Agile project management has revolutionized the way we build software, and the principles that drive Agile can transform how marketing agencies manage their nontechnical work, as well.
By implementing this approach, agencies are able to add value for clients more quickly while also keeping their own companies more nimble and responsive.
“We know that there will always be last minute requests or flexibility required where it wasn’t originally anticipated. Instead of fighting this reality, we embrace it by creating processes and structures that give us the flexibility to serve our clients,” says Jon Stuckey, director of creative technology and innovation at Benz Communications. “Our clients fight fires all of the time— whether it is dealing with a difficult union negotiation, employee PR crisis, negotiating with carriers, health plans, or internal resources— they have enough things on their plate and they value and appreciate a partner they count and rely on and who says “yes, we can do that” when the chips are down. Agile principles allow us to deliver quickly, with quality, and always in alignment with their overarching strategy and goals.”
At my content marketing agency, we use a modified version of Agile, which I also consider key to our productivity and ability to innovate for our clients. I reached out to several other agency leaders who have successfully applied Agile principles to their work. Here’s their advice on putting Agile into action at a creative agency.
Focus on the core principles, not the jargon.
For something that is supposed to simplify how we work, Agile admittedly comes with a lot of jargon: SCRUM masters. Sprints. Standups. But you don’t have to use those terms to apply Agile thinking to your agency’s work. Instead, agencies can focus on adopting the core principles of Agile:
- Responding quickly to change, rather than worrying about sticking to “the plan.”
- Rapidly delivering iterations on messaging and delivery, rather than “Big-Bang” campaigns.
- Relying on tests and data, rather than opinions and “best practices.”
- Planning multiple small experiments, rather than placing a few large bets.
- Emphasizing individual relationships and interactions, rather than aggregated target markets.
- Promoting cross-team collaboration, rather than silos and hierarchy.
“Agile can have a lot of technical aspects to it, including a lot of jargon,” says Logan Leger, CEO of New Aperio, a design and development agency.
While people often criticize jargon because it can be an obstacle to clear communication, some jargon is useful, he says — as long as everyone is brought into the fold. His team is transparent with clients about their use of Agile, and they train clients upfront on the terms they’ll be using so everyone’s on the same page. “The jargon is just there to help give names to concepts; those concepts are way more fundamentally important to the work than anything else.”
Modify Agile to fit your needs.
Yes, there was an Agile manifesto. No, you don’t have to follow it word for word to benefit from the core concepts as you run your agency.
“No company in the world is pure agile,” says Matt Weinberg, CEO of Vector Media, a digital media agency.
He advises agency leaders to take what works well for their business and not worry about the rest. His agency uses a modified version of by-the-book Agile. Among the features they’ve adopted: Working in two-week sprints, as well as the Agile “ceremonies.”
“Don’t read an agile book and try to implement it one-to-one,” says Joe Ryan, COO of Skookum, a digital product development firm. “Every organization is different. Every product is different. You have to implement what works for you. Be flexible and apply Agile in a way that makes sense for your business.”
For example, he says, a scrum methodology doesn’t likely make sense for managing AdWords, but it might help you make progress on bigger projects such as websites or big content pieces. Instead of being a strict rulebook, he says, “it’s more of a mindset.”
His team transitioned from old-school Waterfall processes to full-scale Agile gradually. They’d work in 12-week processes at first, and then kept shortening those periods. “It’s about staying relevant,” he says. “You need to be able to test and get stuff out there.”
Leger also recommends easing into Agile and exploring it to see if it’s the right fit for your organization. “Start by applying it to something internal — a company project you can work on for yourselves. Keep it simple so you can iron out any difficulties. Then gradually apply it to more client work.”
Get creative about where you apply Agile principles.
Agile isn’t just for people with technical roles. You can apply the principles of Agile to all kinds of projects. Leger says that his team uses Agile on all of their app development projects, but they’ve also used it for product design and branding projects. “It touches every aspect of the work we do,” he says.
Boris Rozman, CEO at digital agency Creative Technology Partners, also uses Agile with non-tech teams at his firm. “It would be a huge mess without Agile.”
Stuckey says Benz Communications uses Agile methods for content development, design, project management, finance and leadership functions. “Agile methodologies allow us to be more customer focused and responsive to our clients needs, nimble and adaptable to market needs, and profitable as a business.”
Embrace the discomfort.
A move to Agile thinking is never painless. “It’s a mindset change,” Weinberg says. “At first it’s going to be inefficient.”
“Be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Ryan says. The idea of shipping something imperfect into the world and getting feedback is a little scary, but it’s part of the process. You have to trust that it will uncover what you need to change.
Stuckey echoed that advice. “You need to believe that speed, responsiveness and quality are critical to your agency’s success. If you’re not able to move quickly with quality you’ll lose clients and/or lose market share because you can’t adapt your business quickly enough,” he says. “You need to have faith and trust in your people, teams and departments and you need to inherently believe that cross-functional teams and collaboration outperform work silos. It helps if you can think abstractly and you’re comfortable with reviewing things in WIP (work-in-progress) states. You have to thrive in fast-paced environments where priorities and tasks can change daily hourly.”
Win client buy in early on.
Agencies who use Agile are increasingly finding it beneficial to be transparent about it with clients. Some go so far as to use Agile’s currency of “points” as the basis of how they bill clients.
Even if you don’t go that far, there are benefits to letting your clients know this is the way you work internally and in how you organize proposals. Leger has found that Agile thinking allows him to stay profitable and keep clients happy even with complex projects. “Scopes change and client needs change.
In a world where you’re following a more traditional development methodology, changes can blow your budget and turn a project into a loser. With Agile, we don’t have to worry about that: We can accommodate changes midstream since we have regular mile markers where we re-evaluate development goals and priorities.”
Sometimes, the client may begin to adopt the method themselves. “It gets to the point where they know how to self-analyze on their side,” Rozman says.
Leger says he also seen that clients appreciate the focus on consistent communication that comes with Agile thinking. “Agile forces you into regular communication. It makes clients feel better and it makes the product better.” When clients know what to expect and have buy-in from the beginning, projects are more likely to be a success from everyone’s perspective.