Whether or not you've ever known what it's called, you've likely been following Waterfall project management processes for most of your career. This traditional methodology involves up-front planning followed by sequential execution on the plan, from step A to step Z.
If you're constructing a bridge, this method works great. Why? Because you can envision exactly what you're building and how it's going to function before you begin. And you know the precise need the project will fulfill: helping people cross a river at a particular juncture.
But for marketers and software engineers who work with code and pixels rather than concrete and steel, traditional project management methods are far too rigid. Luckily, there's an alternative.
Born in the IT Industry
Agile project management grew out of the software industry, where teams aren't always sure which metaphorical river they're going to cross when they begin, let alone whether to build a virtual bridge, boat, tunnel, or some other solution never before conceived of by humankind.
A development team could spend 2 years creating innovative new software that's brilliantly executed—and then find out that no one really needs the solution it provides. The rise of Agile has made it possible for teams to hypothesize, build, release, and test one small piece at a time, responding to user feedback and a rapidly changing market along the way.
Rather than following one long overarching process separated into four distinct phases (Discover. Plan. Build. Review.), Agile teams repeat the four phases over and over in small iterations (discover-plan-build-review-discover-plan-build-review). While this is an oversimplification of how it works, it's still a handy illustration of the basic difference between Agile and Waterfall.
Marketing Goes Agile
More and more marketers and creatives are starting to embrace the Agile mindset, because marketing projects can be similarly fluid and hypothesis-based. Like software engineers, marketers aren't always simply responding to an existing, concrete need (e.g., the need to cross a river). They often have to create the desire or need, especially when they're marketing a product or solution that's entirely new.
As a Creative Director, one of the main reasons I implemented the Agile methodology within my team is because it's possible to test the actual efficacy of our campaigns with our actual audience in real time. Gone are the days of conceptualizing a complete marketing campaign, consulting focus groups, painstakingly building out all the assets, and then releasing it all and hoping for the best. In today's digital world, trends and memes rise and fall way too rapidly to have our hands tied by the plans we made in our January strategy meeting.
With Agile, we can build a few pieces of a campaign, release them into the wild, see how they're received, and then either amplify or abandon our efforts based on that feedback.
We are not Agile purists. We use the aspects of the methodology that work well for us, and we dismiss those that don't. Our approach is well summarized in the Agile Marketing Manifesto:
- Validated learning over opinions and conventions
- Customer-focused collaboration over silos and hierarchy
- Adaptive/iterative campaigns over Big-Bang campaigns
- Customer discovery over static prediction
- Flexible planning over rigid planning
- Responding to change over following a plan
- Many small experiments over a few large bets
A Zombie Case Study
A couple of years ago, we built a campaign around the idea of "The Working Dead," illustrating prospect pain points in the form of zombies. We started by creating and releasing a single asset: an eBook.
Only after we saw that our audience was responding well to the campaign, based on the number of views and shares it inspired, did we decide to "flesh out" the campaign (pun intended.) We ended up creating five videos, an infographic, a couple of data sheets, and more.
With Agile marketing, we build enough flexibility into our process to be able to pivot and adapt based on real-time learning. We don't have a calendar stretching months into the future that tells us what we're working on and when.
Instead, we have a Backlog—a consolidated list of all team work, including due dates, priority, and time estimates. At the beginning of each week, we hold a Sprint Planning Meeting, where we pull a certain number of items from the backlog into our current Sprint—the work queue that reflects all the tasks we have the capacity to complete this week.
Every Monday, we have a chance to reprioritize, pull new projects into the new Sprint, and let failing projects go. This flexibility is what allowed us to work in five zombie videos quickly enough to capitalize on the success of the eBook.
Empowering the Individual
Traditional marketing has been very up-front and top-down. A few leaders, often including the CMO and creative director, decide "here's what the team is going to do," and the rest of the team just executes. They are the hands doing the work to realize someone else's vision. The campaigns are built and the money is spent long before a customer lays eyes on a single banner.
Agile marketing is more about empowering the individual members of the creative team to take the first step based on an initial hypothesis—and then react to what the marketplace is telling them.