Agile marketing: Three CMOs on why they made the switch

High profile marketing teams are changing how they work and adopting agile marketing processes originally created for the software industry. Lara Sinclair spoke with three leading Australian brand CMOs on why they made the switch to agile and the effect it’s had on their brands.

For years, agile marketing as a concept seemed to be limited to technology brands, digital agencies and the web development teams of major brands. But when we look back on 2016, it seems clear it will be the year agile reached the marketing mainstream.

In the US, studies show as many as 60% of marketing teams are using at least some agile practices, seeking to enshrine speed, responsiveness and customer-centricity in marketing.

But agile marketing is also gaining pace in Australia, where a swathe of national brands are adopting agile marketing work processes to get more out of their marketing activity.

 

What is agile marketing?

Agile marketing is a way of managing marketing in which autonomous, customer-focused teams work in short, iterative cycles to complete highly defined projects and measure their impact. In agile, the emphasis is on rapid test and learn cycles and continuous improvement based on data, rather than executing a predetermined plan.

It was adapted from the Agile Manifesto which was created by software developers 15 years ago. Traditional, or waterfall, development – which moves in a linear process from planning to development, then testing and launch – was proving to be slow, unresponsive and ineffective in a rapidly changing competitive environment.

Traditional work practices are also being re-examined in marketing, where the pace of change is increasing and marketing needs to be more responsive as a result. In many industries, startups are disrupting established business models; digital marketing enables these new competitors to get their marketing message out without big media budgets; the mass media audiences in which established brands were advertised and built are eroding; technology is continually opening up new marketing opportunities; and new digital touch points are emerging all the time.

 

Who is using agile marketing practices?

Global brands including IBM, Coca-Cola, Twitter, Wells Fargo, and many others have talked publicly about using agile practices in marketing.

In Australia, agile marketing has come out from behind the digital curtain to be adopted by major financial services brands including (but not limited to) Commonwealth Bank, mortgage broker Aussie, health fund HCF, gaming brand Tabcorp, and retailer Chemmart, as well as pure-play digital brands such as Canva and Seek.

Among the benefits they list are:

  • Better alignment of marketing activity with organisation’s strategic goals,
  • increased speed to market,
  • higher digital conversion rates,
  • higher productivity,
  • improved morale and ownership of outcomes in the marketing team,
  • better working relationship with other departments (such as technology),
  • increased efficiency,
  • sales growth,
  • increased customer satisfaction,
  • improved return on marketing investment.

 

Let’s have a closer look at the agile marketing experience of three of these brands in detail.

 

Aussie

Mortgage broker Aussie has adopted agile throughout the organisation, including in marketing. The aim is to focus the entire business on five areas of focus derived from its corporate goals: sales growth, customer passion, Aussie made easy, product competitiveness and risk, culture and capability.

Customer experience, marketing, analytics and technology all come under the remit of GM, customer experience Richard Burns.

Earlier this year Aussie implemented an agile Scrum methodology that sees work broken down into two-week sprints, and tracked on six scrum boards: one for each area of focus, and another to manage the technology work that supports the other five areas.

Burns says Aussie’s agile transformation is about delivering business outcomes.

“There was a lot of work going on before, but it was about changing everything to where the greatest value was going to be,” Burns says. “It’s about aligning to our strategic goals.”

Each board is administered by a Scrum master, and no projects can be started until they’re on the relevant boards. “We’re quite strict – if it’s not on there, it’s not going to get done,” Burns says.

The team moved into offices in May designed specifically to facilitate activity-based work in cross-functional teams.

More than 90 team members have received agile training, and the marketing team put it into action in a trial by fire, using agile marketing process to create and execute Aussie’s recent brand relaunch.

“Just getting that visibility around all the different pieces of work that we’re doing has been a benefit,” Burns says.

The process is being improved all the time. Recently teams added stars to their Scrum board to denote the absolute top priority projects and experiment symbols to denote tests.

And while some teams are giving points to tasks and using it to calculate their speed, others are not there yet.

“We’ve got to keep trying to work out the flavour of agile for us,” Burns says.

 

Chemmart

The national Chemmart chain of 300 pharmacies is one of the flagship brands in the $2bn TWG retail group. National marketing manager Darren Gunton introduced a Scrumban agile marketing process two years ago.

Themed retail campaigns are conducted using Scrum, which means they are completed in monthly work cycles, or sprints; loyalty marketing activity is conducted in two-week sprints.

All marketing work including planning is managed via Kanban boards, in which a backlog of work is created and projects are moved from ‘in progress’ to ‘peer review’ and then ‘done’.

“What I’ve found in marketing over the past 25 years is it’s just got quicker, faster, and things change so much you need to be able to adapt really quickly,” Gunton says.

Gunton says the driving force for all activity is to be “more efficient and be closer to the customer”.

In keeping with agile’s test, learn and optimise philosophy, catalogue covers and offers are A/B tested directly with customers before they are launched.

“We get the customer to decide for us,” Gunton says. “It’s quick – it takes 24 hours and we get the results back.”

Creative was brought in-house in order to make the team autonomous and more responsive.

The results have included a $3m cost-saving, sales growth and a double-digit improvement in customer satisfaction, Gunton says.

 

HCF

Jenny Williams, CMO of HCF, first experienced agile work practices as a digital marketer working in agencies. The not-for-profit health insurance fund is undergoing a digital transformation that has included the adoption of agile practices for campaign development and media optimisation, as well as an overhaul of its website and marketing systems.

Frustrated by competition between HCF’s rostered agencies, the ‘not invented here’ syndrome, the tendency to develop ideas in a vacuum and the expense of changing direction during a campaign, or rebriefing, HCF has developed an iterative briefing process with its agencies.

“We’re having incremental meetings with either internal stakeholders or agencies,” Williams says. “Every time we have a meeting some new insight that we need to think about or refine comes up and we try to solve it, or we go away and solve it in the interim, so we’re continuing to refine the thinking.”

She has also established an iterative weekly media optimisation meeting in which HCF’s media agency reports media activity and corresponding branch, call centre and internet sales, and its analytics team, sales, customer and other departments discuss how to respond to maximise bang for the media buck.

“Our digital conversion rates have absolutely improved,” Williams says. “The mix of our media has definitely improved. Our share of voice for the same marketing dollar has definitely improved.”

 

Tips from agile marketers

While the benefits of agile marketing can be significant, it’s not for everyone. If your market doesn’t change much and you know the desired outcome at the start of a project – say, you’re building a bridge – agile marketing may not be worth your while.

Agile marketing processes don’t run themselves. To succeed they require executive buy-in; training and support; an internal champion to help keep them ticking over; the modification of other processes (such as budgeting and financial governance frameworks) to allow for changes in marketing direction; collaboration tools to help scale them; and clear communication with other parts of the organisation that the way marketing works is changing.

Finance and governance may require a ‘wagile’ (combination of waterfall and agile) approach, according to Williams, where projects need to pass governance hurdles at certain points.

Gunton says the cultural change required to get people on your team to work differently is significant.

“I think the biggest challenge with moving to agile is changing the way people work,” Gunton says. “So you really need to support, engage, empower and help your staff change.”

But it’s not a matter of hiring staff who are experienced in agile, according to Burns.

“People have worked a certain way for a long period of time. It’s just a matter of training,” he says.

There’s little doubt increased speed, responsiveness and customer-centricity are crucial to the future of marketing.

For marketing teams working in a changeable competitive landscape, it may soon be a case of get agile or risk getting left behind.

 

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Lara Sinclair is a former marketing journalist for The Australian and head of content for marketing performance company Simple. 

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