Rolling out agile marketing at Deakin

We chat with the agency helping train Deakin's marketers to embrace a new way of working, as well as look at the distinct differences between software and marketing driven agility

If this year’s CMO50 nominations are anything to go by, ‘agile’ has become the buzzword of 2017. Marketers striving to build more adaptability, resiliency and a culture of continuous improvement are all turning to the lessons of software’s Agile methodology as a way of reshaping their function for the future, albeit with varying degrees of success.

One organisation leading the way in terms of successful agile rollouts is Deakin University. Led by the education institution’s executive director of marketing, Trisca Scott-Branagan, Deakin recently joined forces with US-based agile training group, AgencyAgile, in a bid to embrace agile as a new way of working.

Importantly, it’s the agency’s unique approach to tailoring agile metholodogy to the marketing and agency space that’s really paying dividends.

The catalyst for Deakin came in mid-2016, when the team had to deliver four programs of work within days of each other. These were Open Day, Deakin’s biggest annual event and largest lead generation activity of the year; the launch of the new website; a new branding campaign, the uni’s first in four years; and taking the brand nationally for the first time in its history.

Existing processes simply couldn’t cope with the workload, and teams were stretched to the limit, Scott-Branagan said.

Staff from different teams started pooling around projects, mapping them out and "chunking down" activities that had to occur in order to meet the deadline, Scott-Branagan said. The change was transformational.

This year, the focus is on embedding that agile way of working across the whole Deakin marketing division to bring consistency in approach and language.

“It’s been about tackling that whole change process so we could change the way we work,” Scott-Branagan said. “We’re in the middle of that now, and it’s not perfect yet. But staff have loved the difference, and that’s the future.”

The model

Enter AgencyAgile. CEO and founder, Jack Skeels, said the business is designed to bring agile-like techniques to marketing organisations and agencies. Established in 2011, the company now boasts of more than 90 clients across the US, Canada, UK, Finland and Australia. Its biggest client to date is Ford Motor Company’s Global Team Blue agency, which maintains 3200 staff.

“These organisations have very different needs from what software companies need when they use something called agile,” he told CMO. “About 30 per cent of software agile is what we use, but 70 per cent is engineered to work with the way marketing organisations operate.”

According to Skeels, the differentiator between AgencyAgile and other players in the market is its emphasis on training rather than coaching. “Most people who deliver agile do this in a coaching model,” he said. “We designed training that works so effectively, we can commit for four days and your business is transformed. It’s a multi-visit program but that first four days are transformative.”  

There’s a very big reason why traditional approaches to agile are doomed to fail in a marketing context, Skeels claimed. The first is that the history of software agile is large-scale software projects.

“These are so big, they are hard to understand, index, and specification planning takes more time than is worthwhile,” he explained. “It’s easier to just get going and do one thing for a while, then do the next piece that seems right.

“Projects in the marketing world don’t look anything like this. The typical software project is 25 people working for four years on it. In marketing functions and agencies, you have lots of projects. Some of our clients have 200-300 pieces per week they're doing for 45 different clients.

“The other thing is marketing projects can be very short – just 4 or 8 hours long. A lot of pieces in agile software were designed around the fact that people are going to be on a project for a long time, and they’re unknowable until they’re mostly done.Youd don’t try and figure them out, you just do them. The advertising world is very different. Most teams have to have a campaign done by 1 November, period. There’s also a high degree of knowability in marketing and agency projects.”

Another thing that makes agile in marketing organisations different is the broad, multi-disciplinary teams involved, including analytics, content, designers, front-end digital specialists and social media managers.

“Step back from a software project and they all look like software people,” Skeels said. “I call it the anthill versus the zoo, with the marketing organisation the latter. A lot of marketing work has a stop-start nature to it as well, which makes it more challenging to manage things.

“It’s amazing we can use any pieces of software agile given how different the environments are.”

Organisational design is in Skeels’ blood. After running his own consultancy, specialising in organisational design and research, he did an MBA and ended up at Rand International, studying how knowledge organisations work.

Skeels then joined an agency, and had the opportunity to put his theories around modern ways of working to the test.

“Agencies are a lot more like thinktanks than they are like an Accenture or an accountancy firm,” he claimed. “They never want to tackle the same problem twice. If I build a campaign for a beverage brand, a competitor doesn’t come up and say 'I want a campaign exactly like it'. I want to be unique every time. But in Accenture, you’ll mention something that was done somewhere else.

“Even if you’re not shooting for the moon, marketers are always trying to be innovative. These functions attract innovative people.”

The three problems agile is trying to solve

Skeels outlined three problems common to the clients his works with. The first is language.

“In that anthill scenario, if I could learn how to speak like an ant, I can tell everyone what they ought to be doing. But if you’re at the zoo, you have to learn all those languages and figure out ways to get them all talking together,” he said.

“The biggest problem marketing organisations have is making sure everyone understands what they’re trying to get done. It’s the ‘what’ proceeded by ensuring everyone understands the ‘why’. Our first training session is literally around ‘alignment training’, or roadmapping. The goal is to make sure everyone understands what the work is for.

"You want to make sure the people who understand it are the team members doing the work. Yet often, neither know what to expect. It’s managers who think they understand everything. Their ability to communicate to these other two groups creates a lot of noise. What we do is teach you how to understand the work thoroughly, then have the team explain it to the stakeholder or client. That leads to better productivity.

"People are more productive when they better understand why they’re doing things and what they need to do, especially if they can take ownership of it. They’re a lot happier, too.”  

The second big challenge is marketing organisations are noisy places, full of interruption. “I estimate about half that noise comes from people not knowing what they are supposed to be doing,” Skeels continued.

“If we solve the first problem, we reduce the noise dramatically. People have gotten used to bad communications and interruptive noise, so we train them out of that." AgencyAgile calls it ‘day structure’, or 'flow time'.

The third component of training is the stuff most would associate with software agile, such as sprints and activities that happen on a repeatable basis.

In the world of marketing, things have become more complex and intertwined, making a new work approach a necessity, Skeels said.

“Speed and velocity has gone up. So has the complexity,” he noted. “Traditional advertising models had a point after concept which saw you divide and conquer – you’d do a TVC, PR or a print ad. You didn’t need to do a lot of coordinating because these activities were planned out and run independently. Today, things are highly digital and integrated, and they need to be connected. You can’t leave teams in silos.”  

A wider trend is that employees of all sectors increasingly want T-shaped jobs and to be specialists while still being involved with the whole process.

“Agencies and marketing organisations are competing with design firms, Google and other companies that allow more participation in work than has been common,” Skeels said. “A team-based approach makes people feel more included. Inclusion has other benefits, too, such as equality and empowerment in the workplace.”

Stumbling blocks

There are, of course, stumbling blocks that can make an agile-based marketing approach a challenge. For Skeels, those often come down to leadership.

“We learned that the hard way via two engagements that didn’t go well. We believe in both cases, the primary cause a lack of leadership buy in,” he said. “The real behaviour that needs to change is managerial.”

Another problem is a lack of measurement around what's important to the business. For Skeels, these are customer and employee Net Promoter Score; the velocity of work and cost per output; the quality of work; and collaboration.

“If you’re doing it right, all five metrics will improve,” he said.

A third challenge is the emphasis on buying technology to support the way teams work – often to their detriment, Skeels said.

“We bury people in software as an industry and a culture,” he said. “When we go in, we detune and remove complex software from client environments. With collaboration, for example, you want something really lightweight. We use Google Sheets. Software is an aid, not the method."

Up next: The approach taken at Deakin and lessons learned

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