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Marketing Teams Adapt to the Pandemic by Staying Agile

Marketing Teams Adapt to the Pandemic by Staying Agile

Steve Heisler

illustration collage of business management graphics

The collaborative Agile process, popularized in tech and adopted by marketing, helps solve complex problems by focusing on a single issue at a time

What Is Agile?

The building blocks for constructing an adaptable marketing team, capable of rapidly shifting priorities as today’s landscape changes on a dime, were carved at a Utah ski resort in early 2001. At the time, managers within the tech industry had a nasty habit of insisting developers follow a rigid corporate structure, deferring decisions to executives rather than empowering employees to guide the process—which was often standardized years prior and was no longer relevant. A group of 17 tech leaders established a working methodology that would deliver cutting-edge, customer-focused results without bogging down the process with extensive procedural documentation or bottlenecks in decision-making.

At its core, Agile is a lean and collaborative means of meeting massive project needs one task at a time. Clients see and comment on work as it’s completed, therefore the approval process for any course-corrections is significantly shortened. The internal team is made up of a cross section of employees spanning departments and levels of seniority who are all welcome to weigh in; the resulting product benefits from outside perspectives. 

Agile has found its way into the marketing world and recently exploded in popularity. According to the 2020 State of Agile Marketing Report, created as a partnership between Agile marketing training outfit AgileSherpas and the software company Aprimo, 41% of the 637 marketers surveyed currently use Agile, and 42% of those who do not are planning to adopt it within the next year.

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Agile marketing retains the iterative nature and laser focus of how Agile operates in tech. Teams largely extract themselves from their day-to-day responsibilities for a few weeks to solve complex marketing problems. They present partial results as tasks are completed (about once a week), collect internal and external feedback, then incorporate it all into a new working draft. All told, Agile-developed solutions are tailored to the here and now by focusing on what marketers already value: connections with individuals.

Why Are Agile Teams Important?

Resources for many companies are limited during the pandemic, meaning marketers may not have the luxury to let their minds wander. “[Agile is] connected to the ability to focus on the right work at the right time,” says Andrea Fryrear, co-founder of AgileSherpas and author of the books “Death of a Marketer” and “Mastering Marketing Agility.” “In the middle of COVID, what the right work is [has] changed very significantly and very quickly.” 

Agile streamlines work by providing regular opportunities for stakeholders to weigh in. All-day meetings, an Agile staple known as “sprints,” collect ideas from participants—whether they’re marketers, finance folks, HR representatives, executives or new employees. The team holds daily morning standup meetings during which each person provides an update on their progress and solicits help with roadblocks they’ve encountered. When working drafts are presented, everyone takes a close look. 

Once a company has fully adopted the Agile mindset, “That’s really where you start to see the amazing stuff happening,” Fryrear says. “People are not getting pulled in a dozen different directions. They’re focused on high-priority, high-value, customer-centric work. They’re getting it done quickly, because they’re not being distracted by other things. And then value comes out fast.”

Agile requires a high level of cooperation between employees who may not interact much outside of the project, and therefore the methodology tends to produce strong managers who understand how everyone can do their best, most practical work.

“Inside organizations, too often people get stuck in their silos,” says Darrell Rigby, partner and director at the management consulting firm Bain & Co. “They start stereotyping people in other parts of the organization. ‘The accountants, well, they’re the bean counters, and the legal department is the sales prevention department.’ … In Agile, we need to collaborate with those people, first of all, to make sure we’re developing the right products and, second of all, to ensure that when we do develop them, they will actually get adopted and scaled by the organization.”

How Do You Assemble an Agile Team?

To build an Agile team, seek out curious, collaborative employees who possess a strong work ethic. “[Look for] people that can demonstrate that they are obsessed with satisfying customers, have respect for individuals and the power of diversity, can contribute innovative ideas, maintain a sustainable pace, express recognition and appreciation for the achievements of their peers and can work as a team,” Rigby says. These folks could either permanently join your team or hop in for an Agile project here and there.

If you need to expand your Agile team by hiring new people, don’t expect everyone to have experience working in Agile. Fryrear suggests scouring resumes for skillsets that integrate well with Agile methodology. Maybe their job dealt with finding certainty among massive change, or they were asked to pivot away from a plan at a moment’s notice.

“Anyone who’s worked on a smaller team has had to be agile, in a sense, because they have to wear a lot of hats,” Fryrear says. “They have to respond to change because there’s no silo to hide in when you’re in a smaller team.”

Ask interview questions that orbit around Agile processes and results, especially because aspects of Agile might have been adopted without going all in. Fryrear offers a few to consider:

  • How can marketers get away from bloated projects with long lead times and deliver value more frequently to customers?
  • What projects have you worked on that reflect Agile values?
  • Can you tell me about your experience with daily standups or sprint retrospectives?

No matter how you decide to recruit team members who work in Agile, maximize results by casting for longevity. “When we have this true team that stays together over the long term, they begin to gel and begin to know one another, the product, the persona or the stage of the buying journey that they specialize in,” Fryrear says. “They start to come up with these amazing, innovative, groundbreaking ideas that just don’t happen when we’re not really a team—we’re just this hodgepodge collection of people trying to complete a project.” 

Steve Heisler is a staff writer at the American Marketing Association. His work can be found in Rolling Stone, GQ, The A.V. Club and Chicago Sun-Times. He may be reached at sheisler@ama.org.