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The ability to innovate in marketing and customer experience is inherently intertwined with moving fast enough to keep up with the ever-changing expectations of always-on tech-empowered consumers.
But moving fast can be hard for large enterprises—until now. Some organizations today employ agile marketing, a set of methodologies based on agile software development. The idea is to collocate a group of people across business units to work on solving a common problem via focused collaboration, testing, iteration, and data insights.
The promise? To break down organizational silos and get things done quickly and efficiently, in sync with the rapid pace of technological change happening all around us today.
“Agile marketing is the prioritization of creating value for the customer above all else,” said Russ Lange, partner at consultancy CMG Partners. “It’s 90% mindset and 10% methodology or process. As marketers, our approach to problems, opportunities, and prioritization must be done wearing the shoes of our customers. Methodologies like Kanban or Scrum provide focused, efficient, and visible paths to get work done. Together, agile mindset and methodology reduce the work and heroics required of teams, while increasing the value created for our customers and companies.”
Brands that have operationalized agile marketing at scale throughout their organizations share a core operating model in which they move and innovate much faster and closer to real time, according to Jason Heller, partner, global lead, digital marketing operations and technology, at McKinsey.
“Agile marketing organizations leverage a form of agile that is similar in spirit to agile software development but tailored to the unique rapid goals of a commercial function. They deploy autonomous cross-functional teams, each with a specific goal to execute against, leveraging data-driven insights and advanced analytics, and supported by an evolving technology stack,” Heller told CMO.com.
Put another way, agile helps to solve the age-old problem of slow-moving, siloed organizations by putting representatives from various business units together to work on a core set of KPIs, CMG’s Lange added.
“These individuals also need the autonomy to execute without having to run it up the chain of command for a whole bunch of approvals,” he told CMO.com.
Read on to learn how three brands have put agile in action—and how doing so has put their ability to innovate on the fast track.
Multinational corporation 3M began using agile methodologies in its marketing about 18 months ago, according to the company’s CMO, Paul Acito.
“Agile allows us to match the clock-speed of our customers,” Acito told CMO.com in an exclusive interview. “We’re finding that all of our customers, across our vast array of products, are accelerating their cycle times. With agile, we can test and learn and get things to match the speed of our diverse set of industries to which we market.”
In practice, 3M gathers teams of about 12 to 15 people in what Acito calls “a bay”—basically a room with a long table, comfortable chairs, big screens, a bunch of laptops, and ample snacks. Half the team hails from the business side: sales, portfolio leads, communications, business managers, technical service, and legal. The rest comprises marketing, digital experts, and creative folks.
Additionally, a facilitator—a.k.a. the “scrum master”—is assigned, and then the team works in two-week sprints.
“These are typically pretty big projects with a big, long backlog of stuff to do,” Acito explained. “So there needs to be a very clear goal. But it’s not rocket science. If you take a bunch of smart people with the right training, the right tools, and put them in a room for two weeks, things will get done."
And because these folks are collocated, a great deal of cross-functional learning occurs, he added.
One of the early adopters of the agile methodology within 3M is its Industrial Business Group, which has a number of divisions, including one that makes industrial abrasives and sanding products for the global manufacturing, automotive, and construction sectors. The team was interested in building an online calculator to help business customers figure out which products work best for them. According to Acito, a project like this would have typically taken months to build, or maybe longer. But the team was able to accomplish it in a couple of two-week sprints.
“We've really taken [agile] and proliferated it throughout the organization,” Acito said. “It leans the process. And anything that the customer doesn’t benefit from, we just don’t do anymore.”
Leading health care benefits company Aetna first put agile marketing in play two years ago for a large-scale program to market Medicare to individuals during its annual Q4 enrollment period.
“Our annual enrollment period is a significant time of year. Working under a compressed timeframe, traditionally, we would put together a simple plan and forge ahead,” said David Edelman, CMO of Aetna. “But a lot is at stake in this short timeframe. When I joined Aetna, I soon realized we needed to move to an agile model.”
Aetna set up a “war room,” with people from marketing, creative, analytics, technology, legal, agencies, and distribution physically together. This team started putting tests out once a week, quickly figuring out what elements of its marketing worked and what didn’t—all the while optimizing on what they learned.
“It led to a doubling of marketing’s impact on the growth of the business,” Edelman said. “And the following year it led to a doubling of our marketing budget. And we then had war room 2.0 the following year.”
For that, Aetna brought in the telemarketing team, since that’s where many marketing qualified leads ended up. The agile approach helped the company optimize the routing of leads, Edelman explained.
“We figured out which reps should get which kinds of leads, which scripts we should use, and made sure that we moved people through the funnel,” Edelman said. “We also brought in media buying, started to experiment much more with specific placements, and optimized our spend across all our media placements.”
However, Edelman cautioned, agile isn’t the answer for everything. For example, a big part of Aetna’s business involves selling to employers, where “agile marketing is not the best approach, as rapid testing cannot be done for an eight-month sales cycle,” he explained.
His advice for digital leaders who want to go agile? “Create a backlog of things you want to test and try, and cycle through them in a very rapid pace.”
A cultural change also needs to occur: Leaders need to accept the risk of moving faster and delegating more decisions to their teams so they can keep moving, Edelman said.
“Eighty percent of the time, work is just not getting done because of waiting—waiting for meetings, waiting for approvals, things like that,” he said. “You’ve got to really dig in and allow yourself to compress that. It’s a radical shift.”
Used-car retailer CarMax’s agile marketing philosophy is built on the principle of rapid iteration to solve problems in real time, according to CMO Jim Lyski.
“Data and analytics are core to evaluating test results, and the heartbeat of the concept is driven by the work of a collaborative and cross-functional team,” he told CMO.com.
CarMax relies on “dual-track” agile, focusing on delivery and discovery in tandem to iterate more quickly, Lyski said. Like 3M and Aetna, CarMax co-locates teams so they can develop solutions quickly.
“Agile marketing helps us build a shared understanding of the problem that we’re trying to solve so we create the most helpful experience for each customer,” he added.
CarMax follows a framework of two-week sprints, in which project results are communicated transparently and metrics are continuously monitored. Lyski stressed the importance of including external agency partners in the sprints so that “everyone has line of sight to the goal and … can contribute [new ideas] in real time,” he told CMO.com.
CarMax recently completed a marketing campaign that was primarily developed by several of its agency partners with agile as their process framework. The approach was a success because it brought everyone together to work as one team and discover the strongest solution, Lyski explained.
“In the past, we may have written a brief, then passed it back and forth between our internal teams and agencies,” he said. “That process can be challenging when developing and sequencing a creative plan. With agile marketing, you can be on a parallel path, even when working with multiple agencies. Not only do you start speaking with one voice and working as a team, you also are increasing the speed of your delivery.”
The success of an agile marketing strategy also relies on the leadership within an organization. At CarMax, teams aren’t told how to solve problems, Lyski said. Rather, they are able to test and learn to uncover the best result.
“The spirit we’re driving at CarMax is an entrepreneurial one–we have shifted to an environment where teams can operate autonomously and in entrepreneurial groups, and fully focus on finding solutions,” he added.