Why agile marketing doesn’t give you permission to make it up as you go along

Michael Valos and Alvin Lee ask how chief marketers can find a balance between what should be planned versus what should be left for experimentation and learning.

This article originally appeared in The Versus Issue, our February/March issue of Marketing magazine.

Many CMOs are unsure how to best utilise emergent technologies.

valos leeTechnologies such as behavioural targeting, programmatic advertising, social media monitoring, mobile marketing, customer analytics and big data are changing the face of marketing. This leads into the long-running debate about using a planned or an emergent strategy.

Cisco’s study of C-level executives reported that organisations are struggling with digital transformation processes. CMOs appear overwhelmed by the choices and complexity they face. Chief marketers face challenges that include increased accountability, more fickle consumers, complexity of integrating technological solutions and making the best choices about digital channels.

In the rapidly changing realm of emerging technology, to what degree should they attempt a planned strategy? What should be planned versus what should be left for experimentation and learning? Can we find a balance? We believe marketers will face problems with a lock-in strategy and will also face problems where they have no plans, make decisions on the run and lose the big picture perspective.

The dilemma: agile versus strategic planning

We are currently in the growth stage of digital marketing. This means the continual introduction of new and competing apparatus until the market finds a common platform. This technology development results in quickly outdated systems. In this situation, many feel that strategic planning has lost its usefulness because future technologies, future competitors and future customer techniques are difficult to predict.

Consequently, agile marketing is increasingly being considered as a solution. For now, should marketers throw strategic planning out of the window? What are the implications for people and process when faced with a turbulent, unpredictable and uncertain future?

Ben Robertson, senior strategist at Hardhat Digital, attempts to reconcile this dilemma. “It’s important to note that being agile is not the antithesis of planning – in fact the contrary is true. Good planning is at the heart of a great agile process. What sets agile apart from its more traditional counterparts is that it values the idea of responding to change over following the plan.

It recognises that the learnings garnered during a project can be far more accurate than the ones predicted at the onset and, as a result, a team should constantly scrutinise the plan in the interest of continual improvement.”

With digital platforms constantly evolving and taking on new characteristics, the ability to test and learn is fundamental. The plan provides a broad roadmap, but agility is required when competing within a business domain.

“There can be a perception that being agile gives permission to make it up as you go along,” says Caroline Ruddick, head of marketing at AGL Energy.

“There is nothing further from the truth. To be successful, you need to be well planned and structured. Success is achieved through the trade-offs and prioritising your needs; you can’t do that unless you plan. Your desired outcomes can be set as the measures, and the plan is how you will achieve those outcomes. Having those measures of what success is gives the team the ability to innovate, experiment and have flexibility in how they achieve the goals.”

In an ideal world, planning speeds up decision-making, increases productivity and efficiency, and reduces waste. “When you don’t plan, you increase the risk of not delivering a successful outcome,” Ruddick says. “With lack of planning, you also put at risk resource availability and the quality of resources from suppliers, agencies and support teams that will enable you to deliver as required.”

In question is the degree to which you can plan and achieve the benefits of taking the guesswork out of decisions.

The process challenge

MK0217 200Trisca Scott-Branagan, executive director of the marketing division at Deakin University, says the opportunity is to build on the foundations of the marketing tech stacks most marketing departments have now built. “That’s not to say it’s a perfect stack at this point, but the foundations have mostly been laid,” she says. Scott-Branagan  is re-examining marketing for potential new opportunities and embraces aspects of Scrum, the agile methodology that has come out of the software development industry.

Used in marketing, she explains: “Now that teams have the tools to respond in real time to marketing opportunities, our attention is focusing on how we operate as a team. Taking inspiration from how the IT world has evolved from a waterfall approach to projects to an agile methodology of working together, the next frontier of disruption for marketing, I believe, is through process. That is, changing the way we work together.”

The people challenge

The need for agility affects recruitment, rewards and training. “The world moves rapidly and, to stay ahead, your team needs to move just as quickly and adapt,” says Christine Khor, managing director at Chorus Executive.

“Traditionally, evidence of a candidate’s ability to fulfil the requirements and expectations of the role has been based on three things: qualifications, technical skills and experience in large, familiar organisations. These three things won’t guarantee you talent that is adaptable and agile.”

This suggests that to achieve an agile culture requires open- minded and flexible employees. “It’s candidates from smaller organisations – that have traditionally been overlooked – that can provide what you need,” Khor says.

“Their careers have developed in organisations where everything moves quickly. Resources are often scarce and founders/managers are continuously shifting the goal posts. They can absorb new information quickly and take new technology or approaches in their stride. Their experience, in smaller organisations, has nurtured agility and adaptability.”

The leadership challenge

Requiring agility breeds an ongoing tension: leaders need to plan for the future while remaining flexible in the present. This type of inconsistency in leadership behaviours can lead to perceptions of leader ineffectiveness (Johnson, Venus, Lanaj, Mao and Chang, 2012). But the current business environment makes it unrealistic
to expect leaders to behave in set ways. Indeed, the stage encourages adaptability, particularly when leading change processes.

This tension cannot be reconciled; instead it should be actively monitored and managed.

The situation chief marketers find themselves in harks back to that described by Mintzberg and Waters (1985), who saw organisations as deliberate or emergent. Deliberate strategies are planned and work well in life cycle stages where there is little change (e.g. mature technological markets). This set of strategies gives clarity of purpose and is explicit at communicating the strategy.

Emergent strategies suit growth contexts where the organisation has to adapt its strategies quickly and nimbly. This approach seeks advantage from market changes and over time builds the capacity with the firm to move to deliberate strategies as change in the technological marketplace stabilises and the market matures.

In summary

Marketers need to determine a broad strategy in terms of where they compete and how they compete, but need to adapt to nimble agile competitors often coming from a different market or a different country as well as current events.

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