Mohanbir Sawhney: Why marketers are still struggling to adopt Agile

Ingrained processes and marketing strategies are inhibiting the marketer's ability to lead an agile team, says Kellogg School of Management expert

Much has been written about the emergence of Agile processes in marketing. But while interest in Agile is strong for many marketers, according to noted marketing authority, Professor Mohanbir Sawhney, efforts are being hampered by decades of ingrained processes.

Sawhney is the McCormick Tribune Professor of Technology at the Kellogg School of Management, and travels the world advising brands on marketing trends.

Speaking after his presentation at the World Marketing & Sales Forum in Melbourne in November, Sawhney described how some of the world’s leading technology, marketing and ecommerce companies have adopted agile processes that were refined in the startup sector and applied them successfully to marketing.

“Telecommunication providers and financial service providers have adopted these ideas and become more agile, particularly in the way that they do customer-facing marketing,” Sawhney said. “Then technology companies and online companies - if your product is always-on, your marketing needs to be always-on.”

Agile processes are generally used by software startups as an alternative to traditional linear waterfall project management methodologies, and promote the use of short development cycles using cross-functional teams. Ultimately, the adoption of Agile can create an environment of continuous delivery.

But this approach is at odds with the highly-structured and linear processes traditionally adopted by markets, which focus on ‘big-bang’ campaigns and quarterly or annual budgeting and review cycles.

“There is a rhythm and cadence to the business of marketing that large companies are used to, and organisations are set up that way,” Sawhney said. “Even if people find the ideas of Agile conceptually appealing, it is very hard to change organisations, it is very hard to change mindsets, and it is very hard to change budgeting.

“But those are the things that need to change.”

Sawhney suggested organisations that want to embrace Agile are best advised to start with small projects and small teams, just as a startup would. Running Agile projects alongside traditional waterfall-style projects leads to a hybrid management process, but Sawhney said this as perfectly acceptable if managed properly.

“If I am doing a brand campaign that is going to rely on traditional media, there is a lead time, because you have got to buy upfront,” he said. “To the extent that your campaign still relies on long lead time media execution, it is OK to have that big campaign idea. But around the same brand campaign, there may be digital tactics that are more amenable to the Agile methodology.

“So I would say it is not an all-or-nothing approach. Figure out ways in which you can tactically start to embed Agile programs within the larger setting.”

One of the hallmarks of an Agile marketing function is that it sits alongside a mature agile IT function. Sawhney said this partnership is essential.

“You can’t run a data-driven, content-led marketing experience without the back-end,” he continued. “People embracing marketing automation and analytics are able to do this, because agility at the end of the day is informed by data, and data is informed by investments you make in infrastructure.”

But while Agile processes are driven by data, Sawhney said this does not result in the death of the creative process.

“You need gut, you need creativity, and you need instinct to come up with ideas and the creative spark,” he said. “But then you need data to be able to test.”

If marketers find themselves struggling to adopt agile processes, they might take heart from the knowledge they are no worse off than their agency partners.

“Agencies have the same structure problem that clients do,” Sawhney said. “They are also caught like deer in the headlights now, because they have acquired boutique companies that do social media listening and Web traffic and mobile and video and so on, and have all these silos of capability. It is really hard for agencies to deliver a 360-degree end-to-end, seamlessly integrated team that combines all these parts.”

The role of the agency will be further complicated by a trend Sawhney noted for marketing teams to bring more capabilities in-house, particularly around content creation.

“The role of the agency becomes a facilitator and a curator, as opposed to an originator of content,” he said. “More and more marketers are taking control of their destiny as it relates to content, because they are the ones who are closer to the content.”

More on agility in marketing:

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