8 months on average. That’s how long, McKinsey says, it takes for marketing to work on an idea and deliver it to the marketplace. This length of time spent on a marketing idea could work if most of our marketing outputs are based on our typical assumptions about the Customer. However, in today’s fast-paced always-on VUCA world, we can’t be too sure. Our customers’ preferences and needs change by the hour, governed by Moore’s Law (or the doubling of computing power every 2 years.)
In my opinion, marketing management is broken as long as we, the marketers, insist on working at the pace of our own drum beats instead of the Customer’s.
The Marketer’s Ego
Let me be the first to admit: I was very guilty of the Marketer’s Ego in my previous life as a corporate marketer (and probably still uncured from this unfortunate ailment). Among other episodes of marketing grandeur, I once took 6 months and close to US$70-80k to create and launch a regional ‘programmatic marketing’ white paper based on survey data collected from fellow marketers. I chose to work with a famous American company in technology market research because I wanted my employer’s brand to leverage on this association. Since I was responsible for spreading our gospel across what was then a very new frontier (Asia Pacific) for advertising technology and, more importantly, no competitor had done this type of projects before, I thought it was a masterstroke of creativity and marketing guts.
After an extended period of revisions, daily email ping pong and jumping internal legal ropes, I began to wonder if all of this was worth the trouble. A sense of apathy began to creep in and my team and I were beginning to feel a little restless. And this was only Month 2 or 3 of this grand project.
When we launched the campaign, it was a big sigh of relief and “let’s pat our backs” moment. However, something bugs me to this day. Could we have used all that time to do other meaningful work? Could we have produced work that was timely and valuable for the Customer? (Remember, the Customer world changes fast and furious. In a digital world, 6-month old results from a survey is probably the business equivalent of Jurassic artifacts.)
Did I deliver useful value to the Customer through the campaign? Probably a little bit, but I doubt the project made that much impact in making their lives better. It was more “here’s the trend: your competitors are buying, you should too.”
Did I ask any Customer if they wanted this survey? No, I didn’t. It was my Marketer’s Ego that drove my decision-making. While some get off in winning marketing awards, others are happy to deliver the most Big Bang campaign they can afford to “impress the management.” I was once a young geek who was enamoured with rock star analysts (I bought their books) at said American technology market research company. It must have been a case of subconsciously wanting to fulfil my geek dream of working with these analysts. In doing so, I had completely ignored the Customer.
Forbes must be on to something when it said marketers’ ego can stall and jeopardises companies.
In my moment of repentance and regret, I finally saw the light and exclaimed: “There must be a better way of working that is meaningful and less wasteful!”
The Agile Way of Working
One of the key tenets of the Agile management philosophy is the need to be laser-focused on the Customer’s needs. Most ‘academic’ marketers have been taught that the Customer is at the centre of everything that we do. However, I am pretty sure it’s merely lip service in daily practice. In reality, the corporate marketer’s existence is a mix of justifying (and fighting for) the marketing budget, making sure sales pipeline is stuffed with leads (quality notwithstanding), an obsession with digital technologies and making sure “the brand is out there.”
Dear Marketer, when’s the last time you spoke directly to a Customer?
Agile believes that work should be done in an iterative and incremental manner. Instead of delivering the entire completed project at one go, it is wiser to prioritise and build the most important components first. Once built, deliver this produced value to the Customer for a spin and gather feedback for improvement and additional requirements, if any.
This concept is popularised and documented in Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup book. The key principle here is to experiment: build faster, measure faster and fail/learn faster. This cycle continues until most of the desired Customer Value has been produced and accepted by the Customer.
The reason for doing so is uncomplicated: by letting the Customer test and experience the product or produced value early, you are simply avoiding the disaster-waiting-to-happen at the end: “This is not what I ordered.” As we agreed earlier on, the Customer’s preference and expectations changes by the hour. Situations like these are not fantasy, it’s happening as we speak.
It is also a great opportunity to stop the team from working on the wrong things early. Wasted man-hours, squandered budget and decline in social goodwill can be avoided. Every time the Customer reviews the work output, it is an opportunity to refocus and realign with the Customer’s goals (not our internal marketing KPIs).
Can Marketing Go Agile and Lean?
I certainly think so!
While such concept of validated learning is not new for digital marketers (daily manual ad campaign optimisation, for example), it does not come naturally for most other marketers. We tend to like our marketing efforts big, shiny and explosive (our desire for the unicorn concept called “viral” is uncontrollable.)
Sometimes in our pursuit of marketing magnificence, we focus too much on the little details and perfection instead of continuously delivering value to the Customer. This is where Eric Ries’ concept of Minimum Viable Product (MVP) could be helpful for marketers: “A Minimum Viable Product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.”
Instead of Big Bang white paper campaigns, why not build a white paper iteratively? In my case, I could have asked just enough survey questions and receive just enough answers early. Do a quick analysis, write it up and send it out to Customers. Next is to listen closely to what they have to say and ask for suggestions on survey questions we should ask next. Even better, ask which direction the next phase of the research should go. In show business, this is called “playing to the crowd”. Let’s just call it ‘focusing on the Customer’s needs’ or ‘being Customer-centric’.
(While I sound so clever now, trust me, the Marketer’s Ego is alive and kicking. Just suppressed and under control for this article.)
That’s just one example that I can suggest. There are probably hundreds of other Agile Marketing ideas your team may have on Customer-centric marketing. You should ask. While the way we manage marketing may be broken today, I am pretty sure some Agile and Lean learning, thinking and doing can help your marketing.
As Paul Acito, CMO, 3M said: “Agile allows us to match the clock-speed of our customers.“