It’ll be three years this November since I left a pharmaceutical advertising agency. Although the experience of working in a highly regulated industry was invaluable, I didn’t really see how lumbering our approach was—by necessity—until I re-engaged with businesses outside the bubble.
I remember it taking months to develop marketing plans before drugs came to market. By the time a campaign launched, our energy and budgets were all but spent. The very concept of optimization was anathema. In that environment, test-and-learn pilots seemed like the epitome of “nimble.”
In hindsight, we were producing expensive assets whose size and ambition outstripped our clients’ needs. We envisioned apps and websites that could live on, without change, until either the end users lost interest or the clients’ funding and market position wiped them away.
Contrast that approach with this comment from Jeff Bezos in his letter to Amazon shareholders last year:
“One thing I love about customers is that they are divinely discontent. Their expectations are never static—they go up. … People have a voracious appetite for a better way, and yesterday’s ‘wow’ quickly becomes today’s ‘ordinary’. I see that cycle of improvement happening at a faster rate than ever.”
Assuming most companies fall somewhere between the pharma establishment and the Amazons of the world, the question becomes: How nimble do today’s marketers need to be to help their clients remain relevant to customers? What does nimble even mean in this day and age?
You Have to be Able to Sprint
Sailshaker works with clients large and small across all different industries—and our team members bring a wide variety of experiences and approaches to our projects. So I asked my colleagues to answer that question.
One of the most technologically savvy members of our crew replied that being nimble means never falling back to “set it and forget it.” Cultivating a better experience for the end user, our client’s customer, should be a continuous goal.
His viewpoint is grounded in agile software development—a process in which programmers rapidly evolve product features in succession to solve specific objectives. In my experience, these “sprints” help a team focus around one strategic aspect for a few working sessions and execute quickly.
For example, Sailshaker was recently engaged to help improve website acquisition rates for a leading fitness brand. The project was defined as a user experience overhaul of public-facing pages in eight weeks and involved members of the client’s sales, marketing, product and creative teams. We became an integral part of the collaboration, helping conduct audience research and then tightening the narrative and layout based on what we learned.
Although it was an aggressive timeline, everyone had a distinct role to play and a clear objective. We scheduled meetings, used Slack and created online job tickets. Tasks were done fast and well. And in two months, we’d made a significant upgrade.
Forward-looking marketers embrace the agile process with respect and rigor. Annual product roadmaps serve as guideposts, but these are subject to change in response to new information.
For many of us who grew up amid print, radio and TV, sprints demand a shift in mindset. There’s no real end to a project, only new beginnings. Knowing that a homepage is going to change several times in a short period, you don’t worry about getting it perfect for all time. Instead, you make measurable improvements.
You Have to Be Service-Minded
One of our content-focused colleagues comes at nimbleness from a very different angle. She said it starts with a customer-first focus, a service mentality that leans in on collaboration and solutions to real, known problems.
This is key to the way Sailshaker operates. It’s an evolution from the traditional agency approach. It’s less transactional and more consultative. Less about producing one-off “stuff” and more about developing plans and assets that generate results now and set up options for the future.
Being service-minded starts with meeting organizations where they are. That means defining a bespoke team per client and per project. By shedding excess layers, we find efficient ways to deliver results without running up unnecessary bills—and we help clients seize opportunities that are good for business.
Think about it. Does a salesperson at an ad agency have the practical know-how to describe and sell a brilliant vision—and to discuss the associated scope, timing, options, complicating factors and budget on the fly? Rarely, if ever.
A service mindset cultivates trust. Running a project under a transparent, lean, collaborative model deepens relationships, improving the chance that it will meet or exceed expectations and that the internal/external teamwork will continue.
You Have to Be Ready for What’s Next
Our lead design colleague is the one of us most bent on innovation. He equates being nimble with the ability to think forward without getting mired in what the masses are doing. In his mind, if it’s been done, it’s done.
Even though we’re not always in a position to innovate or predict the future, we can maintain a constant state of readiness to adjust our strategy. In a certain respect, “thinking forward” is about hyper-vigilance and vision. That’s why we immerse ourselves in our clients’ businesses and industries. We watch what their competitors are doing and how their target audiences behave.
We’re also wired to keep our fingers on the pulse of our own industry so that we know about new technologies and methodologies we can apply for our clients—whether that means navigating Google’s latest algorithm, using data lakes to align disparate customer information or bringing design to life on the cutting edge of virtual reality and 4D.
Putting Nimbleness Into Practice
If you’ve read this far, you’ve learned there are myriad ways to define nimble from a marketing perspective. It can relate to the value of a product or service you bring to market—or to the processes you use to deliver it.
Either way, you have to know what your business is about at its core, and how your essential skills can be put to use or adapted as the marketplace changes.
Let’s face it, marketing is becoming more complex and, harking back to Bezos, consumers are becoming savvier. There’s only one way we know to keep up with it all: By staying on our toes.
Now that you’ve heard from us, how does your business stay nimble? Do you think of this characteristic as a cultural phenomenon, something that can be learned or both?