Breaking Tradition: The Age of Agile Marketing

“I need it cheap. I need it perfect. And, I need it yesterday.” If you’ve worked in marketing for more than three minutes, you’ve heard this refrain. And it continues to grow louder in the face of constant marketplace disruptions, ever-connected audiences, and instantaneous trends. We’ve had to become superhero chameleons ready to react, adapt, and churn out impeccable campaigns before there’s a moment to realize the results of the last one.

In this hectic time we’ve learned to turn to our friends in the software world for guidance. When they heard the same demands we hear every day—faster, faster, faster—they gathered their brilliant minds together at a resort in Utah. Days later they emerged with The Manifesto for Agile Software Development, which outlined a methodology that would keep developers two steps ahead without sacrificing the quality of their work.

Years after those few snowy days in February of 2001, we started to look to this manifesto to inform and shape our approach to the marketing landscape. An unsurprising move considering how deeply steeped in technology our industry is. We rely on it to create, distribute, and measure our messaging, so it makes sense that we’d take on principles that were originally designed for the technology world.

What Does it Mean to Be Agile in Marketing?

Agile shatters traditional process. Intensive, months-long planning sessions and convoluted approval chains made sense when marketing executions were finite. Once a campaign had gone to print, it was final. There was no chance to tweak keywords, update headlines, or add images. During this time, failure was not an option. Or, at the very least, it was an extremely expensive option.

In the age of digital, failure—and the subsequent moves required to right that failure—isn’t nearly as expensive as it once was. In fact, fear of failure can be more costly than failure itself (to misquote Franklin D. Roosevelt). By the time we get through intensive planning processes and approval at every level of the organization, the trend will have passed and our message gone stale. In agile marketing, it’s perfectly acceptable to fail, as long as you learn from that failure and adapt your approach in the future.

Agile is iterative. It’s data driven and customer focused. Campaigns are carried out as short sprints spanning a couple weeks to a couple months (at most). Each sprint begins with a planning session that loops in all the key stakeholders from product owners to sales to marketing to vendors. The campaigns themselves are flexible, allowing for adjustments and adaptation as customer feedback and data help us refine our approach to optimize results.

How Does Marketing Become Agile?

It can be difficult to implement agile marketing in an organization that is deeply accustomed to a more traditional approach. The entire methodology is an exercise in prioritization and quick decisions. Those who wish to make the transition must be ready to:

Change Your Mind

The shift to agile can be challenging, because it requires a completely different mindset than the strategic, calculated approach marketing teams have employed in the past. As mentioned earlier, agile can’t be supported with top-heavy planning processes, so you should start to consider each campaign as a loose outline with a clear goal at the finish line.

The more details and specifics you tie to a campaign, the less room there will be to adapt and optimize once it’s underway. You’ll also likely have to alter your approach to the approval process. Agile leaves no room for layers and layers of red tape. These quick-turn campaigns work best when approvals are delegated to one or two key (and very available) players.

Listen and Prepare

Understanding your audience and the conversations they’re having is a key component of a successful agile campaign. Leverage what you know about the seasonality of these conversations and be ready to launch campaigns that address topics the moment they become relevant.

For example, a window company could develop a loose campaign that allows them to respond the moment their target audience starts lamenting their rising energy bills during the winter months. Or, like Adidas, brands can tune in to major current events to develop even more time-sensitive campaigns or to align a current campaign with breaking news.

Prioritize

One of the biggest struggles organizations have with agile is accepting that not all projects can be of the highest priority. One brand leader (the product owner) must maintain and assess a backlog of projects and prioritize them based on timeliness and how crucial each one is to achieving the organization’s long-term goals. Failure to prioritize will cause any agile initiative to crumble before it gets off the ground.

Do Work

After prioritization, it’s time for the creative team to (almost literally) run with the top few projects. They’ll typically have anywhere from 24 hours to two weeks to complete the assets needed to launch the next sprint. This breakneck speed may be uncomfortable at first, and the team will have to get used to the minimized checkpoints that come with your streamlined approval process.

Listen and Optimize

The creative may technically be done when the campaign is launched, but the work is not. You’ll need to keep an eye on the analytics and the response to each campaign for as long as it’s running. You should be poised to react to any opportunity for improvement and have the flexibility to optimize and refine your approach over the course of the campaign.

Remember Your Brand

It’s important you keep the integrity of your brand in mind throughout the entire process. The speed and reactive nature of agile makes it easy to lose sight of the details that make your brand your brand. A little prep can help avoid these pitfalls. Consider developing templates, visual elements, and content that can easily be adapted to fit a campaign without compromising your brand. Additionally, everyone on your creative team should have access to any visual and content style guides they can refer back to as they complete each project.

Is it Worth It?

Though agile comes with a few growing pains, it delivers three benefits we desperately need in the modern marketing world:

Speed

Fast-paced was the speed of 15 years ago. Now, we’re constantly on and operating at a digital speed, barely managing to clear our desks before the next day begins. Agile marketing shortens campaign and project cycles to effectively give us more hours in our day. We’re able to react to real-time data and passing opportunities at a pace that would be unimaginable outside of an agile process.

Relevance

Agile allows us to remain relevant during an age when a tweet heard round the world disappears into oblivion before the close of business. The windows to converse with our audiences close and open from one moment to the next. Agile allows us to move quickly enough to squeeze into these windows, participate in these conversations, and even lead new discussions with breaking information.

Optimization

It’s no secret that we at Olive & Company love to refine our websites, emails, social media (the list is endless) based on data and audience feedback. Agile is ideal for analytics nerds and data fanatics like us. No other approach allows marketers to adapt to real-time insights as quickly as they’re revealed. Your marketing data analyst can relay performance stats before you start your first coffee break and by the last sip, the campaign can be refined, relaunched, and performing better than ever.

Going Agile with an Agency

The need for speed in agile marketing continues to change the client/agency relationship. There’s little time for the extensive briefings required when working on a project-to-project basis, so marketing agencies are becoming integrated, strategic partners for their clients.

When you have a strong relationship with your agency, their team may even be able to identify urgent opportunities for new campaigns that your internal team may have missed. Agencies can also help you develop the pieces you need to be ready react to these urgent opportunities, including email templates, brand guidelines, and messaging matrices.

One of the biggest components of success in agile is having the right talent and having enough of it. A strong agency relationship gives you access to this talent without having to build out your internal team in anticipation of the next big opportunity. For this reason, brands should engage their agencies early and often. The more closely clients and agencies work together, the more they can condense processes, react quickly, and remain relevant despite fleeting trends.

Agile isn’t perfect for every project. There is still a very real need for long-term strategies. And enduring print collateral continues to hold its own within a digital world (and can even be used to support fast-paced agile campaigns). But, the fact is, agile will not be ignored and brands need to be prepared to embrace it as our audiences continue to respond to brands that are poised to respond to them.