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What Is Agile Marketing?

This is a guest post by Jim Ewel, one of the early proponents of Agile Marketing.

I read a lot of articles about Agile Marketing, and a lot of it is confused. Those of us who have led the movement to Agile Marketing have not done a good job of explaining Agile Marketing, what it is, and what it isn’t. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I think Agile Marketing boils down to three things.

A Set of Project Management Methodologies borrowed from Agile Development

Developers had a problem. They had developed complex methodologies, collectively known as the Waterfall methodology, for developing software programs, and many projects were failing. They were failing not because they produced bad code, but because they produced the wrong code. The complex specifications that they produced before writing the code were wrong, for one of three reasons:

  • The end users failed to communicate what they really wanted, and when they saw what the developers had produced, the end users said “that’s not what we wanted”.
  • The developers failed to listen adequately to the end users, and when the developers produced what they thought the end users wanted, the end users said “that’s not what we wanted”.
  • In the time it took for the developers to deliver well-tested code, the business had changed, and the end users no longer wanted what they had asked for six months to several years earlier. They wanted something different, because the business had changed.

Agile development methodologies, and specifically Scrum, were developed to address this problem. Developers now delivered well-tested code in small chunks, developed over 1 to 4 week cycles called Sprints, and at the end of each cycle, they’d review the working code with the end users, and say “is that what you wanted?” And the users would say ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘not exactly’, but only a few weeks would be invested before the developers found out whether the users had communicated or the developers had understood their needs, and if the business had changed in the interim, well, you found that out quickly as well. The deliverables were working code, not documentation. Users could look at the working code and determine whether that was what they wanted.

Kanban, another Agile methodology, came out of a totally different tradition, and was developed to solve a different set of problems. Kanban came out of the lean manufacturing movement, and it was developed in recognition of the truth that factory floor workers knew more about the problems with manufacturing than the bosses who designed the workflow. It resulted in self-organizing teams, and the concept of pulling work through, at a pace determined by the workers, rather than the traditional assembly line.

Agile marketers have found it useful to adopt these project management methodologies from agile development. Marketers have all of the same problems as developers: inadequate communication with end users, whether those end users be fickle customers or other departments within our organisation; changing business conditions; and documentation, which we call marketing plans, that is inadequate to deal with the complexity and the change we face.

Some marketers stop here, after adopting one or more of the project management methodologies borrowed from Agile development. And that’s OK, but it’s not enough to be truly Agile in your marketing.

Iteration and Validated Testing

Content marketing or website development are often the first areas of marketing in many organizations to adopt Agile Marketing. This makes sense. These groups are developers, in a sense, developing content or developing html code, and the set of project management methodologies borrowed from Agile Development lend themselves very well to their work.

Often, however, I find that these groups don’t take the next step, which is to validate whether what they have produced, content or a website, resonates with the audience and produces the desired business result. They measure their success in terms of throughput - they were able to complete the web site in three months rather than six, or they are getting out four white papers a month rather than one.

It’s not their fault. Inevitably, when I talk to these groups, the strategy and the decisions in regards to what content to produce, or what the website is trying to accomplish, resides elsewhere in the organisation. Their job is to produce content or to build a website, and they measure their success by happy internal customers or if they’re an agency, happy clients.

What is necessary to take the next step in Agile Marketing is validation: did the content or the web site meet its business purpose? Did it drive more sign-ups? Did it close more business? Those questions need to be answered not by opinions, but by metrics. And almost always, you can improve upon the initial metrics. In this model, the success of the content marketing department or the web site developer is not measured in terms of throughput, but in terms of business success.

Instead of producing a white paper, calling it done, and moving on to the next one, the content marketing team now has to validate whether the paper achieved its stated purpose, and iterate on it, producing better and better measurable results. Less content, more validated results.

There is another name for this iteration and validated testing: growth hacking. I’m not particularly fond of the term because of the negative connotations of the term hacking (“cut with rough or heavy blows”, “break into a computer system”), but growth hackers have the right idea. You don’t get growth by wishing for it, you get growth by iterating faster than the next guy and by being disciplined in measuring and delivering results.

Adopting the two practices above can improve your marketing tremendously, but it’s still not enough to be truly Agile. In order to be Agile, you also have to plan for and embrace change.

Planning for and Embracing Change

Several years ago, Kellogg produced a limited-edition box of cereal called Totes Amazeballs after a suggestion by the lead singer of a British rock band called the Charlatans. He had heard the phrase “Totes Amazeballs”, and tweeted out to the world that he thought it sounded like a breakfast cereal. Within an hour, Kellogg had contacted him, and within weeks, they had produced the limited-edition box of cereal.

In America, Oreo cookie created an ad in 30 minutes responding to a blackout at the SuperBowl. More recently, we’ve witnessed a total failure by a marketing group to respond quickly to a brand damaging event with the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. It took VW almost a month to get a one page letter out to customers who owned these cars.

These kind of quick responses, taking advantage of a short window of opportunity, do not happen by accident. You have to plan for and embrace change. It’s important to understand that this is fundamentally different for Agile Marketing, compared to Agile Development. If a change comes up in the middle of an Agile development sprint, the answer is “wait until the next Sprint”. And 99% of the time, that’s the right thing to do. But for marketers, that answer is often inadequate (not always - sometimes you should just tell users to wait and prioritise new requests with everything else).

When I teach Agile Marketing, I encourage the teams to set aside anything from 20% to as much as 50% of their time early on for the unexpected. Over time, as they get better at prioritising, and they teach other departments to trust the process, that percentage may go down, but it’s never going to go to zero. Beyond just setting aside time for change, you have to embrace it. You have to actively seek it. Several years ago, I wrote how Coke devoted 10% of their marketing budget and 25% of their time to high risk change embracing activities. If you want to be agile, in the sense of the ability to move quickly and easily, and respond to change, you have to plan for and devote resources to the effort.

I hope this clarifies what I mean when I talk about Agile Marketing. I’d love to hear from other people out there who are trying out Agile Marketing. What’s working for you? What’s not working? Does this framework help?


About the author

Jim Ewel is an entrepreneur, a growth CEO and one of the early proponents of Agile Marketing. Jim spent 12 years at Microsoft in sales and marketing, including positions as the General Manager of SQL Server marketing and the Vice President of Windows Servers.

Since leaving Microsoft in 2001, Jim has served as the CEO of three startups/high growth companies: GoAhead Software, Adometry and InDemand Interpreting.

He blogs about Agile Marketing at