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[Interview] Jim Ewel, Author Of ‘The Six Disciplines of Agile Marketing: Proven Practices For More Effective Marketing And Better Business Results’

How can businesses and marketing teams reach customers in the age of COVID-19, respond to lightning-fast changes in the marketplace, and keep up with new consumer demands?

Marketing pioneer Jim Ewel has the answer in three words: “With Agile marketing.”

As Ewel says, “Agile marketing teams can think on their feet, pivot at a moment’s notice, and ride a continuous wave of new ideas — allowing businesses to win in a post-pandemic world.”

Ewel recently sat down with Young Upstarts to share his insights about this futureproof approach to marketing, why it gives businesses an edge, and how organizations can get started.

Here is some of our conversation:

What is Agile marketing, and what makes it so different?

Agile marketing takes its inspiration from Agile software development, which is how 90% of companies develop software today. It adopts Agile’s process management techniques, such as daily standups, to coordinate a team’s work and uses visual tools, called Kanban boards, to track work in progress.

What makes Agile marketing different is that it values different things than traditional marketing. For example, it values “responding to change” over “following a marketing plan.” What does this mean? Agile marketers recognize that the future is impossible to predict accurately, so how customers will react to a marketing promotion is equally impossible to predict. Rather than projecting a false sense of accuracy through a set-in-stone plan, Agile marketers develop the skill of responding quickly to changes, whether they’re brought on by the business environment, competition, or customer needs and wants.

It sounds like Agile is particularly suited for the times we’re facing now. How can it give businesses an edge?

The pandemic hit just as I was finishing up some of the interviews in the book. Without prompting, many of the clients I spoke with brought up how Agile marketing helped them adjust to the pandemic and the associated economic challenges.

One client said it helped them because they hadn’t made long-term commitments to advertising buys, and it was easy to cut back spending when their revenues declined. Another talked about how they used Agile techniques to create and test new product and service offerings for customers struggling with the pandemic. A marketing agency I spoke with was a brand-new startup, just months old, when the pandemic hit. They used Agile to differentiate themselves and help their clients deal with the radical changes in the business environment.

In your book, you explain that Agile is more than a methodology; it requires leaders to make specific organizational shifts. What does this look like?

I recommend that marketing leaders make four specific shifts in the beliefs and behaviors of their organization:

Shift from a focus on outputs to a focus on outcomes.

Many marketing groups focus on how many marketing campaigns they can run, how many marketing emails they can send out, or how much marketing content they can generate. The non-marketing parts of the business (sales, finance, and the CEO) don’t care about more marketing “stuff”; they want more leads, more sales, and more profits. In other words, they want business outcomes. Marketers need to shift their mindsets and assume accountability for business outcomes.

Shift from a campaign mentality to continuous improvement.

Most marketers think in terms of campaigns. They write a campaign brief. They produce “creative” or content for a campaign. They run the campaign once and then declare it was successful based on vanity metrics.

Agile marketers take a more incremental and iterative approach. They test an idea on a small scale. If it works, they improve it and run it at a slightly larger scale. If it doesn’t work, they try something else at a small scale. This leads to more effective marketing, in terms of business outcomes, and more efficient use of their marketing spend.

Shift from an internal focus to a customer focus. 

Of course, everyone says they’re customer-focused. But this needs to be more than happy talk. Marketers need to spend more time with customers and dive more deeply into the customer behaviors that lead to business success.

Shift from top-down to decentralized decision-making. 

Many marketing executives approve every visual and every line of copy in every campaign. This slows everything down through endless approval cycles. Marketing executives need to focus on a few key decisions and push everything else down in the organization.

I was surprised to read that Agile marketers have 74% job satisfaction. Tell us more.

This statistic comes from an annual survey of Agile marketers done by AgileSherpas and Aprimo. I’m happy to see it, but not surprised. Agile marketers have more autonomy, greater mastery of their work, and more of a sense that the work they’re doing has purpose, both in terms of delivering on business outcomes and meeting customer needs. As Daniel Pink taught us in his book Drive, what motivates knowledge workers, including marketers, are these three things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

In your experience, how do sales teams react to Agile?

Sales teams almost always greet the adoption of Agile with skepticism. They’re accustomed to marketers who spin the numbers without delivering the goods. Agile marketers show transparency. They’re not afraid to reveal to the sales team that an idea “failed” because they didn’t devote all the marketing dollars to that idea, and they expect to iterate on different ideas until they come up with one that works.

Sales teams generally love the increased transparency, honesty, and accountability that comes with Agile. In many cases, sales organizations become Agile marketers’ biggest supporters.

If you could offer young professionals one word of advice, what would it be?

Examine your assumptions. As Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

To learn more about Jim Ewel and his new book, visit his website.

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