Scott Brinker on Agile Marketing – What It Is and Why It Matters

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Throughout history, many of the most important business innovations have been the result of one industry or discipline borrowing ideas from another. The most well-known example is Henry Ford’s adoption of the continuous-flow production methods used in industrial breweries, canneries and bakeries to create the first automotive assembly line. But he wasn’t the only one to engage in cross-industry innovation.

Scott Brinker’s new book, Hacking Marketing: Agile Practices to Make Marketing Smarter, Faster, and More Innovative (Wiley, March 2016), explores a contemporary example of an idea being adapted across disciplines – this time from programming to marketing. “Because marketing is in this digital environment, it’s wrestling with a lot of the same challenges that the software world has been wrestling with for the past couple decades,” explains Brinker. “Marketers are, to a very real degree, becoming kind of like software creators themselves. So, the question became how could we educate marketers about the processes and management tools that the software community has developed and pioneered over the past several decades and then help them see how they can use those tools to build a better, more modern marketing organization?”

The question is a fascinating one has that the potential to be particularly relevant for software startups who often already have flexibility built into their operations. Here at OpenView, we’re obsessed with continuous rapid improvement. Our marketing team follows agile practices as much as possible. In fact, I recently became a Scrum master. Based on what we’re seeing in-house and with our portfolio companies, I believe that the most successful marketing teams of the future will be the ones who can harness the power of the agile methodology.

As the co-founder and CTO of ion interactive, an agile technology platform that helps businesses get the most out of their interactive content marketing experiences, Brinker has first-hand experience in the software world. He is also the author/editor of the very popular chiefmartec.com blog and program chair for the annual MarTech Conference, the international conference series for senior-level, hybrid professionals with expertise in both marketing and technology. In these roles, he studies, publishes and speaks on the intersection of marketing and technology and the effects of that intersection on marketing strategy, management and culture.

Understanding Agile Marketing

So, what exactly is Agile Marketing? Simply put, it is the application of Scrum-inspired agile software development practices to the management of marketing initiatives. Agile marketers can choose from a buffet of agile elements including:

  • Team size and structure: A team of typically no more than eight to ten members led by a “Scrum Master” who facilitates the process
  • The sprint/scrum cycle: An iterative cycle typically lasting one to four weeks during which the team focuses on a clearly defined and constrained set of small tasks
  • Process artifacts: Old School or software tools (from physical white boards to digital options like Trello) for managing task prioritization and tracking
  • Philosophy: A mindset that puts a strong focus on concepts including adaptability, prioritization, transparency, responsiveness, empowerment and experimentation

Using these elements, marketing teams can break away from the traditional, long-term “waterfall” approach to developing campaigns and implement shorter, more focused “sprints” that are better suited to today’s constantly changing environments. Agile Marketing enables marketing teams to increase forward momentum while simultaneously maintaining the utmost flexibility so they can learn as they go and maximize both efficiency and results.

“Most marketers that I’ve seen practicing some form of agile do it in a very loose fashion,” says Brinker. “The good thing is that there are a number of very helpful tools that help companies understand and experiment with Agile Marketing in their day-to-day operations. Ultimately, each team modifies the tools to suit their own particular style and culture.”

For the OpenView team, we’ve begun becoming more agile by shifting to sprints. In his SlideShare presentation, Agile Marketing – Managing Marketing in High Gear, Brinker walks would-be agile marketers through the basics of the sprint process:

  1. When planning a sprint, you want to make it long enough to get real work done, but short enough to enable feedback, iteration and adaptation. You want a high ratio of work time to planning and review time.
  2. Ideally, commitments and priorities are not changed while the sprint is in progress. New work is queued in the backlog for the next sprint, allowing the team to focus and be more productive. (If something must be added mid-sprint, then it is prioritized relative to the other tasks. This may result in another task being bumped out of the sprint).
  3. Teammates take on tasks in order of priority.
  4. Every day during the sprint, the team meets for a 15-minute daily stand-up during which each team member answers three questions: What did I do yesterday? What am I going to do today? Are there any impediments in my way? (This keeps problems from lurking in the dark).
  5. At the end of the sprint, the team meets for a one- to two-hour sprint review to discuss/demo what was produced. These meetings may include other stakeholders and managers and are a great opportunity to give recognition, increase visibility with the rest of the organization, and collect feedback.
  6. Finally, the sprint team holds a sprint retrospective amongst themselves to discuss what went well in the sprint and how they can improve in the next one. Retrospectives explicitly enable teams and processes to continuously evolve.

Balancing Speed with Quality & Responsiveness with Long-term Goals

Two of the biggest questions that come up on the topic of Agile Marketing, and the sprint methodology in particular, are how short-term sprints can successfully support longer-term marketing plans and how teams can increase momentum without jeopardizing quality.

In response to the first question, Brinker explains the role of the sprint. “It’s really important to recognize that sprints are very much an operational mechanism, but they’re structured on careful prioritization of items coming out of your backlogs. For the most part, that prioritization is driven by the company’s strategic objectives. In this way, though you’re adjusting sprint assignments in the moment, they all map to larger strategic initiatives.” The sprint process is designed to keep everyone aligned. The planning and review meetings, for example, give teams and stakeholders an ongoing opportunity to make sure actions tie back to overall objectives at each step of the way.

Interestingly, in a world where things change so quickly, marketing teams that don’t have the support of the sprint structure are much more vulnerable to getting off track. “Fire drills can happen at any time, and in the absence of something like the sprint structure, most teams just run to where the fire is,” says Brinker. “The result is that even if, in theory, they are managing tasks against strategic objectives, their day-to-day operations are distracted and fragmented in so many ways that they lose sight of the strategic implementation.” With a sprint structure, teams have the ability to manage workflow more responsibly. They have the perspective and a lens through which they can make smart decisions about just how urgent any particular “fire” is and therefore avoid sacrificing strategic investments in the heat of the moment.

On the topic of quality vs. speed, Brinker points out that the incremental and iterative nature of the agile approach actually leaves more room for optimization and quality control. The idea isn’t to try and cram more work into less time, but to break projects into incremental steps that can be accomplished more efficiently because the process allows for greater focus, transparency, and feedback. Looking at the process from this perspective, it’s easy to see the opportunity an agile approach offers innovative teams who know how to use strategic experimentation to improve results. It’s about learning to fail fast so you can validate and improve ideas before you commit to scaling them.

Shifting Company Mindset to Maximize the Benefits of Agile

“80% of the value to agile is really the shift in thinking about how things get done,” says Brinker. “I’ve seen plenty of cases where companies adopted the formal methodology of Scrum, but didn’t actually change their thinking. As a result, they didn’t get a lot of value out of the exercise. I think that, most of the time, this is the case when agile fails.”

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough public dialog around the idea of Agile Marketing to bring it into the mainstream. Though the people studying the idea most closely – people like Brinker – see the immense value of the approach, marketers haven’t yet accepted the idea wholesale. “We have to be able to explain in the marketer’s own language that this is how these concepts actually apply to what they’re doing,” Brinker says. This is, in large part, the purpose of his book.

It’s not necessarily easy to get management and leadership to fully embrace the philosophy of Agile Marketing. Organizations need to learn to be truly adaptable, which means being unafraid of change. They need to implement a project management process that’s driven by prioritization, and not succumb to the usual approach in which everything is top priority. They need to be willing and able to increase transparency and empower their team members to take innovative action – to experiment quickly and frequently. All of these attributes come together to create a marketing organization that is able to implement long-term plans in a more adaptive and responsive way. And that, my friends, is what it’s going to take to succeed in marketing in the future.

Illustration by Rachel Worthman

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