Agile Acceleration: 4th Annual State of Agile Marketing Report

Three years ago AgileSherpas released our first ever State of Agile Marketing Report (now affectionately referred to as SOAM).

That was 2018, and we found that 37% of our respondents considered themselves to be Agile.

Two earlier reports from Wrike and Workfront had put the adoption rate at 21% and 30%, respectively, and our number was met with some skepticism from the Agile marketing community.

But we were meticulous in our data collection, and clear in our definition of Agile marketing, and I stood fast by the number. The following year adoption rates dropped to 32%, partially due to a change in the demographics of our respondents (more on that in 2019's deep dive article).

Since 2019, however, the adoption rate has accelerated dramatically, coming in at 42% last year and 51% this year.

At this rate we’ll match software’s impressive 95%+ adoption rate in no time!

But even as they climb inexorably, the adoption numbers aren’t the ones that excite me in year four of doing this write up. Because this year we begin to sign increasing signs of maturity in the movement.

Marketers, in other words, aren’t just “going Agile.”

They’re grappling with challenging questions about the impact of agility on their larger work management systems, exploring best practices for making Agile ways of working stick, and, perhaps most importantly of all, continuing their quest for the hybrid frameworks that represent our best chance at achieving organization-wide agility.

In this now-traditional deep dive into the results of our Fourth Annual State of Agile Marketing Report, I’ll share the in-depth takeaways from the report itself, along with my own interpretations of the data. I’ll flag any trends, divergences, or weird stuff that I see, and provide additional background on our data collection methodology.

If you want to jump around to the bits that interest you, feel free to do so in the table of contents below.

Here’s to the year that Agile marketing starts to grow up! 

Table of Contents:

Agile Marketing Adoption Trends and the Pandemic

There’s no denying that collecting data at the end of 2020 is going to give you some unusual results. It’s not a major shocker, for instance, that Agile marketing adoption jumped another ten percentage points this year (up from 41% last year).

Agile Marketing Adoption Chart 2021

As marketers struggled with the near-instant lockdown, followed by economic fallout, social unrest, and a highly contentious US election, responding to change over following a plan seemed like the year’s motto.

So really it’s more surprising that we didn’t see a bigger jump in marketers self-identifying as Agile.

But Are They REALLY Agile? 

One thing that I get asked every year, however, is whether these self-professed Agile marketers are really Agile. Couldn’t they just be ping-ponging around randomly and using Agile as a synonym for fast and busy?

In theory, yes, they could.

But we provide clear definitions in our survey each year to guide respondents. To be considered Agile they need to be exhibiting at least some of the common hallmarks of that way of working.

We have to rely on the manifestations of agility, such as kanban boards and daily standups, which may or may not indicate adoption of the Agile mindset. But until we can follow people around to fact-check their answers, we have to settle for self-reporting based on activities.


COVID-19 and Marketing Agility

A new question for 2020 had to be added to address the impact of the pandemic on Agile adoption. We specifically asked our Agile respondents whether the events of 2020 impacted their plans to go Agile:

COVID Impact on Agile Marketing Adoption

As you can see, 38% of the respondents said the pandemic accelerated their plans to implement Agile ways of working to some degree.

And, as is the norm for the report, there’s a high percentage of non-Agile marketers who report plans to make the shift ASAP. In fact, the percentage of marketers planning to adopt Agile within a year is huge:

Plan to Implement Agile Marketing Timeline

My message for non-Agile marketers when we see big numbers like this is always: act now. If you don’t figure out how to be truly Agile, a competitor is going to beat you to it. Do the work. Make the change. Don’t wait any longer.

How Agile Helped in 2020

While Agile helps marketers all the time, it was particularly important during the insanity of 2020. We asked our Agile respondents to comment on whether Agile ways of working made a difference for them, and we got a resounding “yes!”:

Importance of Agile Marketing in 2020

Eighty-four percent of Agile marketers said their agility was either extremely or somewhat important to dealing with the volatility of the pandemic year. Only 6% said it made no difference, and a scant 1% said it wasn’t important at all. 

Signs the Agile Marketing Movement is Maturing

Marketing agility is running several years behind the Agile movement as a whole, so it’s very encouraging to see positive trends beginning to emerge around some of the more advanced aspects of Agile.

Agile Planning and Budgeting

Two of those come from new questions in the 4th report, specifically asking Agile marketers how their Agile ways of working have impacted the planning and budgeting processes. Most of us marketing professionals know that planning and budgeting are cumbersome affairs that dictate much of the subsequent activity, so to turn those huge ships takes some work.

Planning Agile Marketing 2021-1

Agile Marketing Budgeting

But those ships do in fact appear to be turning.

A clear majority of marketers say they’re shifting their approach to both planning and budgeting to sustain agility.

This is a REALLY big deal, as it’s dynamic budgeting and iterative planning that ultimately enable Agile execution. If we’re trying to move fast while doing work but keep getting stalled by unresponsive corporate infrastructure, our agility is limited.

Changes in these areas point toward a greater maturity and more widespread adoption of marketing agility beyond simply holding daily standup or using a kanban board.

Agile Beyond the Web Team

A natural segway into Agile marketing has often come from the website team. They’re the most likely to interact with Agile developers, can deliver incremental value, and generally fit the most readily into existing Agile frameworks.

But in this year’s report we see Agile making its way into tons of different marketing functions.

In fact, website-related activities came third on the list:

Activities Where Agile Marketing Helps

Major high fives go out to creative services and ops teams for topping this chart!

I’ve worked with many of these groups, and they have SO MUCH to gain from implementing Agile. It makes my Agile nerd heart happy to see them taking advantage of it.

Demand and ABM come in at a close second, which makes sense because they can get real-time feedback on how their efforts are going and iterate accordingly. Then of course we have website and social media teams, the typical groups that fit nicely with Agile.

But even events and brand are in the top ten. The key takeaway here is that no aspect of marketing has an excuse. You can take advantage of all that Agile has to offer; your function is not an exemption.

Effective Agile Marketing Measurement

We’re big advocates of metrics and measurement here at AgileSherpas, so the high percentages of marketers who are effectively tracking the impact of their Agile efforts puts a big smile on our faces.

Agile Measurement

Of course there are lots of different ways to measure things, including Agile marketing. A fairly even number of marketers are tracking the impact of their work and their ability to do it quickly.

This equitable pairing of effectiveness and efficiency is yet another sign that Agile marketing is maturing. We’re carefully evaluating not just how much work we’re getting done, but also how well it’s delivering against our key marketing metrics.

Though these are very encouraging signs, with 14% of respondents saying they don't measure their results, we clearly have some room for improvement in this area. 

How Agile Marketing Works: Frameworks and Practices

Having looked across the trends at a high level, it’s time to dive deeper into what Agile marketing looks like on a day to day basis. While each team will certainly build its own incarnation of Agile ways of working, it’s always useful to see where the commonalities are.

No sense in reinventing the wheel if it’s already rolling other teams along nicely.

Agile Marketers Love Hybrids

Agile Marketing Methodology Popularity 2021

We have to start with the framework choice of marketers, as it informs many of the other ways Agile looks for marketers.

This year, as always, hybrid frameworks are the clear and undisputed winner.

The percentage of marketers who prefer crafting their own Agile ways of working rose six points this year. Scrum continues to come in second, followed quite closely by Kanban. Most of the gains for a hybrid approach came from a drop in marketers identifying as Lean practitioners.

Twelve percent fewer marketers fell into this category in 2021.

Days in the Life of Agile Marketers

The thing about hybrid frameworks is that they can vary widely from one organization, or even among teams within the same organization.

Consider this variety of practices:

Agile Marketing Practices Popularity 2021

The thing that jumps out immediately is the discrepancy between the number of respondents who say they’re using Sprint/iteration planning and the number who say they’re using Scrum.

Of course you can use iterative approaches to work that don’t fully align to everything within the Scrum framework, but it’s surprising how big the difference is here.

Keep in mind that for this question, unlike the framework one, respondents could select multiple options. We aren’t getting a totally apples-to-apples comparison, but it’s still an intriguing juxtaposition.

It’s also a significant jump from 2020, when only 37% of marketers reported using Sprint planning as part of their Agile marketing efforts.

Other cool year over year insights include:

  • Double-digit gains for the use of Sprint reviews (up to 45% from 28%).
  • A much bigger gap between marketers using digital vs. physical kanban boards, no doubt driven by the much higher proportion of teams who are distributed this year. 
  • Consistent use of core practices like retros, daily standups, and user stories, another encouraging sign that marketers are becoming more mature in their use of Agile. 

Making the Change and Making it Stick

I’ve often said that the main rival to marketing agility is the status quo. Change is hard. So not doing anything often wins out.

But in 2020, things that were historically successful were suddenly impossible, and change was thrust upon many of us whether we liked it or not.

Much of this year’s data reflects the different circumstances under which marketers went Agile last year. We also began asking questions about how marketers are supporting Agile’s long term survival, which paint a rosy picture of the movement’s future.

What Makes Marketers Go Agile? 

2020 was a big year for agility, as we were forced to confront the inadequacy of our traditional ways of working. For our respondents, that meant turning to Agile as a solution to many of our process-level challenges.

Last year 58% of respondents were looking to improve productivity, and 54% hoped Agile would help them better manage changing priorities. This year those two swapped.

Sixty-five percent of marketers are looking to improve their ability to manage changing priorities, while 58% were after greater productivity.

Top Reasons for Adopting Agile Marketing in 2021

More marketers are also looking for faster cycle times this year: 12% more cited the desire for accelerated delivery in 2021 compared to 2020.

What Keeps Marketers From Going Agile

The previous data always begs the question, if Agile is so great and provides all these benefits, why aren’t all marketing teams Agile marketing teams? The data answering this question has made some fascinating shifts this year!

For the past two years, there’s been relative parity between the two top barriers, a lack of training and a feeling that current processes were working just fine. In 2020, for example, 44% of respondents said a lack of training was holding them back, and 43% said their systems were OK.

Check out the data from 2021:

Barriers Preventing Teams from Adopting Agile Marketing in 2021

A similar percentage of respondents feel that they don’t have the knowledge needed to more fully implement Agile marketing. But the number of respondents who think their current processes are serving them went down by 14%!

It seems that the status quo, Agile’s age old enemy, is finally being shown for the inadequate substitute that it is.

What Helps the Move to Greater Agility

When you’re ready to take the plunge and overcome whatever barriers you face, it’s important to note what other adopters have used to help drive their change.

Enablers of Agile Marketing Adoption in 2021

This year we saw a much higher percentage (55% compared to 39%) of our respondents citing the use of tools, which makes total sense given how we’ve all been suddenly distributed.

Fewer marketers told us they relied on consistent practices and processes across their teams, which may be related to the higher percentage of this year’s respondents coming from large organizations. As the number of teams using Agile grows, it’s less feasible to keep things totally consistent from team to team.

If you’re feeling the pinch of this gap, I recommend looking to the 80/20 rule. If you can keep 80% of your practices consistent, that creates enough of a shared understanding for the teams to collaborate effectively. The remaining 20% is up for grabs; each team can tailor them to work for their particular context.

If it Was Easy, Everyone Would Do It

This year we probed a bit deeper into the realities of life for marketers post-Agile by asking what challenges they’ve experienced as a result of bringing Agile into their systems.

Organizational Challenges Originating from Agile

I wish I could tell you there aren’t any challenges, but everything isn’t puppies and rainbows the minute you implement Agile ways of working. Forty-four percent of our respondents -- nearly half! -- struggle with unplanned work.

This is, of course, part of the fun of using Agile inside of marketing.

We’re highly service-oriented, taking requests from multiple internal partners, and also responsible for staying responsive to changes in the market. I’ve long been sure that this prevalence of unplanned work is one of the reasons that marketers gravitate toward hybrid frameworks rather than Scrum.

If you’re plagued by unplanned work like those 44%, check out this guide to Kanban. Implementing aspects of this framework is often a game changer for our clients who struggle with this perennial marketing struggle.

Agile for the Long Term

Agile is a marathon, not a Sprint (even if you use those), so we’ve started probing the changes that marketing organizations are making to sustain their new ways of working.

Not surprisingly, given our love of martech, marketers are relying on standardized project management tools to help them:

Changes Required for a Sustainable Agile Adoption

This is another question where multiple options were available, so many respondents are doing more than one of these. Of course a standardized tool helps, particularly at the enterprise level where marketing leaders need insight to what’s going on across multiple Agile teams.

It’s interesting that the same number of people report fiddling with their planning as well.

I see this as yet another sign of growing maturity; the traditional annual plan simply isn’t going to support rapid iteration and experimentation.

Note also that several of the most commonly cited changes related to ongoing education. This is vital to counteracting the major hurdle we already discussed: a lack of knowledge.

It’s disappointing to see 15% saying nothing is being done to keep Agile going. We may be maturing as agilists, but our work within marketing is definitely not done. 

Marketing Agility → Business Agility

An emerging hypothesis here at AgileSherpas is that marketing is one of the best keys to unlock business agility. We touch so many other parts of the organization, and we connect external customers with internal business customers, it makes us an awesome Agile catalyst.

This year’s report holds a couple of cool data points pointing toward how Agile marketing can help grow agility in other parts of the organization.

The Importance of Agile Ways of Working

One of the most interesting things about our Agile respondents is where they find their internal partners in agility.

Organizational Functions Using Agile in 2021

It’s not surprising that product development and IT are at the top of this list. With more than 95% of developers reporting use of Agile, you’re going to have to look hard for non-Agile teams in these parts of the organization (though they definitely exist!).

But when we move outside those segments, we find sales coming in at third place with 18%. As one of the strongest internal connections for marketers, particularly in B2B, it’s great to see Agile making inroads here.

Finance and HR are lagging behind sales at 10% each, but the more parts of the organization shift to using Agile frameworks, the higher we can expect these numbers to grow. Shifts inside the departments they support will begin making Agile a requirement, not an option, for these departments too.

Agility Assumes Greater Importance

Knowing that both marketing and business agility are on the rise, we’ve begun to suspect that there must be strong support emerging at the executive level. A new question that we asked this year seeks to look deeper into where Agile fits inside the organization a a whole.

Importance of Agile in 2020

As you can see, nearly half of respondents told us that Agile was either one of the most important initiatives or a major initiative across the company. This might manifest as an org-wide rollout of SAFe or another scaling framework, an executive steering committee responsible for overseeing an Agile rollout, an Agile center of excellence, or many other cross-department initiatives.

Another big chunk, 42%, say that Agile has become a priority for one or more functional areas (likely the departments we saw just above). This is a good start, but as our colleagues in software will tell us, there are limits to how much Agile can give us when it’s isolated in a couple of pockets.

If you fall into this second category, I highly recommend going hunting for internal Agile partners.

Create an interest group, whether formally or informally, to facilitate inter-departmental learnings and speed Agile’s adoption in more parts of the business.

With more political capital and higher Agile headcount, you can then begin to advocate for different approaches from groups like finance, HR, and procurement. These changes, as we’ve seen elsewhere in this year’s report, are a big part of making Agile work long term.

Agile vs. Traditional vs. Ad Hoc Marketers

One of my most favorite parts of the SOAM report is where we compare the ways that Agile, traditional, and ad hoc marketers feel and think about the way marketing work gets done. As a reminder, here’s how we separate people into these buckets:

Agile: We use at least some parts of an Agile marketing approach to manage our work, such as daily standups, a backlog, Sprints, kanban board, etc. We have plans, but they’re flexible and change often.

Traditional: We plan our work in advance using a lot of detail and try to stick as closely as possible to that plan.

Ad hoc: We don’t make long-term plans. We work on what seems right from day to day and don’t have a well-defined process for managing incoming work.

Agile Marketing Satisfaction

First and foremost, let’s look at overall satisfaction: 

Satisfaction with Agile in 2021

Sixty-seven percent of Agile marketers are satisfied or very satisfied. Traditional marketers are slightly less happy, coming in at 53%. When we get into the ad hoc group, however, things are dire.

A paltry 21% are satisfied.

This is down significantly from last year; I suspect it’s the huge avalanche of last minute changes, unanticipated pivots, and insance hours that have plagued this group over the past year.

Clearly, this is not great. We don’t want dissatisfied, overworked, overwhelmed people acting as the voice of any organization.

And, at a human level, we don’t want so many people being unhappy at the place they spend (at least) eight hours of their days.

Other Differences Between Agile and Non-Agile Marketers

You can see the full spectrum of the distinctions between Agile marketers and their traditional and ad hoc counterparts in the report, but here’s the overview.

You might think traditional marketers would be more certain about how their days would go, given their emphasis on up front planning. But it turns out Agile marketers are more likely to know what their days will look like. Ad hoc marketers, unsurprisingly, don’t have that confidence.

As the work begins to get done, Agile marketers are the least likely to say their teams spend too much time communicating about the work rather than doing it. They also experience the least amount of friction among their team due to their style of work.

If these individual and team-level benefits aren’t enough, Agile marketers also report:

  • The highest confidence levels in dealing with the fast pace of digital marketing work
  • Strongest levels of alignment between their marketing strategy and the organization’s vision
  • High levels of confidence that their marketing department can capitalize on emerging opportunities

What to Do With the Data From the State of Agile Marketing Report?

Last, but certainly not least, I want to leave this deep dive with some concrete action items based on this data. Because knowledge isn’t power, it’s only potential power.

Power comes from putting knowledge into action, so here are a few things you can do right now:

  • Bridge the education gap with training tailored to marketers. Our Introduction to Agile Marketing on-demand course is pre-recorded for learning on your terms, or you can join an upcoming live, instructor-led Agile Marketing Fundamentals workshop. 
  • Think creatively about where and how to test Agile ways of working within marketing. Keep in mind that tons of different marketing functions are using Agile, so you don’t have to limit your test to the web team. If you’d like guidance through your pilot, our 90-Day Jumpstart program can help. 
  • Reach out to a Sherpa if you’d like tailored guidance to help you reach the next stage of your Agile marketing journey. 


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