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The origin of Agile marketing

Posted by November 9, 2015
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Exploring the history of Agile in only seven minutes for BIMA’s recent Breakfast event “The Art of Agile Marketing” was both a challenge and a delight. 30 seconds per slide wasn’t quite enough to present the full story of Agile’s rise in all its Technicolor glory though, so BIMA have very kindly given me this post to fill in the gaps.

Land of the rising productivity

Agile owes its existence to a wide range of sources and is constantly evolving but there are some key markers that I find particularly interesting. The first of these is the Toyota Production System.

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In post war Japan, where car production and industrialisation didn’t have the luxurious spread of land mass that the US had, and where automakers were hampered by strict post-war trade restrictions, manufacturers needed to streamline efficiency in order to survive. It was partly through overcoming these challenges that Toyota developed and evolved the Toyota Production System (TPS). The system contains many concepts used in Agile today – such as continuous improvement, removing waste and visualising your workflow.

As these concepts spread through neighbouring manufacturers, Japan’s car industry gradually became known as the most efficient and highest quality in the world.

It was sometime before the methods became widely adopted elsewhere. In the mid 1980s a joint venture between GM and Toyota in the US, iterating and building on their experience, led to a production system that became known as Lean Manufacturing. As the name suggests, Lean takes the concept of eliminating waste to its logical conclusion.

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Out of the factory, into the university

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While GM and Toyota were bringing Lean Manufacturing to the states, the highest levels of business and academia were beginning to question the way that products were brought to market.

The Waterfall methodology – where the product development cycle is broken down into stages which happen one after the other – was the way most projects were run at the time. Lots of people were simultaneously beginning to realise that it wasn’t the most efficient. Winston Royce, who first described it in 1970, said it needed a feedback loop – it was about to get one…

Then the Harvard Business Review published an article which included the following:

“The traditional sequential or ‘relay race’ approach to product development…may conflict with the goals of maximum speed and flexibility. Instead a holistic or ‘rugby’ approach where a team tried to go the distance as a unit, passing the ball back and forth – may better serve today’s competitive requirements ”

The New Product Development Game by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka. Harvard Business Review 1986

As far as I know, this article inspired the name for the world’s most popular Agile methodology – Scrum.

Agile is born, of necessity

By the 90s various different methodologies had begun to form and compete with each other to become the successor to Waterfall. The technological revolution was in full swing and the upstarts of Silicon Valley were looking for a new way to create to new products. The openness of the early internet also engendered an atmosphere where knowledge was shared and spread rapidly. In a world where change was occurring at an ever-faster rate, the ability to adapt became all-important.

The progress towards a new standard was sporadic, with pioneers creating new ways of working through the late 90s. Then in 2001, in a log cabin filled with software developers and beers, the Agile Manifesto was officially born. This simple set of values would redefine the principles and best practices of modern day project management. The values were:

1. Individuals and Interactions over Process and Tools

2. Customer Collaboration over Contract Negotiation

3. Responding to Change over Following a Plan

4. Working Software over Comprehensive Documentation

In only 68 words the authors of the Manifesto had encapsulated something very important: a response to the way that customers’ needs had been changing. As the Harvard Business Review article pointed out, long development cycles where the design stage was separated from the release stage by many months, or perhaps even years, was no longer appropriate in a world where your users’ needs changed by the day. Agile provided a framework which was flexible enough to deal with these ever changing needs.

Marketing’s ivory tower starts to shake

In Freakonomics, by Dubner and Levitt, the concept of the expert and information exchange is discussed. Experts create information asymmetries (the authors give the example of estate agents leaving their own houses on the market for 10 days longer than those of their clients) which are inherently inefficient.

In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us Dan Pink points to three key factors: autonomy, mastery and purpose. If the needs of the people working on a project for these three motivators aren’t met, they won’t be productive.

In creating methodologies that empower people, remove the information inequality and which lower barriers to entry, Agile has transformed software development.

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Now, the same is happening in marketing. As in software development, the landscape is changing ever-faster: anyone can create and publish content, less people watch traditional TV, millions of people create the data that power our choices. The game has changed and keeps on changing.

To respond, the discipline needs ways of working that can consistently adapt to these changes. That means a move away from the traditional ‘experts’ towards teams who can autonomously generate, and regenerate, their own rules and methods.

There are several fledgling Agile Marketing Manifestos out there but I’ll share this one:

1. Validated Learning over Opinions and Conventions

2. Customer focussed Collaboration over Silos and Hierarchy

3. Adaptive Iterative Campaigns over Big Bang Campaigns

4. The Process of Customer Discovery over Static Prediction

5. Flexible Planning over Rigid Planning

6. Responding to Change over Following a Plan

7. Many small experiments over A Few Large Bets

Agile marketing is no longer a choice

With barriers to entry lowered, information readily available and the ever-changing behaviours of consumers, it’s now imperative to market differently. Agile marketing isn’t a choice – it’s what you need to do to compete in the modern market.

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This post was written by Jim Bowes, CEO Manifesto Digital following on from the BIMA Breakfast Briefing ‘The Art of Agile Marketing’ held at The Club at The Ivy on 3 November 2015.

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