Author: Colin Lewis, , Chief Marketing Officer at OpenJaw Technologies

‘Agile’ and ‘agility’ are often derided concepts – typically by people who are not that familiar with agile entails. So, for the marketing cynics out there who feel that agile is the ‘emperor’s new clothes’, let’s have a further look at what it entails.

Let’s start with some definitions and distinctions: what actually is ‘agile’? You’ve probably heard of agile with respect to software development. It replaced a more traditional ways of managing software called the ‘waterfall’ approach which meant creating huge documents made up of requirements, which were then handed over to developers, who then created software to fit the specifications. Inevitably, by the time the project was ready, the requirements would have changed, and the whole thing would be shelved. When you hear about large scale IT projects failing, you can make a guess that the waterfall might have been at the route of their problems.

To fix this, agile software development came about in the earlier part of this century, and, in true developer fashion, they developed a manifesto.

Agile, according to the original manifesto, is a set of values and principles that result in better ways of developing software.[1] The manifesto states that there are ‘better ways of developing software…that values individuals and interactions over processes and tools, working software over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration over contract negotiation and responding to change over following a plan’.

The Agile approach results in working software, instead of comprehensive documentation, and has customer collaboration at its core. Using the Agile approach means that development can respond to changes, instead of having to follow a rigid plan. The Agile method reduces development costs, shortens project duration, and delivers a higher percentage of user requirements.


Waterfall is a process model, while Agile is a set of values. With a Waterfall process, there are phases with gates in between them, with individual specialists finishing and handing over the work in each phase sequentially.

Suffice to say, agile software development won as it delivered more visibility, transparency, predictable costs, higher quality and more adaptability to changes.  The popularity of Agile has resulted in specific methodologies. One example of an Agile framework is Scrum. Working with an Agile framework such as SCRUM means that the project does not operate according to rigid plans. Rather, close customer communication and the flexible consideration of changes are the focus. A fundamental concept of Agile is the notion that a software project cannot be planned in every detailed requirement at the beginning of the project.

Over time, the agile way of working was recognised as being a suitable approach for other parts of a business. And, it would not be a new approach unless it had its own manifesto, so the Agile Marketing Manifesto was created in 2012! According to the manifesto talked about using ‘learning over opinions and conventions’, ‘customer-focused collaboration over silos and hierarchy, ‘the process of customer discovery over static prediction’, ‘flexible vs. rigid planning’, ‘responding to change over following a plan’ and ‘small experiments over a few large bets’.

The cynics among you might react like I did: this manifesto just sounds like, well, a normal approach to implementing marketing plans.  Your cynicism might be misplaced however, as the origins of agile in a marketing context came from start ups – mainly tech brands developing websites or apps, not FMCG brands.

McKinsey frame ‘agile marketing’ as ‘using data and analytics to continuously source promising opportunities or solutions to problems, deploying tests quickly, evaluating the results, and rapidly iterating’ – you can see that this way of thinking about agile as a concept can work well in a digital or app context.

However, I have some insider knowledge here: the company I work for implements large scale eCommerce and projects for some of the world’s largest travel and loyalty brands – including twelve (large) customers in China.  They use agile for software project development in highly, complex fast changing environments – in many cases where the client is remote – and there is a lot on the line.  I have the success of agile in that context first hand.   I also ran innovation programmes using a series of agile ‘sprints’, creating ideas, testing solutions and rolling our prototypes in just five days, focusing on customer acceptance as part of the process. And, yes, it really worked – we launched some amazing new products on the back of this agile process.

Let us look at one of the key tenets of agile: the SCRUM – a project management. A list of tasks is developed by the team to achieve their goals. The scrum ‘master’ sets priorities with the team, identifies required resources, and manages “sprints” – the name given to one-to-two-week cycles of work. A daily 15 minute standup meeting is held, where each member of the eam answers three questions:

  • What did I do yesterday?
  • What will I do today?
  • Are there any obstacles that stand in my way?

The proponents of the agile approach claim that you can get more done, get the right things done, adapt faster, build collaborative and self-organising teams and improve communications within the team and with senior management. Notwithstanding the heated arguments for and against the phrase ‘agile marketing’, I don’t think any reader of the Marketing Institute newsletter can argue that this is not a bad way of approaching the day-to-day of marketing.  Not by a long shot.

As Martech writer, Scott Brinker, says, ‘agile management is a way to execute a strategy when either (a) the environment in which you’re operating is fluid and shifting, and you want to rapidly sense and respond to those changes, or (b) the media in which you’re rendering your strategy has fast feedback loops giving you the valuable option to optimise your execution quickly and cheaply’.

So, let’s really say what agile is: a tactical approach in which teams identify, collaborate and focus their collective efforts. And, here is what agile is not – if the principles of agile are applied: agile does not mean the opportunity to ditch marketing strategy for whatever happens to be the tactic