Jon Baker / May 6, 2016

Navigating Agile Marketing’s Tricky Dichotomy

Originally published in CMO (by Adobe)

Make no mistake about it: With more brands moving their marketing responsibilities in-house, many external agencies are facing their (latest) adapt-or-die moment.

The quality and capabilities of in-house marketing work have already risen to where it makes plenty of sense for brands to cook many types of meals at home. Today’s in-house teams (many of which have agency experience) know their businesses and their marketing models closely and are more finely tuned to current industry events, enabling them to execute timely tactical moves at a lower overhead than many external agencies would be comfortable matching.

Even services in the realms of strategic planning and insights, once firmly in the wheelhouse of outside agencies (and for many of them their core value-add), can now arguably be provided in-house with competitively positive outcomes. In order for the traditionally structured external agency to modernize―and locate an available niche to fill in this new reality―it must refit itself to deliver Spartan efficiency, glass-box transparency, and à la carte service options so delicious they make CMOs want to splurge on takeout.

The job for external agencies is to get CMOs salivating by plating up services and opportunities they can’t get in-house. In the current environment, that means providing the transparency and specificity that allow a CMO to envision the rich ROI an external investment will yield. To help achieve this, it’s useful to adopt the principles at work in agile software development and apply them to marketing.

Of course, this has been tried before, but the calls for adoption of agile in marketing always seem to focus upon the transformation of day-to-day processes. I’d argue the true value of agile marketing is in delivering strong definitions of the work to be completed, along with easily understood measurables, through the use of agile sprints (wherein specific deliverables and units of work are clearly laid out and realized within a fixed time period).

By applying agile principles to marketing tasks, an agency is able to provide a CMO with an itemized schedule for delivery of specific work. (For example, that a messaging solution will be constructed over the course of four two-week sprints, with a checklist of features and progress to show at the conclusion of each time period.) This provides an agency’s clients precise clarity into what their agency is doing and means they don’t have to wait for weeks or months to see the work being done. Rather, they have a view into the process at key stages along the way.

This execution of agile marketing results in a more transparent, responsive, and trustworthy process for a CMO to invest resources in. It offers more formality if the project is on the right track and more time and opportunities to perform course corrections as needed. The pulse of a project can be taken at predictable intervals (say, in two-week segments). And with practice, agencies following this model will develop standardized approaches to the units of work that they offer for CMOs to select, increasing their efficiency and the predictability of what is provided.

All of this brings up an interesting dichotomy between agencies and clients. The fact is, clients often struggle to define and explain what exactly they’re looking for out of their agency’s work. For this reason, agencies benefit from agile because they can dive into a project even if it isn’t fully defined, show their output from completed early sprints, learn (and help the client learn) which avenues to continue down, and adjust the direction as needed before making a full commitment to a certain end product.

However, agile processes can make it hard for an agency to define a project’s endpoint and state the price for its work. Clients, on the other hand, absolutely wants to lock in a price, a predictable work schedule, and a specific end goal (even when they sometimes can’t offer the requisite clarity to define it). While CMOs don’t like budgetary uncertainty, they do love agile because it allows them the flexibility to change course as needed.

As CMOs navigate changing markets and face future uncertainty, the freedom to adjust their sails quickly is a cherished thing. The upshot of this situation is that as clients buy this flexibility from agile agencies, they must understand that agencies will reserve the right to adjust their prices as necessary. A CMO calling for a full left turn in the nature of an agency’s work will understandably cause the agency to recalculate its workload and pricing based on the new asks. This is the landscape upon which each client and agile agency will have to strike a balance.

In this new agile marketing model, the piecemeal and specific nature of external agencies’ offerings will require new efficiencies. It’ll also mandate more tightly focused and extensive capabilities when it comes to providing what CMOs will recognize as must-have services. Agile changes made on the fly will require budget flexibility as well.

Today, many external agencies still offer a full spectrum of services and ideas―a full plate featuring real-beef value-adds in some areas, alongside mere garnish that covers other marketing areas but is perhaps nothing special. In contrast, modern agencies successfully adapting to the in-house era and practicing agile marketing―by focusing more intensely on smaller plates―will deliver 100% beef in those core areas of expertise. And in the long run, this focus will be to the great benefit of external agencies and their clients alike.

Jon Baker is the executive vice president, technology, at Wire Stone, an independent digital marketing agency for global Fortune 1000 brands.