“Here’s a giant slide deck on our agile marketing plans. Good luck with this. See you in a year!”
If this triggers painful memories of how agile marketing was presented to your team in January, it may not have been surprising if your agile plans didn’t make it past the first quarter.
This is how Andrea Fryrear, CEO and co-founder of AgileSherpas, recently described many marketing leaders’ poorly executed—although likely well intentioned—approach to agile marketing. Speaking with Scott Brinker on our Marketing Ops Now podcast, Andrea laid out the do’s and don’ts of agile.
Don’t: Expect to wave a magic wand and have everyone automatically aligned with your agile approach.
Do: Empower your teams to make the right decisions along the way.
What else should teams keep in mind as they adopt this increasingly popular way of executing marketing?
What is agile marketing?
Originating within software development more than two decades ago, agile marketing used to be applied mostly to product releases but has since evolved into the marketing world, Scott and Andrea explain.
“It’s the idea that you’re going to release smaller things to an audience more often, instead of waiting months or years to put a giant thing in front of them,” Andrea says.
Agile marketing is about creating “smaller, more iterative campaigns that you can get in front of people,” she adds. When you don’t commit to a huge plan over the long term, you can more easily pivot individual plans when you need to make changes. (And we all know how much that’s had to happen over the past few years.)
On a day-to-day basis, agile marketing can look like this: teams using sprints or scrums to tie their work into shorter iterations. However, these arbitrary time frames don’t work for everyone—and that’s perfectly fine.
“Agile doesn’t always equal sprinting,” Andrea says. “It doesn’t always equal scrum.”
It’s often about having a broader view into marketing, as well as having creative freedom, she explains.
An agile misconception: no strategic view
If you can’t tie the results of your work back to how it’s benefiting your broader marketing strategy or business strategy, how do you know if it’s working?
Scott points out a common misunderstanding he’s come across over the years: If you’re using an agile way of working, you’re not using a strategic and purposeful way of working.
Just because you’re focused on the little things doesn’t mean you’re unfocused on the big picture.
“There’s this need to align the work you do with the agile team to a larger, strategic objective,” Andrea explains. “It’s finding a way to create that throughline—that’s what you’re really after. It’s not that there isn’t any big idea—that there’s no strategic roadmap and that we’re just showing up and doing whatever feels right.”
Rather, it’s about aligning to strategy but still enabling your teams to be creative along the way.
“You can’t just have little groups of people going and running in different directions,” she says. “You have to exert everyone’s power in the same direction.”
Agile planning leaves room for creativity
Andrea compares agile marketing planning to planning a cross-country road trip. If you’re driving from California to New York City, you need to have your general route planned out, or you risk getting lost and wasting time.
However, you don’t want to be so prescriptive in your plans that there’s no decision-making freedom along the way.
It’s not realistic to preemptively include directions like “possibly come across a stalled Toyota Tacoma in 12 miles,” or “stop at the Starbucks after this intersection, but don’t spend more than four minutes consuming your breakfast sandwich.” Instead, you leave these individual choices up to whoever’s driving, while still ensuring they stick to the big picture.
For example, which destinations are worth stopping at on the way to New York? If you think it’s valuable to take a detour at, say, “the world’s biggest ball of yarn,” Andrea suggests, then go for it. In the agile marketing world, if you think pausing a campaign in favor of another is beneficial, then, by all means, go for it.
It’s about enabling your teams to make these “medium-level decisions,” she explains, without “micromanaging and taking away their agility.”
Of course, at the other end of the spectrum, you also can’t suddenly decide that your final destination is Mexico City instead of New York.
“You have to be able to tell them, ‘We’re still going to NYC, and that’s the goal. Even if you hit a traffic jam, we’re still committed to doing that big idea, but we’re allowing you to be iterative and responsive in those short-term moments as the work is happening.’”
How to implement agile marketing
As Andrea alluded to, don’t expect agile marketing to happen overnight or with the push of a button (or drop of a slide deck). It takes a lot more than that—namely, change management.
For marketing teams to successfully implement agile marketing, it takes an overall mindset adjustment across the board.
“It’s really a change in the way we think about what work is important and how we spend our time,” Andrea explains. “So if you try to tell people, ‘Go be agile 30 percent or 70 percent of the day,’ it starts to get messy. Agile is really a mindset, a way of being.”
Of course, that often starts at the top.
“Leaders do have to change the way they lead, plan, and budget, and the way they manage stakeholders and laterally to their cohort,” she advises. “If they aren’t ready to embrace that, that’s always a red flag.”
Since 2020 in particular, marketing leaders have been forced to be more agile with their planning and budgeting—a trend that certainly hasn’t come to a halt. Agile marketing has also become “more deeply embedded across the function, as opposed to just packets here and there,” Andrea points out.
In turn, as marketing becomes increasingly agile nowadays, marketers must ensure they have the right setup across their teams.
“It’s quite challenging to flip the script sometimes,” says Andrea, who suggests looking at these types of questions: How do I set up my teams for success? Is the organizational structure configured to support an agile framework? Do we have the right headcount?
However, she continues, to keep your “brain from exploding,” focus on visualizing the work, first and foremost.
“Don’t get hung up on scary challenges,” she adds. From a technical standpoint, look at “anything you can do that’s a process optimization.”
For example, as marketing teams transition away from siloed tools and into more integrated martech stacks, they gain newfound visibility into what’s being worked on in marketing.
Take a centralized calendar, for example. Once you delegate the work across your new agile organization and put it all into one system of record, everyone can have line of sight into what’s happening and what plans are on the horizon.
Having just one place to look at your plans—instead of getting lost across scattered systems of record—makes your agile marketing process a little less scary.
Bring in a mindset change, some room for flexibility, and a clear link to strategy, and you’ll be setting yourself up for agile marketing success. (But leave the magic wand at home.)
To learn more about agile marketing, listen to the whole conversation between Scott Brinker and Andrea Fryrear on our Marketing Ops Now podcast.