Marketing Strategy

'Agile marketing' is a crutch for those who do not have a real strategy

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‘In many ways, modern marketing has more in common with the software profession than it does with classic marketing management.’ So wrote marketing technologist Scott Brinker in his 2016 book Hacking Marketing. But was he correct?

Too many suit-and-tie marketers seem to loathe themselves, hate their jobs, and wish they were hoodie-wearing software developers instead. It is the only reason that I can surmise why the digital marketing world adopts so much of the trendy vocabulary of the high-tech industry without question.

“10x programmers” led to “10x marketers.” “DevOps” inspired “MarDev.” “T-shaped developers” resulted in “T-shaped marketers.” Many online marketers now want to be called “growth hackers”. When internet marketers do not have an original thought, they seem to steal an idea from the high-tech world. Digital marketers believe that techies are as cool as Kim Deal and think that any idea that is useful in the software development industry must be copied in marketing.

But building brands and deploying software are two very different things – and never the twain shall meet. Still, the startup founders who know only software development but not traditional marketing think otherwise.

The rise of ‘agile marketing’

A common tech term in marketing industry news is “agile marketing,” which is a statement that makes as much sense as Oasis saying they were bigger than the Beatles. Most recently, Facebook announced Codeless Events Setup for Apps, which the company stated allows “for more efficient, agile marketing for your mobile app”.

First, it is important to understand the term. Historically, software developers would work in a linear process. The first team writes a batch of code and sends it a second team to do another part. The second to the third. And so on in a straight line until the product was finished. New releases were big but infrequent. This is called the “waterfall” model.

In the early 2000s, a group of developers published the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. The “agile” model aims to deploy new releases quickly but in smaller batches. The waterfall model might create a single, large new product once a year while the agile process might lead to new, smaller features every week. The work in a given period can depend on factors such as customer needs, product feedback, and competitor activity.

In 2012, a group of self-declared “agile marketers” gathered at a SprintZero event in San Francisco and later published the Agile Marketing Manifesto. Here are the main principles:

  • Validated learning over opinions and conventions
  • Customer focused collaboration over silos and hierarchy
  • Adaptive and iterative campaigns over Big-Bang campaigns
  • The process of customer discovery over static prediction
  • Flexible versus rigid planning
  • Responding to change over following a plan
  • Many small experiments over a few large bets

“Agile marketing is about being responsive to change and developing methods to tell the brand story on a much faster release schedule while incorporating real-time data insights into every stage of the process,” Adam Corey, chief marketing officer at Tealium, a company in California that sells enterprise marketing software, said. “Breaking up deliverables into a much smaller subset of deliverables provides the ability to respond in the moment to changing trends, technologies, and customer needs.”

“Agile marketing is simply a methodology [that] follows a set of principles with the goal of delivering business results faster by having the ability to pivot more quickly to an ever-changing global market,” Peter Mikeal, head of marketing strategy at Small Footprint, an US agile software development firm, said.

The potential benefits of agile

Several marketers told me the benefits of the agile model.

“We use agile marketing across the entirety of our client portfolio – it’s one of the advantages afforded to an integrated, in-house agency,” Sharon Whale, chief executive of the Oliver agency in the UK, said. “Our recent drive with Visit Britain lasted for six months. In that period, 261 briefs were submitted, and we serviced the client across 22 worldwide markets.”

“The client buys into in-house as it delivers the ultimate example of agile marketing,” she continued. “There’s no mixed messaging from multiple agencies, there’s a significant cost saving per month, and the establishment of a new workflow management system ensured that briefs could be assigned, tackled and improved at the drop of a hat.”

“Pretty much everything we do is done in agile mode,” Mike Harrison, head of digital at the UK agency Essential, said. “For one of the large phone network providers, we found that their partners were not engaging so much with the new collateral marketed to them. We introduced an interactive quiz to lead partners around the new content. As a result, engagement visits, dwell time, and downloads increased by over 100% in the short-term and further quizzes and other responsive activity has maintained engagement at the higher level solidly for the last 12 months.”

“When it comes to our marketing activities, because we’re a tech company, we can track a lot of things,” Kristin Eberth, director of marketing and communications at the Canadian media reading platform PressReader, said. “This means that we can be pretty agile in our digital and non-digital campaigns because we can get at least a basic sense of our ROI pretty easily. It’s in our DNA to relentlessly test different variables, adjust campaigns in response to user feedback, and move quickly.

But the claims are not always valid

I cannot argue with the success of individual marketing teams, but isolated examples cannot validate a general idea.

Marketers love to throw out random numbers. Social media devotees point to studies such as this one from GlobalWebIndex stating that 40% of internet users follow business pages. (In 2007, I once “liked” the Facebook page for the movie So I Married an Axe Murderer and completely forgot about it until now.)

But when you look more deeply, it turns out that “social media marketing” is practically useless because people mainly follow friends, family members, politicians, celebrities and sports teams. Only a miniscule percentage of the total market for a given consumer brand will follow and engage with that brand on social networks. In 2018, there is little reason for consumer brands to be on social media. (But if you are Marvel Studios, Nicki Minaj, or Jordan Pickford, you have my blessing.)

Likewise, claims of agile marketing’s effectiveness compared to traditional practices are equally dubious because numbers in a vacuum lack context.

“You simply cannot do a double-blind kind of research in which you compare the two methods under identical circumstances,” Richard Engelfriet, a Dutch management author and columnist, said. “So all those marketeers that say that they get better results are talking nonsense. There’s no proof. Perhaps some ‘scrumdamentalists’ will come up with ‘scientific proof’. But it’s always just a survey in which they ask people if they believe agile works. It’s like asking the Pope if he is Catholic and if he thinks if that’s a good idea.”

Moreover, half of the ideas of agile marketing are nothing new. Look again at the basic principles above. “Validated learning” is something that BBH Labs and the IPA in the UK as well as Byron Sharp in Australia, among others, have been doing. “Customer-focused collaboration” and “customer discovery” just echo the traditional principle of being customer-facing.

“Agile marketing is old hat being touted as something new by those without sufficient marketing training in the tech industry,” Samuel Brealey, a British marketing consultant, said. “It’s a bit like a guy inventing the wheel except he doesn’t call it a wheel and it’s actually hexagonal, but still claiming it’s better than a wheel. The biggest, long-lived companies in tech or otherwise use conventional, strategic marketing throughout their organisations that balances both the short term and long term.”

The rest of agile is nothing but myopic short-termism. AgileSherpas has a list of agile marketing case studies, but they are vague and do not specifically state what promotional tactics and media mixes were used. Econsultancy’s collection of agile marketing examples is one part a bunch of “ultra-fast” ways to throw random stuff on social media networks and one part things that any good marketer should be doing anyway. Agile seems just to be doing marcomms extremely quickly – and always over digital channels (which are less effective for advertising).

“The issue with agile, in a nutshell, is that it very much plays into the current short-termism that plagues modern marketing,” JP Hanson, chief executive at the Swedish strategic consultancy Rouser, said. “What is called ‘agile’ is merely an abandonment of strategy in favor of whatever direction the wind happens to be blowing at the moment. Throwing the proverbial pasta at the wall, if at a quicker pace than ever before due to digital tools, to see what sticks requires little talent or training and yields equally little after long-term use.”

Further, the incorporation of pop culture phenomena or news events into campaigns is nothing new. It is just that news today comes every hour rather than once a day.

In one of the first and most infamous examples of publicity, Edward Bernays was hired by the American Tobacco Company in 1929 to increase the number of female smokers. There was an upcoming Easter Sunday parade in New York City, so he paid women to smoke what he termed “torches of freedom” as they walked in the march. That scandalous act garnered countless media coverage and increased sales. Such campaigns can occur today in an “agile” philosophy – the only difference is that they might happen more quickly.

Which marketing tactics and channels change?

Longtime readers of this column know that I typically discuss promotional tactics and media channels. I look at promotion rather than product, and I have yet to see specific examples of agile marketing in that context. The reason? Tactics and channels do not change that much.

The modern promotion mix of tactics consists of advertising, direct response, public relations, personal selling and search engine optimisation. Advertising is the repeated communication of a message over the long term to a mass audience to build a brand in a creative and memorable way – being “agile” and changing everything every week would be a recipe for advertising failure. A creative ad cannot be broken into bits like software code. Advertising plans cannot and should not constantly change.

Public relations might include media relations, the act of creating positive relationships with journalists for long-term publicity, and community relations, which is doing something similar but with groups such as influencers and product users. PR is a long-term tactic with specific audiences whose execution cannot and should not constantly change.

Personal selling is simply salespeople doing what they do best. They might talk to B2B software prospects lower in the funnel or ring the doorbells of homes in a new neighborhood each week to sell vacuum cleaners. Again, the basic idea cannot and should not constantly change.

However, agile can be useful in search engine optimisation, direct response and customer support.

Igal Stolpner, head of growth and marketing at Investing.com, published a 2014 post on Moz’s contributor blog showing how an agile mindset can help SEO because search algorithms frequently change. Small, specific changes on an ongoing basis can fix technical errors and other website issues. These practices can and should constantly change.

“Our core marketing focus has been around organic search,” Stuart McClure, chief marketing officer and co-founder of the UK online retail website Lovethesales.com, said. “Agile specifically complements this as we can very swiftly adapt to any algorithm changes from search engines. We have driven millions of users to our site through organic search with a miniscule budget and very finite human resources.”

Direct response is the most obvious use case for agile. If I run Google Ads, LinkedIn and Facebook ad campaigns, the goal is to get the most sales or best leads at the lowest cost. Conversion rates and prices constantly change, so it makes sense to adjust spending on an ongoing basis. The same is true with customer service because important customers or feedback needs to be addressed more quickly. These practices can and should be executed quickly.

The marketing channels within the promotion mix, for the most part, do not change. Every channel from print to television to radio to direct mail to email to Google to Facebook has longstanding positive and negative aspects. TV is expensive but is best at building brands. Email is cheap but can come across as spammy. Traditional media, according to a recent study by Australian market research company Roy Morgan, is trusted far more than social media. And so on.

The benefits and drawbacks of any given channel rarely change, so there is little reason to be “agile” and radically change channel-based spends all the time except in the specific case of direct response, SEO and customer service. If your product is software, then agile can be useful to build what you are selling – but product and promotion are two different things.

Strategy is paramount

Economics is the study of how markets can allocate scarce resources efficiently. Marketers should remember that. For any given company’s marcomms, some promotional tactics will be better than others. Some channels will be better than others. Strategy determines those priorities.

A strategy is like a symphony. Each promotional tactic or media channel is like one set of musicians in the group. But as not every single instrument in the world is used in any given song, so should not every tactic or channel should be part of a strategy. A strategy maximises efficiency by studying and determining in advance what to do and not do.

Each set of specialised instruments or marketing activities plays a specific role during a symphony or campaign, and the result is a thing of beauty that is as brilliant as the perfectly-synced instruments in ABC’s video for the 1982 song Poison Arrow. If countless, single sets of instruments were to start and stop playing in sequence, the resulting song would be terrible.

The harmonies work together. A creative advertisement might inspire journalists to write about it and further the campaign’s reach through publicity. Inspired customer support over email might encourage users to spread the word on social media. But the harmony depends on the strategic decision of who will and will not sing.

But brands that insist on being “agile” and changing short-term tactics all the time will only lose money. Unfortunately, a recent study conducted by Deloitte on behalf of Facebook found that only 17% of marketers in Australia today see long-term brand building as their top objective. Evidently, the agile fad has reached even the land of Men at Work and vegemite.

“At its worst, [agile] just results in disorganisation and a bit too much chaos,” Rob Estreitinho, senior strategist at the British agency VCCP Kin, said. “The risk is often that teams focus on the tactical level of things without considering the overarching strategic direction. Loads of hypotheses and tactics without a guiding vision rarely lead you to good places.”

Say that you do “agile marketing” and test various tactics and channels all the time. If it takes months to determine what works best, it will have wasted time and money. A good strategy would have determined what to do at the beginning.

Remember: you are a marketer – not a software developer.

The Promotion Fix is an exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by global marketing and technology keynote speaker Samuel Scott, a former journalist, consultant and director of marketing in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.

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