Long gone are the days when Agile was just a buzzword among marketers. The current volatility and uncertainty observed across most lines of business have made it clear that marketers need agility to be successful during these difficult times.
Traditionally, organizations in the IT industry have been the most open to changing the way their marketing departments operate in the name of greater agility. However, the 4th Annual State of Agile Marketing Report discovered that marketing departments inside financial organizations are a close second.
In 2021, 18% of the marketers employed in the finance sector reported that they've adopted one or more Agile frameworks. In a quest to enhance their ability to manage changing priorities, improve productivity, and accelerate the delivery of campaigns, financial organizations are initiating Agile transformations at an accelerated pace.
M&T Bank Corporation is among the marketing departments that have made great strides towards agility in the recent past. They’ve graciously agreed to share their inspirational transformation story, including the successes they've achieved, challenges they've overcome, and the role of guidance from expert Sherpas along the way.
Who is M&T Bank Corporation?
M&T Bank Corporation is an American financial services company with more than $142.6 billion in assets. They provide banking, insurance, investments, mortgage, and commercial financial services through more than 700 branches, thousands of ATMs, and a variety of online and mobile services.
They've been around for more than 150 years and operate throughout several business segments: personal, business, and commercial banking.
Promoting the services in each segment effectively requires a collective effort from a department made up of hundreds of marketers. In order to improve their operational efficiency and make the most of their resources in an environment of change and volatility, M&T Bank has embarked on a journey towards true marketing agility.
M&T Marketing Before Agile
To help us understand how they operated before adopting Agile, we talked to Zach Meixner, Senior Digital Program Manager at M&T Bank Corporation, to get the inside scoop of the departmental structure.
Prior to implementing Agile team structures within their department, they relied on a pivotal coordinator role referred to as a Relationship Manager (RM) that connected marketing with the business in order to realize campaigns.
The RMs were aligned with different targeted lines of business, typically a specific product or a customer base. The individuals in the RM role would work with the business lines to determine the campaigns that marketing needed to be running, and even involve themselves in specifics like the emails that needed to be sent out to customers.
Relationship Managers had to collaborate with various roles within marketing communications to get the necessary work completed.
They would reach out to experts within the department and constantly push them to get the job done. According to Zach, this arrangement created a “spaghetti-like situation," as RMs scrambled to connect with resources all over the marketing organization, constantly crossing wires. It required a complex communication structure and nebulous daily task management funneled through a single contributor to get anything done.
Lack of Effective Prioritization
What made it even more difficult to operate efficiently was the fact that most teams within the marketing department were using different tools to track and organize their work (or not using any at all).
As a result, effective prioritization was virtually impossible.
There were teams that received requests from a number of RMs, and even teams outside of marketing. Without a unified system for prioritizing work, every request was the highest priority to someone, which created chaos.
Because of this fragmented point of view, teamwork wasn’t great. Many of the experts within marketing were working on multiple projects or campaigns simultaneously. As a result, they would do their part as quickly as possible and leave it for the next person down the line.
There was never much collaboration among the specialists across the different pieces of a campaign, and whoever was loudest among the RMs would typically get their work done first.
As Meixner explains, “We heard things like 'this is the highest priority to senior management,’ ‘this is a regulatory requirement,’” basically anything to get their request pushed to the top of the pile.
“Sometimes they were, but sometimes it was just a lack of planning. And then, more often than we care to think, a lot of our resources had multiple things in flight at once,” continues Zach.
Held Back by Context-Switching
Being able to tell stakeholders that their work was in progress was more important than actually finishing it. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in huge amounts of context switching, which, as all Agile marketers know, is an incredibly inefficient way of doing things.
The bottom line is that under M&T’s old marketing framework, team members were not as effective as they could have been. In addition, management couldn’t ensure that the highest priority work was getting done. There was a lot of motion, but little progress.
Beginning an Agile Marketing Transformation
A few years ago, M&T recruited several senior leaders who had previously worked in Agile environments and knew the benefits of operating this way. They provided the incentive to initiate a transformation of the marketing department in order to embrace agility.
Wanting to ensure a smooth transition, M&T reached out to us. Working closely with their leadership team, we approached their transformation as a journey toward a mountain peak.
The first part of the climb consisted of setting the groundwork and training their marketing staff. Everyone who belonged to a team was trained in the fundamentals of Agile marketing. We covered the ceremonies, the roles, the practices, and the thinking required to make this new way of working successful.
In addition, we provided leadership-specific training for upper-level managers to help them understand how their roles would evolve with Agile.
Some of our groups, including Scrum Masters and Product Owners, received training tailored to both their role on the team and their context in marketing.
Finally, AgileSherpas embedded coaches in the marketing department to guide it from within. The primary goal was to reinforce what their teams and leadership had learned. In addition, we were helping them continually improve the individual teams' ways of working, and help them solve issues that came up.
To make the transition more holistic, we relied on the 70-20-10 learning model, placing the appropriate level of emphasis on structured learning through training, along with near-the-job informal learning and on-the-job experience through coaching. This allowed marketers to apply their newly-acquired knowledge, while building a higher level of comfort among team members to practice the new frameworks.
Large pivots in organizations that have been working in a certain way for a long period of time don’t happen overnight. Understanding that a big bang transformation was less likely to be effective, together with M&T’s leadership, we chose several changes to implement at the beginning. We put the emphasis on embracing the Agile mindset, as well as adding specific Agile ceremonies, and then focused on making the pace of work sustainable.
The early efforts were successful, making progress in solving the biggest process issues they had. As Zach likes to say, we were "putting points on the board" and moving in the right direction. But M&T still needed to address the structure of the marketing teams.
Introducing the Center of Excellence
Even after initiating their Agile transformation, M&T experienced serious difficulties in managing the capacity of their people.
“There were groups that ran a very specific campaign every fall. That very specific campaign needed a very specific role to be completed, but there's nothing really for that person to do on that team for the other nine months of the year,” explains Zach.
To solve this problem and other similar structural issues, M&T applied a management model called Center of Excellence (CoE). Its essence lies in forming service groups within the marketing department that support the Agile teams with additional capacity when needed.
They are organized around specific marketing functions (e.g. creative). That way, if a team needs assistance with a creative piece of work, for example, all they have to do is put in a request to the creative CoE.
The people on the CoE receive the request, prioritize it, and assign it to a person with the required skills to complete the task. The appropriate person then temporarily joins the requesting team for the duration of the assignment.
If a team is frequently using the services of a particular Center of Excellence, management evaluates if there’s enough work to keep a person with this skill set occupied for a whole year there. When this is the case, a specialist gets assigned permanently to the team.
At the moment, M&T’s marketing department has developed several CoEs and continues to evolve the model as their Agile transformation matures. Leadership always keeps a close eye on them and makes sure that each center has enough capacity to efficiently support the needs of the permanent marketing teams.
Agile in Action at M&T Bank Marketing
After receiving training and applying the Center of Excellence model, M&T ended up choosing a dual approach to Agile marketing. Most of the persistent teams chose Scrum as their framework for applying Agile. As a result, they started processing work in two-week sprints.
On the other hand, this approach was not suitable for the CoEs, so they applied Kanban due to the continuous nature of incoming requests into their workflow.
It's particularly important to shed light on how M&T’s marketing started to approach new work. When it shows up, it always gets assigned to the persistent teams. They're encouraged to work proactively with stakeholders to prioritize new work against the current items on their backlogs.
Team members work more closely together now, which allows them to focus on the work with the highest impact and urgency for the organization as a unit. They rely heavily on timely feedback and exchange it often to ensure high quality and a faster pace of delivery.
Leadership still remains responsible for strategic decision-making, and actively works on setting enterprise priorities and aligning them to larger organizational objectives.
However, the execution plans for achieving them now lie with the teams themselves. This allows them to better manage their own capacity and eliminates the context switching problems that plagued individual contributors in the pre-Agile days.
Evolving Work Prioritization
With our help, M&T found a prioritization approach that works well in their organizational context and facilitates focus and speed. It consists of two layers:
- User stories
Epics are large bodies of work. Their prioritization falls on marketing leaders within the organization. Each one is then broken down into user stories, which are more actionable activities that are smaller in size and that need to be completed for the epic to be done.
The system was developed gradually, while our coaches observed how the newly-formed Agile teams operate. Initially, epics were not present, so each team received huge loads of user stories and had to prioritize them on their own. This didn’t really solve the prioritization problem that originated in the pre-Agile days.
To avoid the feeling of a work avalanche, management started to prioritize epics first, then repeat with the user stories within each epic. If need be, they go to the backlog and make adjustments to individual stories.
The two-layer prioritization system now allows the marketing teams at M&T to prioritize work effectively while still responding to changes efficiently.
Applying Agile Planning
The common misconception that agility and planning don’t come hand in hand is something we've heard thousands of times. This can’t be further from the truth, and M&T realized it pretty quickly.
They started planning new work with agility in mind, which led to some fundamental changes.
Instead of preparing detailed annual marketing plans that became out of date the moment they’re released, they now put together a tentative plan for each quarter. While executing it, teams diligently collect workflow data, which gets analyzed after each cycle. It provides powerful planning inputs and makes them significantly more responsive to change.
Diving into the specifics, marketing teams now only plan for 50-75% of their capacity for each sprint in advance. The rest is added during the sprint kickoff meeting.
Feeling Inspired by M&T’s Example?
M&T Bank’s marketing is an amazing example of an organization aligned behind a common goal. Before setting off on their Agile journey they experienced problems known well to many of our marketing peers employed in the financial sector.
With a strong incentive provided by leadership, M&T designed a pragmatic approach to their transformation. Without rushing, they chose several starting points and began their ascent toward the summit of marketing agility.
Along the way, they didn’t trail blindly up the mountain but often paused to confirm that the organization is headed in the right direction.
We're honored to be part of their journey and look forward to seeing them continue their climb. (See the full story told by Zach in this webinar recording.)
If you're eager to follow in their footsteps, but the Agile mountain seems too steep, we would be more than happy to have a chat with you. Our experienced sherpas have walked the paths leading to the summit hundreds of times and are here to guide you.