Agile marketing: the pros and cons to adopting a start-up mentality

Marketing's love affair with agile marketing is well-documented, but how can the industry translate this rhetoric into business reality?

Agile marketing: the pros and cons to adopting a start-up mentality

Being 'agile' is all the rage. You could be mistaken for believing that the most maverick, innovative marketers in town have ditched all their year-plans in favour of being ultra-responsive, reacting to every opportunity quicker than Usain Bolt on amphetamines.

The reality is that marketers thriving in the agile age are those who can successfully straddle and balance the two worlds: the spontaneous, short-termist, social one and the planned set-pieces.

As Sara Bennison, managing director, marketing, for Barclays personal and corporate banking, says: "Marketers need to adapt to both areas to be successful.

Operationally, data-driven, agile ways of working provide a huge chance for marketers to continually update and re-evaluate their plans in ‘real time’.

As a result, detailed plans agreed to in the year prior to execution are simply not compatible with this new approach. At Barclays, we have moved to a process whereby we make firm commitments on the tasks we will deliver for the business, whilst maintaining flexibility on the plan that will get us there."

Agile models

Barclays embraced 'agile' after the financial crisis, when reassuring customers in real time became inextricably linked both to the digitisation of banking and the necessity of putting brand reputation, and the customer, centre stage for the first time.

It’s not just brands in crisis that have had to embrace agile, however, marketers in every sector are restructuring for the new marketing environment. Take handmade cosmetics brand, Lush, which overhauled its department two years ago to reinvent it as an "editorial operation", centred on creating responsive content.

It now houses copywriters, designers, video experts, strategists and planners in the same space at HQ. According to Adam Goswell, head of digital design at Lush, the biggest challenge it had to address in this set-up was the approval process.

"We struggled with that. You need to empower people all the way through the process, which can be intimidating," he says. "But we can’t have everyone going through an approval chain. So we’ve created guidelines around the way we talk and how we create content."

Barclays was an early adopter of 'agile' post the financial crisis

From brand management to brand 'un-management’

It’s a case of "unmanaging your brand", says Andy Mallinson, European managing director of technology company Stackla, which is working with Lush to facilitate this agile culture.

Uber, Airbnb and Spotify are the oft-cited "premiership" of the agile brand league

"You can have a calendar in front of you, all neatly mapped out, with campaigns leading up to events like Easter and Christmas. But now you have to plan for spontaneity, too, ready to respond to particular situations that arise," he contends.

A good example of how Lush builds 'planned spontaneity' into its marketing strategy is in its 'kitchens'; they are lined with screens displaying user-generated content about what products consumers want to see made, requests that are fulfilled in the moment.

There is, however, no point having an uber-agile, fast-as-lightning marketing department if the rest of your company is spluttering along, slow and steady, at a snail’s pace. Or, as Peter Andrews, lecturer in marketing, Hull University Business School, puts it: "An agile marketing department in a corporate behemoth just doesn’t work."

This is why, as he says, the "superstars of agile marketing" are often the disruptive start-ups that have created completely new business models, which are genuinely consumer-centric and turn the traditional way of working, and culture, on its head.

He lists Uber, Airbnb and Spotify as the oft-cited "premiership" of the agile brand league. "They have developed their business models through testing and refining, in line with consumer responses, and have not had to face the challenges that a big global brand may: namely, maintaining brand equity, satisfying an existing consumer base and meeting shareholder expectations."

All departments have to be onboard for agile to work, which is why "collaboration" is another beloved buzzword. In future, the lines between all functions will continue to blur – silos are the antithesis of agile – but they will become particularly fuzzy for marketers, who are well placed to be facilitators championing collaboration internally.

Bennison agrees, adding: "Consultancies and agencies will need to demonstrate the way they can enhance the agile process for marketers to make it more streamlined and effective."

An agile marketing department in a corporate behemoth just doesn’t work.

Agile data

Data is another key driver of success, but it represents both a blessing and curse for the agile marketer. Too much, and you can easily end up like a headless chicken with attention-deficit disorder, not knowing where to focus, too little, and you have insufficient knowledge to make your marketing relevant and resonant.

"Understanding the changing dynamics of consumer behaviour and not confusing this with short-term fads and irrelevant data can distract and derail plans," says Andrews.

 "If marketers cannot derive meaningful information from the mass data available to them, their messages and communications can look like a tangled ball of string, instead of the great, integrated marketing campaigns that they originally planned."

Experts agree that the best way to navigate a way through the data is to be guided by the brand’s 'North Star'; its values, meaning, essence, core purpose. If you can stay true to these, there’s less chance of being derailed by data and diluting your campaigns.

If marketers cannot derive meaningful information from the mass data available to them, their messages and communications can look like a tangled ball of string

The agile mind

Another differentiating factor found in marketers who are adept at being agile is their mindset. Isabel Massey, head of media and futures, Diageo Western Europe, says developing this mindset is as much about the individual in their personal lives, as it is about adopting a corporate persona.

One of the defining characteristics of a good agile marketer is resilience

"We make quick decisions all the time outside work – sometimes it’s about seizing opportunities: tickets to a gig come up for this evening and you need to decide right away whether to go. Or, sometimes, it’s about overcoming obstacles: the trains might be down over a weekend and you need to make a snap decision whether to cancel plans or find a new route," she explains.

"There’s no reason why we shouldn’t adopt the same modus operandi at work, and we must empower individuals to bring their natural agility into the office. Yes, the stakes might be higher, but the prizes are bigger, too. We must be as dynamic as we want our plans to be."

Kathleen Saxton, founder of media headhunters The Lighthouse Company, agrees. She argues that it’s not about your job title any more, but your personal characteristics. 

"Marketers have to flex in and out of a job," she says. "They have to have a decent understanding of many subjects. They can’t be too fixed – we call it being a ‘horizontal hybrid’. When I’m interviewing marketers, I’m thinking – can you activate your agile mind? Are you curious enough to find out more? It has to start with you."

If, for example, a candidate doesn’t have any digital experience on their CV, Saxton might wonder why. Is it down to a lack of curiosity? Or confidence? Or simply complacency and/or laziness?

Alongside curiosity, according to her, one of the defining characteristics of a good agile marketer is resilience. "An agile mind has to be able to hold itself stable in the middle of all this change; those that aren’t resilient can get lost in the fog," she adds.

As two examples of "agile marketer minds", she identifies Johnny Devitt, CMO, Betfair, and Ben Carter, marketing director, Not On The High Street. Both, she argues, are hybrid marketers who really understand digital.

An editorial mindset is used to hitting constant, tight deadlines, while simultaneously processing a huge amount of information

Carter’s background is in business journalism; he was a former news editor on Marketing. Indeed, a journalist’s editorial, content-curious mindset has proved to be particularly transferable to the fast-moving, new marketing world.

Nick Jones, also a former business journalist and now head of digital communications and corporate responsibility at Visa Europe, predicts that a profile such as that of Eilidh MacAskill – a former newspaper and magazine journalist, who also boasts stints in PR on her CV, and is now marketing director of Monsoon Accessorize – will be typical of the marketers of the future.

"Journalists ask good, penetrating questions, such as 'How does this play outside our building?' Additionally, an editorial mindset is used to hitting constant, tight deadlines, while simultaneously processing a huge amount of information," he says.

Journalists ask good, penetrating questions

Embracing speed

Just as journalism is often described as "literature in a hurry", 'agile' could be described as "marketing in a hurry".

Inherent in this definition is an acknowledgement and feeling of being comfortable with imperfection. Indeed, some agile experts, such as Lola Oyelayo, director of strategy and user experience at digital agency Head, say that "the worst mindset" is one that believes buying agile work means "getting a perfect, finished ‘ta-da’ moment".

"This mindset pretty much guarantees disaster," she adds, going on to point out that the type of marketer who gets satisfaction from being able to paint a perfect vision, then attain it, will struggle with agile.

"That beautiful graphic you would normally commission? It may be best replaced with a quick AdWords prototype," she says. "Agile is being used in a ‘cult-like’ fashion, but it’s actually about freedom from unnecessary dogma. One of the most fatal dogmas is the idea that the product has to be perfect before launch.

When non-digitally literate teams sign off on unrealistic versions of their requirements, they will often lay the blame elsewhere for not doing the job perfectly. This perfectionism is a bad habit that needs breaking."

Case study: British Gas / Rufus Leonard

Quickly getting an idea through one of the UK’s oldest institutions, British Gas, is hard, but not impossible.

Having consultancies you can tap into is massive, it helps you go very, very quickly at certain peak points

When developing new products, the company usually takes what it calls a "waterfall" approach: you specify upfront exactly what you want, before you build the application, then take it out to the different departments, which test it. However, when building BGme, a mobile app (see below) that allows millennials to control their energy account, the brand flipped this process on its head.

Phil Kohler, who is head of new products and propositions at British Gas, says: "Waterfall is all well and good as long as you’re exactly right at the beginning. But the reality is that in the nine to 12 months you take to develop something, the world changes.

Elections. Regulations. Results. So, for this, we started by focusing on the customer and their touchpoints. That way you spend more time iterating upfront, which becomes more powerful, especially with digital propositions."

The initiative involved pulling together a multifunction team – spanning product, marketing, IT and customer care – in close collaboration with agency Rufus Leonard, which helped the brand break down its silos.

"Having consultancies you can tap into is massive," says Kohler. "It helps you go very, very quickly at certain peak points. I can’t afford to have that many staff sitting in my team all the time, but when it gets really intense we pull people in from Rufus Leonard to 'flex up'.

There’s also great value in a team that is not entirely in the business. They’re not living and dying your brand so they recognise when it sounds hollow."

The idea took just three months to garner approval from the executive board, with the app ready to go in a further six. So, what was the key to success? "I’m a great believer in quickly creating the solution you want, so it’s not watered down, then present the idea at a senior level," says Kohler.

"We got approval quickly this way because the concept we showed the board was polished and exciting enough for them think it was an obvious thing to do. Come in early with something inspirational; that is the key to breaking through."