Much has been written about Agile Marketing. It seems everyone is trying to put their finger on the pulse of what it means to be agile, from a marketing perspective. This is no easy task. This is a methodology adopted from the software industry and while many of the principles are well suited to marketing, some are not. Moreover, the breadth of activities and variables, that fall under the umbrella-term “marketing” means a one-size fits all approach is unrealistic. With that said, Agile philosophy contains some essential elements, that have long been missing from marketing’s status quo. To illustrate this, it’s helpful to begin by exploring the status quo.

Don Draper & Big Idea Marketing – The Status Quo

Don Draper (of the AMC series Mad Men) could take a product and transform it into something to which you would feel a deep emotional connection. He could overwhelm your senses with and image and a simple phrase. He could give you what you desperately needed before you even knew you needed it. Don was the king of Big Idea Marketing. 

Sure, he may be a fictitious character, but Don Draper represents something very real. He represents how marketers have viewed themselves and their industry for a very long time. He represents the notion that creativity and experience is what makes the cash register ring. 

He represents the person in the room whose opinion carries the most weight – sometimes referred to as HiPPO or “highest paid person’s opinion”. 

Let’s consider an example: a group of marketers and executives gather to discuss their product, their customers and the competitive landscape. This may be one meeting, or a series of meetings – it doesn’t matter. They are meeting in an effort to develop a detailed plan and budgets for the year ahead. In the meeting, relevant information such as sales numbers and industry news are discussed and subjectively interpreted. Opinions form, and when the team feels good about an opinion, they begin to refer to it as an “insight”, which sounds better than “educated guess”. Based on their insight, the team comes up with its “Big Idea(s)”. That is, they decide the theme(s) of their messaging and marketing executions for the year ahead. The marketing plan is now well on its way. Sound familiar? 

Big Idea Marketing is how the majority of marketing decisions are made – today and throughout marketing history.  And at first glance, it seems like a logical approach: a qualified team discusses relevant data, then the most experienced and insightful person makes the final decisions, and finally, a detailed plan is developed and executed. What’s the problem? 

Some famous Big Ideas are Avis’s “We’re number two so we try harder”, Volkswagen’s “Think Small”, Apple’s “I’m a Mac – I’m a PC”, California Milk Processor Board’s “got milk? and Nike’s “Just Do It”. In short, The Big Idea can make a career, but you don’t know if you’ve got a big idea until you try.

A Bygone Era

This Big Idea approach is a vestige of a bygone era. It wasn’t so long ago that most communications channels delivered messages in only one direction. Radio, newspapers, magazines, and of course television, were all mediums that could effectively deliver a message, but could provide very limited, and delayed feedback to the advertiser. In the pre-digital age, a Don Draper was hugely valuable because his experience gave companies their best chance of crafting the right message, delivering it to the right audience, at the right time. 

But today, a Don Draper has the opportunity to gather real-time data on customer preferences quickly and inexpensively. His opinions or insights no longer need to be right: he simply needs to have access to the people with the skills and processes to be able to accurately test his theories.

The idea of gambling a year’s worth of marketing spend on anyone’s best idea(s), even Don’s, now feels irresponsible. It means accepting risk, without a reasonable expectation of reward. The Don Draper Big Idea approach made sense when decision making was bound by expensive one-way media channels with long lead times. But today we are no longer bound by these constraints. 

Marketing Waste – Old Habits Die Hard

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half” – John Wanamaker (1838 – 1922 )

For as long as there’s been a marketing industry, marketing waste has been an expected and accepted part of the deal. The quote above may be more than one hundred years old, but it still represents a widely held belief. But the truth is, companies no longer need to accept the same levels of waste that were normal in the past.

Going back to the example above, the most dramatic way to illustrate “marketing waste” would be to ask you to imagine that the team get its Big Idea wrong. To imagine that an entire year’s worth of effort and expense was built on a BAD BIG IDEA. And of course that is a risk, but in the real world, it rarely comes down to being completely right or wrong. 

After all, Big Ideas are crafted and executed by smart people who know their products and customers. So they don’t usually get it completely wrong, but the problem is that they don’t get it as right as possible, and as a result they waste a portion of their marketing spend, year after year, after year…

How Does an Agile Approach to Marketing Reduce Waste?

The main difference between Big Idea Marketing and Agile Marketing is that the Big Idea assumes the team knows enough to produce a comprehensive marketing plan, and an Agile approach assumes that they don’t, that it’s impossible to know enough. Agile Marketing takes an iterative approach, which requires continuous testing, and allows for strategy to emerge over time. The team will still develop insights and ideas, but ultimately, it will be the customer response to these insights and ideas that will determine which are pursued and which are scrapped. An Agile approach reduces waste because it values evidence over creativity, and continuous improvement over a comprehensive big plan. Of course, much more could be written about the nuts and bolts of Agile Marketing, but that’s beyond the scope of this post. 

Conclusion

The good news is that Agile Marketing is already a widely adopted strategy in the world of digital marketing. The bad news is that it remains vastly under-utilized as an overall corporate approach to marketing and to the allocation of marketing budgets. Don Draper’s Big Idea approach is too ingrained in the industry. The lure of the big idea is still too enticing for the right brained marketers who never signed up to become data scientists. 

The Big Idea approach is the status quo. Yet as I write this post, I am confident this will change with time – it has to. Agile Marketing is a vastly superior approach to Big Idea Marketing in the 21st century and better always wins – eventually.