Can marketing learn from agile?

By Steve Johnson

Failing to focus, failing to choose one discipline and stick to it, is exactly what leads firms to a state of mediocrity.—Michael Treacy & Fred Wiersema

small__5141328136When I was the head of marketing, I got into a heated argument about our marketing and promotion programs. It was in a senior management meeting of directors, VPs, and the CEO. One of the directors took me to task for not supporting more industry speaking opportunities. Initially, I gave him a non-answer so we could get back to our primary discussions but he wouldn’t let it go. “Tell me,” he demanded, “why we’re not speaking at industry conferences!”

I shouted back: “You’re getting all the marketing you can afford!”

I explained my approach. “We wrote down everything we wanted to do, put it in priority order, and then moved down the list until we ran out of money. Speaking didn’t make the cut.”  I continued, “Of course, we can do more programs when we have more money. Does anyone want to move some money from their budget to the marketing budget? I thought not.”

We now know this technique as one of the basic elements of Kanban. And yet, in my conversations today, I still hear sales and marketing people arguing about individual programs. “We need to do a newsletter!” or “Hey! Let’s write an ebook!” or “Why aren’t we blogging?”

It’s time to take a step back.

Marketing, like every other department, has to prioritize. We have to choose. And that usually means choosing not to do things. Invariably some don’t get their pet programs funded. After all, there are always more ways to spend money than the budget allows.

We can learn a lot from Kanban. Just like your home budget, you allocate funds by category, prioritize the list, start from the top and work your way through the list until you run out of time or money. We need to focus on business prioritization—just like agile development teams.

What if we managed the promotion plan like a product backlog? What if we applied agile techniques to marketing?

Think of your marketing programs in three levels: company, products or initiatives, and campaigns.

Start with your investments at the company level. There’s a big (or maybe not so big) pot of money. Allocate it among your products and initiatives. What are your big initiatives? What percentage should support the launch of your new products while maintaining the old ones? And don’t forget infrastructure and maintenance. How much do you need to spend on basic infrastructure, such as the web site, automation, and memberships?

With your percentage of marketing spend allocated by products or initiatives, write down your list of campaigns and promotions. Write down everything you can think of.

Now prioritize the list. Look at the business value of each item compared to the others. You can start with “this is more important than that” and after you have a rough sorting, look at the delta between current and desired state. That is, are there any items that are “good enough,” at least for now?

Consider using the Outcome-Driven Innovation approach to prioritization from Anthony Ulwich’s What Customers Want. It’s really quite simple. On a scale of 1 to 5, rate the importance of each item. Then, again from 1 to 5, rate the satisfaction with your current state. The value of the opportunity (or program in this case) is the importance plus the delta between importance and current satisfaction. Need help? Download this tool to see how it works for your marketing programs.

If you need help wrapping your mind around apply agile approaches to marketing, Lean Samarai has a quick video overview of the SAFe approach to product development. Watch the video—but instead of thinking how it can be used in development, consider its application to marketing programs. Instead of development teams, think of your content teams, bloggers, PR teams, events, and so on.

This approach makes sense to me. What about you? Does agile marketing make sense for your organization? Add your comments below.

photo credit: 3oheme via photopin cc

  1. Derrek Cooper (@derrekcooper)

    Hi Steve, as usual, interesting viewpoints. I agree on the prioritized list approach. “Funding” seems to be the bane of every marketing team’s existence.

    However, in the spirit of being agile, I find that the marketing plan should be treated like the product backlog. I appreciate that it takes alot of planning and coordination to commit to the “plan”. But, too often, I find that we stick to the plan religiously, because after all, its the plan.

    I have found more success when you prioritize the list, as you mentioned, but execute in increments. Evaluate the impact of the execution, fine tune and continue. Fully appreciate that it takes a few cycles to determine the impact of a campaign or a website launch etc. But, we should be open to say the original plan needs to be tweaked. Like anything in life, this needs balance. We can’t react to every backseat marketers whim. I am talking about data driven feedback that something is not working, something has a higher priority than it did initially — based on data.

    I can count a number of incidences where we trumped an idea because of “the budget”. We didn’t entertain the idea, simply because the plan was baked and the funds were spent. In fact, we always have end of quarter money and those that have the data to tweak the plan, should be willing to brainstorm on how to fund it.

    Anyone can spit out a cool idea. Those that can see an idea through execution, they are the true gems in the org.

  2. ocoleibp

    We’ve had a lot of success with agile on the marketing team at Ifbyphone. Organizing the team’s tasks into two week “sprints” with those tasks arranged by priority, we never need to argue about who’s doing what, why, and when. The entire team has access to the sprint and therefore knows exactly what they (and their teammates) will be working on for the two week period, ensuring accountability to our tasks and to each other. Our daily morning scrums keep us on track for our own goals, while also informing the rest of the team what we have and will accomplish on a day-to-day basis, as well as any “blockers” that are keeping us from completing any aspect of those goals. Sometimes those “blockers” are each other, and daily scrums ensure that projects move through the pipeline smoothly. With scrums and sprints, we are more agile as a team: priorities are in order and everyone knows what everyone else is doing. Sometimes a task has to roll over to the next sprint, but if it does, it’s not an item that can slip between the cracks: the team is aware of the rollover and we can all work together to knock it out on the next sprint.

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