Agile marketing in 2021

What is the state of agile adoption in the marketing domain? What are distinctive patterns that marketing communications teams are encountering and what is the big challenge towards the future?

Research Report

In the spring of 2021, Agile Sherpas published results of research conducted with Forrester on the adoption of agile practices in the marketing domain. The results provide a valuable glimpse into how agile is making inroads into our field so far. I’ve highlighted the most valuable insights. You can download the full report here.

Half of the respondents who participated in the survey (more than 500 in total) indicated that their organization is using at least some form of agile in its marketing approach. In particular, content creation and distribution processes, account based marketing, website and social media are places you’ll find the agile working method.

Practical reasons

Why agile is being adopted is mainly for practical reasons: to better deal with shifting priorities, to be more productive, and to speed up campaigns or marketing programs.

What was found most valuable during the adoption of agile is the implementation of an agile project management tool. This can partly be explained by COVID – remote work became the norm. Implementing a tool creates structure and keeps team members together while doing their tasks. It may well be that without the COVID situation, these teams would have started with stand ups and a wall full of sticky notes.


Most investment has been made in marketing-specific workshops and training to educate team members on the application of agile. A small proportion has invested in agile coaching for marketing teams. Knowing this makes it quite striking that marketing teams indicate ‘a lack of knowledge about agile working’ to be the biggest obstacle to fully applying agile.

From the research, the image emerges that marketing professionals do not receive too much guidance from outside in this new way of working. And they are mainly reinventing agile from within their own discipline. In doing so, they are aiming for the immediately harvestable benefits of agile: moving with the customer and being able to do more work in less time. Legitimate motives of course, but mainly operation-oriented. And there is so much more potential in the change to agile, especially for marketing teams.

An outside view can be helpful and give teams a boost in making their approach and the interpretation of the profession more agile. Because there are a number of patterns to break in order to transform to a full agile application within marketing and communication.

What patterns do marketing teams encounter as they make the shift to agile?

  • Existence of persistent silos and knowledge cocoons
  • Perceptions of collaboration
  • Acceptance of agile differs by function

Persistent silos and knowledge cocoons

No profession is as wide-ranging as marketing & communications. Many organizations have clusters of specialists in-house: information and reputation experts, employer branding specialists, social media marketers, campaign strategists, communications consultants and on and on. This phenomenon is called silo formation. For although these clusters of specialists are all about the image of the organization in the outside world, they do not interact much with each other and are busy with their own tasks and output day in and day out. In addition, within clusters there is often specialization per team member. Especially in the social media teams, this is immediately recognizable. There is a team member who does Instagram, there is a team member who creates landing pages, there is a team member who does everything around LinkedIn – knowledge cocoons.

These far-reaching specializations get in the way of forms of collaboration that are common within agile; working closely together in pairs, for example. Or easily transferring tasks from one team member to another so that work continues despite part-time days, vacations and illness.

Sharing specialist knowledge and gaining new skills is initially perceived as a loss. When marketing and communication teams make the transition to agile, resistance can be expected at this point. Only after experience has been gained are the benefits seen.

Views on collaboration

Coinciding with the far-reaching specialization, an underlying conception of collaboration is visible in marketing and communication teams. Work is often broken down into separate tasks and also performed separately. I sometimes compare it to a pile of sand that needs to be moved from the sidewalk to the garden. Everyone who works together can fill a bucket at their own pace, pour it out into the garden and fill another bucket. Now this way of working together is fine for projects where you know what the outcome should be and how to go about it as a team.

The more difficult, innovative work in marketing and communications, however, requires a different collaborative approach. You can compare it to digging up a living tree, transporting it to your garden and burying it again so that it can continue to grow unhindered. Those who are busy with the roots must be in continuous coordination with those who are busy with the trunk and those who are busy with the crown. Such a highly interactive way of working is a characteristic of agile collaboration and enables teams to bring complex projects to a successful conclusion very quickly. The condition is that everyone focuses on the same project and works on it in the same time period. This is where many marketing and communication teams fail. There is too much different work going on at the same time, on different projects. Finding dedicated time to work on the same thing with the whole team at the same time proves to be a difficult, sometimes impossible, task.

Acceptance of agile

Within the broad range of marketing and communication functions, there are varying opinions about the added value of agile working. Web teams have often experienced the benefits first hand and are generally distinctly positive. Professionals in advisory and strategic functions are initially sympathetic, but can also conclude fairly quickly that ‘agile doesn’t work for us’. Spokespeople and information professionals tend to be outspoken opponents of this way of working that involves a lot of deliberation and transparency. Of course, this is a generalization that doesn’t hold true in all cases – I’ve also heard spokespeople advocate an agile way of working and seen web teams advocate a traditional project approach.

This diverse acceptance of agile makes it difficult to implement an agile transformation with the entire marketing and communications team at once. You are quickly left with islands that do not go along. In the marketing and communication value chain, links are left loose so that exceptions to the way of working are tolerated and not all the benefits of agile marketing and communication can be reaped.

The biggest challenge: from output to outcome driven marketing

Characteristic of marketing and communication teams, whether they work agile or not, is busyness. Always busy with plans, content, social media, campaigns and event media for various products, services and internal customers simultaneously. This output-driven way of working is going to take a big hit in the coming years, according to agile marketers. To make way for outcome-driven marketing communications, aimed at strengthening market share, reputation, brand awareness or generating direct cash flow through leads.

Before we get to that point, however, there has been a mind shift on two sides of the table. On the side of the internal client, who no longer asks for a brochure or an ad but for five customers who want to buy a newly developed service. And on the side of the team that dares to deliver work that is much less visible by freeing up time to monitor customer behavior in a much more detailed way than is currently customary. So that the team can deliver with precision that outcome that the internal client is asking for.

You can imagine that these mindshifts require leaps of faith. Trust in each other, in the client-contractor relationship, but certainly also in the self-confidence of marketing and communication teams. If you are used to always going on and on and delivering as much as possible, you have to overcome a few things to make time for exploring other ways of working together and experimenting with new approaches.

Attention to the necessary trust jumps and the undercurrents they bring with them is necessary when you start working with agile marketing. Together with an eye for the persistent patterns described above, it determines the sustainability of agile transformations in the marketing and communication domain.