Agile marketing, or why and how to increase your pace of learning
By Franky Athill
If you become more agile, the work you do will be more effective for your
clients and your agency business model will be more resilient to disruption.
An Agile agency is ready to fail. They fail quickly and don’t fail the same
way twice. An agile agency’s outputs are iterative, evolving through an
innovate-test-learn feedback loop. They avoid big bets allowing for short
experiments and frequent feedback. As a result, they know if their outputs
are ineffective as soon as possible and are able to adapt.
I’m not telling you what to do, I’m telling you how to do whatever you do,
so this is applicable for anyone involved at any stage of the brand building
I’m going to explain why it’s so important, now more than ever before. Then
I will recommend how you can be more agile by changing the mind-set
and a few processes in your agency.
There have been five media revolutions in the last 500 years. It’s important
to recognize that each one was an astounding force of change in people’s
20th Century mediums are either good at creating conversations
(telephone) OR they are good at creating groups (books and television).
The Internet is the first medium in history that has native support for groups
and conversation at the same time.
As all mediums gets digitized, the Internet becomes the mode of carriage for
all other media and this means that every medium is right next door to each
other and media becomes less just a source of information, and is
increasingly a site of coordination.
Media is no longer in the hands of few professional. Every time a new
consumer joins this media landscape a new producer joins as well, because
the same equipment let you consume and produce.
We have doubled the global population in 40 years and put half of them in
cities, connected them all and equipped them to produce media on their
phones. Every second another 8 people use the Internet for the first time
and ⅓ of twitter followers are in a different country to that of the person
they are following. The complexity of the network is astounding.
This means that the rate of change of the environment that brands live in
with consumers, has accelerated exponentially. However, if we look at
the pace of learning in our industry over the past few decades, we see
that it has been pretty stagnant. This isn’t to say we haven’t learnt
anything, but that we aren’t learning any faster than we were before.
When things look like this graph, eventually there comes a crucial turning
point. Before this point in time, it was quite hard to take risks because If you
failed you usually get fired as they can hire someone with experience;
someone carrying around the answers in their head.
Before this point of intersection, it was quite hard to take risks because if you
failed you usually get fired as they can hire someone with experience;
someone carrying around the answers in their head.
However, after this point of intersection, there’s little use hiring someone with
experience because it will soon go out of date. Instead, you need to
fundamentally change the way you do things to pull up the pace of learning.
If we do nothing, if we fail to bring up the pace of learning. Our work will be
less relevant and less effective. At best, our clients will go to a competitor
that is learning faster than us, and at worst they will not sell as much stuff
and the whole capitalist complex will shrink.
OK, so how do we increase the pace of learning? Lets explain my
Do something creative is to bring into the world something new and valuable. In
attempting to create something new and valuable you are inherently being
experimental. If it’s new, the best you can do is hypothesizes, you can’t possibly
know how it is going to turn out.
As consultants, all you have to sell is your creativity - your new and valuable
ideas. We need to realize that by welcoming risk we are allowing ourselves to be
experimental and therefore permitting creativity. Risk needs to be expected and
accounted for by both agency and client.
In doing this, we need to accept and admit that we don’t have all the
answers. This runs counter to the way that agencies have historically
marketed themselves, epitomised by Don Draper - the elusive creative
We find this Don Draper complex incredibly tempting, we tend to retreat
and say, "We can crack it with a smart strategy, I don't want to have my
opinions challenged, I don’t want to have my conclusions tested, I’m an
inspired creative, I’m an expert."
In fact, most of us do everything we can to avoid thinking about being
wrong. We get it in the abstract. We all know everybody makes mistakes.
But when it comes down to me, right now, to all the beliefs I hold here in the
present tense, suddenly all of this abstract appreciation of fallibility goes out
the window -- and I can't actually think of anything I'm wrong about. And
the thing is, the present tense is where we live. We do our day to day work in
the present tense, each and every output and pitch in the present tense. So
effectively, we all wind up traveling through life, trapped in this little bubble
of feeling very right about everything. I think this is a problem.
1,200 years before Descartes said "I think therefore I am," this guy, St.
Augustine, sat down and wrote "Fallor ergo sum" -- "I make mistakes
therefore I am." Augustine understood that our capacity to screw up, is not
some kind of embarrassing defect in the human system, something we can
eradicate or overcome.
It is totally fundamental to who we are. Because, unlike God, or Don Draper,
we don't really have all the answers, especially if we spend our time trying
to have new and valuable thoughts.
Its one thing coming to accept our own fallibility but I’m sure you’re
wondering how your clients will take it if you stop acting like Don Draper. Well
Andy Fennell, CMO of Diageo would agree with St Augustine. He declares
openly that in search of 10/10, we need to accept less certainty. He says “We
want agency partners that will propose things that are revolutionary and will
transform our brands, and we accept that that means they might fail and
might end up being rubbish and we all might look a bit stupid at the end of
Like Ralph, I believe that enlightened trial and error beats the planning of
I studied evolution at university. Over millions of years, each species faces
variation and selection, variation and selection -- trial and error, trial and
error. In marketing, just like when we go to the zoo, we only ever see the
successes so it’s easy to suppose that new ideas, or species, take root easily.
In fact the world is ruled by a dandelion ratio, thousands of parachutes are
necessary for one to take hold.
When Unilever want to make detergent in a factory near
Liverpool. How do they do it? They have a big tank full of liquid
detergent. They pump it at a high pressure through a nozzle. It
turns into powder. It falls to the floor. How do you design that
nozzle? Now if you ascribe to the Don Draper complex,
you find yourself a little Don. You find yourself an
expert, a mathematician, a physicist -somebody who understands the dynamics of this
fluid. And he will, or she will, calculate the optimal
design of the nozzle and put forward a well
thought through plan. Now Unilever did this and
it didn't work -- the problem was just too
Now if Unilever’s nozzle problem was too complicated, just spraying some
foam against the wall, how can we expect to solve insightful questions about
predictive human behaviour. Solve complex cultural conundrums about how
to embed a brand in the real lives of people that aren’t interested in the
slightest in that brand and can choose to totally ignore us? We solve complex
problems so playing Don wont work.
This is how how Unilever actually solved this problem -- trial and error,
variation and selection. You take a nozzle and you create 10 random
variations on the nozzle. You try out all 10; you keep the one that works best.
You create 10 variations on that one. You try out all 10. You keep the one
that works best. You try out 10 variations of that one and after 45 generations,
you have one that functions fantastically. The moment you step back from
the Don Draper complex -- let's try a load of stuff with a systematic way of
determining what's working and what's not -- you can solve your problem.
Its important to experiment like this because the most obvious solution is rarely
the best solution. It's much easier -- and probably safer in the short term-- to
bog down in elaborate planning exercises but if you invest a lot at any one
stage, there's a tendency to stick with an idea, even if it isn't the best one.
The immediate difference between these two options is that this
experimental one has lots of red pound signs. In a great book called Chief
Ignorance Officer, David Gray says that the only way to get a good idea is
to let lots of them compete for primacy. It may seem irresponsible to set off
without a clear direction, and such redundancy is expensive, but it’s crucial
to innovation. Its the only way you can get outside what you can
anticipate, the only way you can go after the truly new and valuable.
In the excitingly named - Successful Habits of Visionary Companies - Jim
Colins, says that he was “struck by how often they made some of their best
moves not by detailed strategic planning, but rather by experimentation,
opportunism, and (a phase I really love) - ‘purposeful accidents’”.
Agencies like to think that success comes from deep thought and grand ideas,
that it springs perfectly formed from strategy. These days, it makes more sense
to “try stuff”, see how the world responds, and go again.
In her TED talk, Kathryn Schulz says that this trial and error approach will take a
new frame of mind, a comfort with error, and an understanding that truth
begins in failure. But its not just any failure. As Charles Schwab points out, there
is stupid failure and there is noble failure. Noble failure is smart because it
carries with it the ability to learn.
Shortly after the first world war, a young Japanese mathematician, Yutaka
Taniyama, developed some amazing maths. It turned out to be absolutely
instrumental in proving Fermat's Last Theorem. But it was always a
conjecture. Taniyama tried and tried and tried and he could never prove
that it was true. And shortly before his 30th birthday in 1958, Yutaka
Taniyama killed himself. His friend who worked on the maths with him reflected on Taniyama's life many decades later. He said, "He was not a very
careful person as a mathematician. He made a lot of mistakes. But he made
mistakes in a good direction. I tried to emulate him, but I realized it is very
difficult to make good mistakes."
This is because being wrong feels just like being right, it’s realizing you are
wrong that is hard. Do you remember that Loony Tunes cartoon where there's
this coyote who's always chasing but never catching a roadrunner? In pretty
much every episode of this cartoon, there's a moment where the coyote is
chasing the roadrunner and the roadrunner stops just before a cliff but the
coyote runs right off the cliff. And its funny because the coyote's totally fine. He
just keeps running -- right up until the moment that he looks down and realizes
that he's in mid-air. That's when he falls.
For marketing agencies this is like when we are executing a plan, a strategy,
that is actually the wrong plan or strategy. For whatever reason, its not going
to work even if we execute it perfectly. We're already wrong, we're already in
trouble, but we feel like we're on solid ground.
This isn’t a good position to be in because the longer we stay up in the air, the
more time and effort we are wasting and the more painful it will be when we
(or our client) realize the reality of the situation and things come crashing to
the ground below.
So how can we make sure our mistakes are made in a good direction make sure they our experiments are constructive trials and errors rather
than just consecutive trials and errors? And how can we make sure that
when we are wrong, we realise it before we go to far off the cliff. The key is
to work within a structured innovate, test, learn cycle. Create something,
measure it, then pivot to a refreshed idea or persevere.
All successful agency processes should be geared to accelerate this
feedback loop. However, most marketing activities never even close the
cycle once. They are built and abandoned and nobody minds if the
activity was ineffective and they didn’t learn anything by doing it - as long
as the client is smiling in the short term.
In closing the loop we face our fate, we have to welcome the fact that there
will be times that we end up in the wrong place, and aim to minimise the
cost by realizing early. Pixar’s Andrew Stanton, the man behind Finding Nemo
and WALL-E said “My strategy has always been: be wrong as fast as we can.
Which means we’re gonna screw up...let’s not be afraid of that. But let’s do it
as fast as we can so we can get to the answer.”
When we start one of these iterative cycles, we spend far too long trying to
make things perfect before we launch the innovate phase. The words on a
brief, the layout - rather than getting ideas out there into the real world. As
Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night Live, says "the show doesn't go
on because it's ready; it goes on because it's 1130." We need to realize that
good enough is more often than not good enough.
Silicon Valley call ‘good enough’ a ‘minimum viable product’ an early, lowcost but functional version of the idea. It is the starting point for the Innovate
- Test - Learn cycle. In your an agency it may make more sense to think of a
Minimum Viable Brief, or a Minimum Viable Story.
The next step is to zero in and pursue bigger bets on what’s working This is
what Google did when they ran a number of quickly mocked up adverts on
YouTube, picking the most popular to be re-crafted and aired during the
All too often, we only research, measure and test things that we have
already decided to do. This is a prescription for ineffective marketing, often
fatally coupled with vanity metrics taken as pain killers.
You all know what I mean by vanity metrics, they’re these ones – graphs
going up and to the right. If you have 90,000 Twitter followers but your last
campaign targeting them didn’t bring any sale, then 90,000 Twitter followers
is not a valid number to judge by.
There are countless nets being cast out
the sea of consumer-brand data, and they are bringing back really useful
findings. However, when I talked to agency heads about how they are
responding I got the sense that they saw it as a confusing and over hyped
space and are waiting for it to mature before taking it seriously and investing
Those Omnicom agencies that are looking into it are using a host of different
measurement tools - external, whitelabel and even some built in house. One
thing you can do today is give Scott Hagedorn a call. As CEO of Annalect,
Scott aims to simplify all this by stepping in with a meta service for the whole
Omnicom group. You can either rent access to Analect’s tools to monitor
your client’s brands yourself or you can outsource all of the work to them and
just get answers sent back.
However you test the effects of your outputs, don’t hold back. The new
technology may not look perfect now, but remember that the developers
working to improve them need you to use them, break them and feedback
in order to improve through their own innovate - test - learn cycles.
Some people getting this right are those sitting inside the ‘Gatorade Mission
Control Center’ in Pepsico’s Chicago headquarters. This room, positioned in
the middle of the marketing department, is outfitted with clever software and
data visualizations that track the brand in real time across the web. This setup
allows them to keep track of many MVPs, testing different ways to build the
For example, after seeing that an advert featuring a song by David Banner
was generating a buzz, they got a full-length version of the song online within
24 hours. Because they can see what’s worth investing in, they’ve increased
engagement with their content by 250%. Allowing for some waste in failed
experiments and a little investment in measurement capabilities rather
spending a lot more on media space.
For us to learn from them, we need to try to make our activities testable. Each
plan should actually be thought of as a hypothesis. And each hypothesis will
ideally have clear criteria for determining its success or failure. Ask yourself
how you can make the effectiveness of what you do more testable.
In making hypothesis testing, the key is to identify the assumptions you are
making. The deepest assumptions we make are the most treacherous as they
are the hardest to realize we are making. As the pace of change in our world
increases, the lifeline of the assumptions that we can rest upon, decreases. In
a perfect world, these assumptions would float to the surface when they
expire like fish. But they don't, so we keep using them.
We fail to identify the assumptions we are making, so when things don't work
out - we don't know what to change next time around.
All change is met with resistance by people that believed themselves to be
on the wrong side of the change. To avoid disrupting agency cultural
harmony, many marketing agencies have segregated organizational
change into a new container
For example when VCCP started getting big they created VCCP Blue in order
maintain the dynamism and agility of smaller, start-up integrated agency.
Instead of hiring 20 new people into the existing agency they created the
environment for constructive experiments elsewhere. BBH Labs is described as
BBH’s ‘global R&D unit, tasked with pioneering new outputs and
approaches’, while Ogilvy Labs operates as a self-funded ‘change agent’
within Ogilvy Group.
These labs illustrate the potential for agencies to become the places that
clients come to experiment, capitalizing on the high turnover of learnings
drawn from experiments done on other clients.
Labs are useful for segregating organizational change from roadblocks but
they also ensure that there is a budget specifically reserved for
experimentation. By assigning a budget to it, it becomes much harder to
ignore. At Cannes in 2011 Contagious identified the 5% club, a movement for
brands to assign at least 5% of their budget to experimental activities. You
should encourage clients to do this and also do so within your agency itself.
3M pioneered this approach with its “15% program” that allows employees to
devote 15% of their time to their projects outside of expected deliverables.
This is where Art Fry invented the Post-it. On which Google Gmail and Google
Earth were invented by engineers set free to spend one day each week
working on whatever want, with Google’s cultural expectation of ‘fail fast, fail
My final recommendation is to try out Scrum meetings as a way to manage
projects that involves a few specific tweaks that embody and facilitate an
In a scrum meeting, the first thing
you will see is a poster on the
wall. On the left hand side you see
a typical ‘to do’ list. A set of
ideal outcomes of the things we plan to do. However, on the other side you’ll
see a list of ‘actual outcomes’.
This introduces the expectation that things might not go to plan and creates
space for experimental creativity. Also, By comparing the ideal and actual
outcomes side by side, we can identify the areas of the plan in which a
change might have the most dramatic effect on results.
The scrum meeting itself is a daily 15 minute, stand-up meetings, where each
member of the team answers three questions: What did I do yesterday? What
will I do today? What’s blocking me from making progress?
The Scrum is run by someone called the Scrum master. They are not the most
senior person acting as everybody’s boss, in fact they are the most junior everybody’s support - helping to knock down the obstacles raised in that third
question. This empowers the people that need empowering.
Senior managers, which typically drop in and out of projects with a sense of
overlooking authority but a lack of time - are referred to as ‘fans’ of the scrum.
I love this little reframing of their position. Unlike a big brother figure, to which
all must appear faultless when they poke their head around the door, a fan’s
desires are perfectly aligned with the players and they will be there for them
however many stumbling blocks arise.
The ground we stand on is less stable. I’m not talking about your competitor
set, or even the Branding, or Research or PR industries. I’m talking about the
lack of consistency in how people and brands interact. Despite their best
efforts, industry leaders and theorists, giving talks like this, fail fantastically to
predict best just 6 months ahead. What will work, and what clients will want
to pay for, is highly unpredictable.
However, each external change brings winners and losers. Those that are able
to adapt are more likely to end up winners. This is what being more agile
To become more agile, you need to increase the pace of learning to meet
the pace of change.
The best way to do this is to embrace an experimental mind-set, making small
bets on many hypotheses.
Ensure each hypothesis passes iteratively through a cycle of innovation and
measurement - because each time you complete this cycle you learn
In order to free yourself to be experimental you are going to have to embrace
failure along with success.
It’s down to you to apply this mind-set in your agency but investigating new
ways to test the effectiveness of what you do, creating labs with a budget to
experiment and holding scrum meetings are a few examples of structural
changes that embody and facilitate the agile mind-set.
By Franky Athill