A Skeptical Look at Agile Marketing Methodologies


Back in the day, I believed the internet was actively trying to destroy my ability to get writing done (I’m looking at you, Pinterest).

But one morning, as I was sipping my first cup of coffee and reviewing my Google Alert for “Agile marketing,” I came across this utterly perfect line from Skyword’s Lauren Sozio:

Just because I had set up a Scrumban for my team didn’t mean that I was any closer to getting us to act like an Agile team.

Six months into her resolution to “go Agile,” Sozio was in a common trap: she was spending hours upon hours researching, testing, and evangelizing Agile tools.

Her focus had moved away from the tenets of the Agile Marketing Manifesto and onto which shiny software system could magically transform her team. In a world full of big promises from big software companies, it’s easy to fall prey to this siren song.

Let’s take a moment to step back and remember why nerds like me are so excited about Agile Marketing in the first place. Then, I want to do a quick run-through of the four most common Agile marketing methodologies to remind us all that there are many, many ways to DO Agile.

Ultimately it doesn’t really matter which one we choose, as long as we’re BEING Agile in the process.

Compelling Reasons to BE Agile

In the 5th State of Agile Marketing Report, we asked Agile adopters what benefits they’ve gotten from implementing an Agile approach. They give us many compelling reasons to consider agility:

Benefits of Agile

Let’s be honest with ourselves; marketers are faced with constantly changing priorities and demands. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an effective way to deal with them?

We’re also notorious chasers of shiny objects.

We might easily spend 11.2 hours per week reading about the newest industry trends and tricks. Our multitasking tendencies are the bane of our existence.

Consider how much better your professional life would be if your entire team got more productive.

Finally, if we had a dollar for every time we had to explain “what marketing does” to someone from another department, we probably wouldn’t have to worry about our productivity, because we could just retire now.

Using Agile marketing methodologies to improve project visibility across the organization is a huge benefit.

Need more? Try better productivity, increased team morale, effective prioritization faster time to market, and more.

Agile Marketing Methodologies

In the 5th State of Agile Marketing Report, we see that the majority of marketing teams are using Scrumban or a hybrid approach to Agile. This number has been growing significantly for the past few years.

Agile Methodology

At the same time, Scrum adoption dropped 2% from last year from 19% to 17%. It’s a small difference but likely indicates a transition to more flow-based and hybrid marketing methodologies.

As we see in the 5th State of Agile Marketing Report, Scrum is not the first choice for Agile marketers. Over the years, the report shows a clear preference for a hybrid approach.

What does this discrepancy tell us? There is no “one size fits all” approach to agility.

We need to approach marketing methodologies with the same critical, experimental eye we use on our projects, tasks, and teams.

Scrum for Marketing Fail?

Lauren Sozio, who we heard from in the intro, had an immediate negative reaction to all the rigamarole that goes along with Scrum:

There was no doubt that I found a lot of truth in the agile manifesto, but philosophically, I had a hard time believing that in order to be agile, I had to adopt all ceremonies. This seemed inflexible for a methodology that is grounded in adaptability.

For my former team at SurveyGizmo, keeping sprints sacred has proved nearly impossible with heavily involved executives and constantly shifting priorities.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of inherent value in the Scrum methodology.

Scrum Compatibility for Marketing Teams

Scrum forces us to learn to use two powerful but problematic words for marketers: “Not yet.”

We have to learn to prioritize instead of just agreeing to do everything right now.

In organizations with little experience with agility, Scrum can work as a great starting point. It provides structure, clear roles, and lots of readily available information.

Small teams (less than four people) probably aren’t going to get much value out of this approach, however, and those who are already comfortable with the Agile mindset may find it irksome.

Take a look at our guide to Scrum for marketing, and see if you think this approach will be right for your team.

Pull-Based Kanban Systems

Kanban can be challenging because it makes more demands on an individual team to define their parameters:

  • You’ve got to decide what your Work in Progress (WIP) Limits are. How many things can each person be working on? How many things can be in QA or review?
  • Policies that govern workflow must be determined. If you’re going to use retrospectives, you need to decide when they happen. Will you do a daily standup? What defines “done” for each phase of your marketing life cycle?
  • Individual marketers are responsible for pulling work from the backlog. If you’ve got underperforming or under-committed team members they can be a big detriment.


On the other hand, these demands make Kanban a much more flexible system. It adapts to changing demands more readily, and it can feel freer and less restrictive.

Keep in mind that marketing teams that are very deadline-focused may not find Kanban to be a good fit. If you know you need work completed by a certain date, aligning sprints with that deadline may work better.

Want a more detailed walkthrough of Kanban? We’ve got you covered.

Scrumban: With Our Powers Combined…

Looking for a Goldilocks version of an Agile methodology? Scrumban may be what you need.

It offers a combination of Scrum ceremonies with Kanban’s pull-based flow.

It’s the roles of Scrum — Product Owner, Scrum Master, and “Developers” — that are often the pieces of that methodology that don’t quite fit on a marketing team. That means that Scrumban, which holds on to ceremonies but lets go of inapplicable Scrum roles, may be a good solution.

We’ve got a nice overview of this methodology too, as well as a 5-Step guide to getting started.

Lean Marketing: Is That Even a Thing?

Many people refer to Kanban as a Lean approach because it focuses on waste reduction. Others will balk at hearing Lean called “Agile” at all.

In my humble opinion, a rose by any other name is just as Agile.

Or something like that.

What I mean is that we shouldn’t quibble about language. Find what works. Do more like that.

Many marketers use Lean practices like minimum viable products and rapid iterations without realizing that’s what they’re doing. Thanks in part to Eric Ries’ wildly successful book, The Lean Startup, these are becoming increasingly common tactics in businesses of all sizes.

Proceed With Caution (and Agility)

Before you spend dozens of team hours training on new tools, techniques, and marketing methodologies, evaluate all your options.

Commit to trying the methodology that seems best for your team with the minimum viable amount of investment, then examine its successes and failures. Iterate on what worked; ruthlessly abandon what didn’t.

Don’t feel compelled to try things that feel wrong just because lots of people do things that way. Instead, use shu ha ri to learn about, implement and customize the right approach for you and your team.

Shu Ha Ri and Agile Marketing Methodologies

Shu Ha Ri is a concept that originated in Japanese martial arts and describes the stages of learning. Shu means to learn the rules, Ha to bend the rules, and Ri to break them. 

Shu means “protect” or “obey”. This first phase is all about adhering to the rules. You study the foundations and commit to them strictly. 

The second phase Ha translates as “detach” or “digress”. This is where we start to depart from the convention. Knowing the principle and values now will allow you to improvise around them.

In the Agile sense, this looks like this. We studied and applied Scrum and Kanban. As a result, in time we started to improvise and develop our own procedures. Although those new frameworks represent a different stage of evolution, they can be easily identified as modifications of the originals.

In the third phase Ri, we "leave" or "separate" from the traditional ways and develop our own techniques and methods.

This is where Agile marketing is going. Soon, we won't require the standard Scrum or Kanban frameworks as safety nets because our practice will enable us to break free from them. We're prepared to follow our own special course.

Teams and marketing methodologies should be just as Agile as individuals and organizations, and a healthy dose of skeptical experimentation can help us get there.

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