed due to constant “urgent” requests: If you’re familiar with the Eisenhower Box, the team was spending all their time in the “Urgent” quadrants and not enough time in the “Important” quadrants, which meant infrastructure tasks like moving the website to WordPress or fixing broken tracking processes just weren’t getting done.
  • Rinse-and-repeat approach to Marketing activities: Because the important infrastructure projects weren’t getting done, marketing performance wasn’t being tracked accurately so the same things were being done over-and-over. The reason? “They worked before (we think).”

I started using Agile when I joined in November. We don’t use anything fancy, just a shared Google spreadsheet that lists tasks and projects with a few tabs: Sprint, Backlog, Done. To be honest, back then it was less Agile and more a case of me getting the team into a room every morning and going through everyone’s task list in turn and asking why things weren’t done yet!

However, I’m pleased to share that we’ve made some improvements since then. Now our typical week involves:

  • Monday: Sprint Planning Meeting where we plan the coming week.
  • Each Day: 15-minute stand-up Scrum Meetings where we limit the conversation to blockers i.e. reasons why a current task is not able to progress.
  • Friday: A “Grooming” session where we look through the backlog to make sure we know what the priorities are to fill up the scrum on the following Monday.

I’m also lucky to have a Scrum Master to keep us buttoned up. This individual organizes the meetings, watches the time, and keeps everyone on track — all of which keeps our flavor of Agile running smoothly. It also creates a nice dynamic in that I’m not the only one reminding everybody of what needs to be done all the time!

What is working well?

A shift in mindset

One of the benefits of an Agile approach is the “constant change” which inevitably wears down any resistance to change in team members. Every day priorities are shifting and people are being pulled off projects and added to new ones, so nobody ever says, “I can’t do that because I’m working on something else.” Instead, the conversation becomes, “How do we adjust priorities to make sure we’re working on the highest-value items?”

Minimum viable marketing

Applying the concept of the “minimal viable product” — borrowed from the software world — to campaigns is also exciting. We’ve had examples of emails or direct mail pieces that we’ve rushed out of the door to a small group of recipients without putting the ordinary finishing touches on. The idea is to get an early idea as to whether the campaign is likely to have legs. If we get nothing back we return to the drawing board, but if we see early potential we can apply additional resources to test and scale that campaign to maximum effect.

This means that as a team you spend less time working on campaigns that don’t work while enjoying the flexibility of mobilizing “all-hands-on-deck” when something really pops. We have a DM campaign running right now that involves more than half of the entire Intronis marketing function to get it out of the door, but we don’t blink because our prototype worked well so we can be confident it’s worth the effort to scale the campaign.

Avoiding distractions and maintaining clear priorities

Another great benefit of using Agile is that team members can say “no” without saying “no.” This is especially useful for junior members of the team, as typically they will assume that because someone senior to them in the organization has asked them to do something it is automatically more urgent and important than what they are currently working on.

Obviously, there will always be fires to fight, but for most requests Agile enables team members to say something like, “That’s a great idea. I’ll bring that to our Scrum meeting tomorrow morning to see where it fits with my other priorities,” or “I’ll put that in the backlog and see if I can fit it into my next sprint,” depending on the task. As a manager, this helps me because my team members don’t start doing work for other people without bringing it to my attention in the Scrum meeting first.

Do you have an example of results you achieved thanks to being agile?

Our best example of how Agile has helped us produce outstanding results to date is our Cryptolocker webinar that we ran back in January. Cryptolocker is a particularly scary computer virus that appeared late in 2013. As a marketing team, we first heard about it because one of our tech support guys did a small presentation in our main conference room to interested employees.

The content was so compelling that I asked him if he would do the same presentation as a webinar and he agreed. The webinar did not appear in any plans, we did not have a “slot” for it in the calendar, and we essentially broke every golden rule: we had no external speaker, we had no customer on the call to validate the content, and we probably promoted the webinar for less than one week before the event.

On the call we had just a tech support guy and a pre-sales engineer, but 600 registrants and over 300 attendees — making it hands-down our biggest webinar to date.

Agile helped us here because 1) we were in the mindset to move quickly and able put together a live event on a hot topic before any of our competitors did, and 2) we were reacting to market conditions which is at the core of the Agile philosophy. Nobody could have predicted that Cryptolocker would appear when it did, but our marketing process was flexible enough to capitalize on the opportunity it offered.

A few weeks back, we became aware of a new variant of Cryptolocker: Cryptowall. This was on a Wednesday. Knowing how hot a topic this is for our audience thanks to our January webinar, we put a blog post together the next day and emailed it to our house list on Friday. That email generated 1,500 clicks — another record!

What are your challenges with Agile in marketing?

Personally, one of the hardest principles to adopt is that opinions don’t matter. We all like to think that we’ve spent a long time building our marketing expertise so that’s a hard thing to accept, but it’s an important concept to embrace as part of Agile. Instead of relying on opinions to determine what makes good marketing, you need to rely instead on the data. At all times you need to ask: what is the data telling you?

As scary as that concept is, it can really work in your favor in unexpected ways. Your opinion doesn’t matter, but by the same token your team’s opinion doesn’t matter, either. Neither does the opinion of your boss, the CEO, or anyone! Only the data matters. Or, put another way, the market feedback you get when you test ideas as marketing campaigns.

So if you have a team member, colleague, or executive who insists that things have to be done a certain way, guess what — opinions don’t matter! Do both! Do it your way and do it their way, and while you are setting up the test, throw in a crazy third alternative. Get these different versions out into your marketplace and let the data tell you which idea works best. Some of the time you’ll be able to show your idea was the best, but more often than is comfortable, your idea may not perform as well as someone else’s. The good news is that no matter whose idea wins or loses, the whole company benefits. Because through Agile you are able to deploy and scale winning ideas more quickly and efficiently.

Another challenge we have is that we’re still not “fully Agile.” My Scrum Master is working on introducing story points and velocity to out processes, and we’re not doing reviews or retrospectives yet, which I’d really like to introduce. Our engineering team has adopted Agile, so I’d like to see if we can share our experiences with them to get an additional perspective on what we’re doing.

Any advice for someone getting started with Scrum and Agile Marketing?

There’s plenty of material out there on Agile and Agile Marketing. Just do a search on Google to get started. Even if all you do is what I did — get the team in a room every morning and aggressively prioritize everything the team is doing on a daily basis — you’ll start benefitting immediately in the following ways:

  • More visibility and transparency for everyone into team member activities
  • Less time wasted on non-essential projects
  • More accountability which actually motivates employees too
  • You’ll be moving faster before you know it

Good luck!

Questions or comments for Richard? Email him [email protected], or connect with him on LinkedIn.

Image by Lynn Friedman