I admit, a couple of years ago when it was first suggested that the entire business could operate on agile, including marketing, I was sceptical. I roughly knew what agile was about and I could see the benefits. But, as a B2B marketing team of three, I didn’t see how an approach to building software could apply to us.
But that's the beauty of agile; you can tweak and adjust it so that it works for you and your business or team. What follows is by all means not a bible for agile marketing - it's simply my take on how we've made agile work for us.
What is agile? An incredibly simplified explanation…
Agile is a project management approach where tasks are divided into short phases of work that are continuously iterated and improved. You don't plan out years or quarters worth of work, but instead, break everything down into small chunks and continually adapt.
This doesn't mean that you go off willy-nilly without a plan. Of course, you have a guiding vision and objectives that you're working towards. But, with agile, you work in a nimble way that can adapt to market or business demands.
From a project management point of view, it's going from big waterfalls to small sprints. The key is to think about increments, speed and adaptability.
Agile terminology for marketers
Before we get stuck in, I’ll clarify some agile terminology so that we're all on the same page. Note: there are many other agile terms, but I've picked the ones relevant to the processes that we use.
A sprint is a focused period of time that you deliver your tasks. Two-week sprints are very common. Just enough time to achieve something meaningful without going too large.
Your backlog will consist of items that you know are coming up, or have been requested, like an event, a website page or a lead nurture campaign. Team members add items to the backlog as they crop up and then use it to pull into the current sprint plan.
A task is a chunk of work that can be completed in the timeframe of a single sprint. The idea is that any larger tasks are broken down into smaller tasks so that they are more singular.
At the beginning of the sprint, you get together with your team and examine your priorities and backlog of tasks. Based on your estimate of time and work required, you commit to completing a set of tasks within the sprint timeframe. Sprint planning usually involves pulling items from the backlog and converting them into smaller, meaningful tasks. The individual doing the work decides what they will pull in, as opposed to the manager pushing things on to the team.
Kanban is an agile management method that was inspired by the 'just-in-time' scheduling system made famous in Japanese car manufacturing in the 1980s. It’s a visual workflow, where you pull tasks through in continual, incremental improvements. You will likely be familiar with the kanban board where you have columns such as To Do, In Progress, Done, and Waiting on Others. This is also where sticky notes come to the fore - an image many conjure up when they think of agile.
The standup is a regular (often daily) check-in of the team to get everyone on the same page. Its typically timeboxed to 15 minutes and everyone stands for the duration as a reminder to keep it short and sweet. You go around each member of the team and talk about a) what you did yesterday, b) what you will do today, and c) are there any blockers?
At the end of the sprint, you do a review session to go through what was accomplished during the sprint. Team members discuss what they've done and might include a demo or walk-through of something in particular. They might also discuss a) what went well, b) what didn't go so well, and c) what could be improved for next time.
How we do agile marketing
At Qrious, the marketing team works as one unit. We're not part of a tribe or squad or chapter, as might be the case in a much larger agile business environment. While we still have a traditional structure, we've adopted an agile approach as a way to streamline our processes and ensure efficiency and alignment across the team.
At the beginning of the financial year, I develop a high-level marketing strategy aligned with our overall business goals and roughly allocate the marketing budget. This probably goes against agile dogma, but the reality is that I have a yearly budget that I need to adhere to, so I want to know at a high-level what we can afford to do. The idea of the yearly plan is not to give us something that we must stick to. It simply serves as a bit of a guide and also as a process for some strategic thinking and planning.
At the beginning of the quarter, the team works up an overall plan for the next three months. Based on our yearly plan, it likely will be adapted based on the changing priorities of the business. We'll think about how we're tracking against our goals, what we need to do to keep achieving them, and we'll also align against our overall business quarterly goals. We would usually know at this stage if we have any big activities coming up, such as a campaign or large event.
We then take our quarterly goals and backlog items, prioritise them, and divide them down into smaller tasks that can be achieved in a two-week sprint. We have a one-hour sprint planning session
at the beginning of the sprint, two 15-minute standups per week, and then a one-hour sprint review session at the end.
Allowing time for BAU or urgent tasks
It’s important to allow time for some of the BAU tasks or tasks that crop up without prior knowledge. These might be tasks such as a client presentation that a salesperson needs help with, or something that's happened in our industry that we want to respond to on social right away.
And this is where agile in marketing can differ from agile software delivery. Typically, you're supposed to add new tasks to the backlog and then they can be picked up in the next sprint, but in marketing, we can't always wait till the next sprint to do something. We make sure we factor in time for these types of things - so that we can be truly agile!
Try new things and adapt
At Qrious, we've been running the team using an agile approach for about two years now. And over that time we've adapted our processes to suit. We've tried different things, thrown out what wasn't working and kept what was. For example, for a while, we changed up our sprint schedule to start on a Thursday and finish on a Wednesday, but it didn't work well for us, so we went back to our Monday to Friday model. The key here is to find the approaches that work for your team and that feel natural - it's important to actually be agile, not slaves to a process.
As I mentioned at the beginning, I was a little sceptical as to whether an agile approach would work in marketing, but over time we've made it work for us, and I've certainly seen some real benefits.
The visibility across the team is one of the key benefits of using agile. Not only are we continually telling each other what we're up to in our standups, but it's also easy to see from a glance at the Kanban board what's happening in the workflow. As a manager, I can easily if there are any tasks that my team are waiting for from me, or if they're being blocked, how I might help unblock them.
Collaboration across team members is amazing. It's easy for them to see what everyone is working on and if someone else has any dependencies on them. This is all clearly articulated in sprint planning, and then reinforced in our standups, so there's no confusion and clear expectations.
The agile approach truly has allowed us to be nimble. While there are always going to be items that can't move, the way that we do our planning allows us to adjust and improve as we're going. While we have some guiding ideas, we're don't feel tied to anything, and we can make changes based on what makes sense.
The sprint review process has really helped us to gradually improve. By forcing ourselves to review our tasks and progress, we're always thinking about how we can do it better. For example, when we reviewed our media performance for a campaign, we were able to see clearly which channels were working well for us, so that we could adjust our spend and approach for the next campaign.
Make it work for you
I would say that the key is for agile to be pragmatic, not dogmatic. Every business and every marketing team is going to be different. You'll be B2B or B2C, you might have a large or small team, and you'll certainly have different roles and specialities that make up your marketing team. It's important that you find the right combination of processes and structures that works for you. And then don't forget to keep testing and iterating, and before you know it, you'll be an agile marketing pro!
Some helpful reading:
Hacking Marketing: Agile Practices to Make Marketing Smarter, Faster and More Innovative - Scott Brinker, 2016