Digital marketing agency fishbat was struggling to keep up with the accelerating pace of change in a digital landscape that was becoming more complex by the day. Just as the team was realizing that their old-school approach to agency operations were no longer working, they were introduced to Zen Ex Machina, an Agile consulting company. By adopting an Agile approach to operations and service delivery, fishbat is now able to respond to industry changes and deliver meaningful work that drives results for clients.
Throughout my 30 years in marketing, I’ve seen the industry transform on more than one occasion. In 2007, I saw how digital marketing was rapidly emerging in a way that could permanently shift the landscape—and I was excited about it.
That year I founded fishbat Media with a simple goal: to help clients realize unprecedented growth through digital marketing. While my team has been able to deliver quantifiable and scalable results for our accounts, the acceleration of change in the digital world has challenged us (and all digital marketers) along the way.
Naturally, the way agencies operate had to change to better accommodate the digital landscape. But with tactics changing and client expectations growing continuously, old school agency methods were no longer going to cut it.
We needed to figure out how to create strategy and tactics in a world where the rules were changing on a weekly basis.
When fishbat started delivering digital strategy and tactics to customers, the social media landscape was reasonably stable. The focus was channel strategy and delivering content through Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. To understand their impact on these evolving mediums, businesses cared about data and reporting on likes and comments.
For organizations and their marketing partners, being in the digital strategy and social media game had the reputation of being “cool.” Having a social media strategy had a significant prestige.
Email marketing was very, very basic and understanding the impact of digital engagement with emails revolved around open rate and reads. Search engine optimization and getting customers to find businesses through search was fairly straightforward. Google was only just setting up their internal algorithms and banner ads. Thinking about brand, brand voice, and how to carry that out onto a social channel used to be solved with just a pretty Facebook graphic.
Fishbat’s focus at this time wasn’t on having a large staff—it was still prestigious just to be at the forefront of digital marketing and working with cool channels like Facebook and Instagram looked great on people’s resumes.
Overall, the platforms were easy to manage and customers were only faced with 4,000 impressions per day. Operationally, focusing on these one-off services was easy to manage, and not very complicated or complex since what the client valued was very simple to measure. Therefore, fishbat’s margins were very high and, more importantly, customers were very happy.
3. Our Story
Today, the number of impressions people face has gone up to 10,000—and that’s just the start of the magnitude of changes fishbat and its clients have faced in recent years.
When we look at social media channels now, we see a greater diversity of channels and media. We see Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, TikTok, etc. and scattered throughout all these social media channels you have influencers trying to carry your brand message to their followers.
The content targeting and parameters change monthly depending on the social and political climate within the channel. For example, when Facebook has any type of data breach or current political campaigns are running they hone in on how people are being targeted and changed their privacy settings accordingly.
Email marketing strategies have evolved to encompass persona workflows with robust targeting features. Automation now drives ecommerce emails with highly customized experiences. Extensive search engine optimization drives the start of people’s brand experiences, drawing them to pillar pages and specialized, customer-centered calls to action. Landing pages have evolved around paid search ads with geographical targeting across multi-platform social ads.
It wasn’t too long ago that all these aspects of brand interaction and user experience occurred upfront before a campaign would be launched. All of these experiences change by the month to compete for the best experience for the user and to protect privacy.
Our customers quickly learned that it wasn’t enough to know how to engage in each of these channels, how people interacted with brands in each of them, and how they served the greater marketing strategy. Today, you have to know how each of these channels interact, integrate, and leverage each other to create a seamless experience. To be exposed just to a Facebook ad or just to an email blast or just to a digital ad on Google is not enough when you’re competing against others for someone’s attention. The old rule was that brands need to get someone’s attention three times a day for brand recognition, but today, it needs to happen five or six times to generate a genuine and valuable interaction.
Now our clients needed a more holistic digital marketing strategy. Gone were the days where they would come to use for either social media, or search engine marketing, or email marketing. Now they needed one one dedicated resource to lead the account and another to handle content creation, all while navigating the complex digital landscape. This is where we really struggled.
The pace of change increased and that brought many challenges. One of the difficulties was wrapping our heads around the technical changes to search engine optimization and tactics for ranking number one on Google. For example, we would optimize for a client’s chosen keywords and strategize for improving rankings, then Google would undergo a quarterly algorithm change. While the updates were masked with cute names like Panda and Penguin, they caused fishbat’s SEO department to scramble to understand the update and quickly change courses to keep clients ranking.
Also, we saw social media ad changes due to privacy restrictions. Where we were once able to target people based on their occupations, where they work, and how much they earned, we suddenly were much more limited in what we could do. So much qualitative and quantitative data we once harnessed to create targeted brand messaging and cut through the noise disappeared due to privacy restrictions.
This was understandably frustrating for our clients. One day they are allocating a specific budget to run approved ads that you know are generating results. Then one day the algorithm changes and all that certainty disappears. Your marketing agency needs to essentially relearn how to achieve the same outcome under different rules, working quickly to figure it out before the algorithm changes again. During times of heightened political tension we had even more limitations put on our social ads, even for clients who were in no way related to politics. There would be periods of weeks where clients could not post any content without it being blocked — this was a severe challenge for us.
The changing digital landscape was not our only challenge. As a smaller agency, we were struggling to keep up with the complex demands and deliverables needed to continue driving success for our clients. We needed to pivot, and quickly, being under more pressure to deliver than ever before. We found ourselves needing more team members with more skillsets, but struggled to quantify the workload and match it up with appropriate talent. That led to some key issues:
- Inability to pivot as quickly as we needed to.
- Becoming mediocre at everything without excelling.
- Frequent sentiments of staff being overwhelmed.
- Client turnover.
- Falling short on performance.
- Losing profit.
We knew that if we didn’t overhaul our agency approach, we would not be able to drive successful results.
It was in this environment that Zen Ex Machina needed a digital marketing partner to refresh their brand and channels. Zen Ex Machina was an agile consulting company with a completely agile operating model who were finding the digital marketing landscape to be challenging and one they had little experience. New social media platforms were rapidly emerging, competitors were drawing the market’s attention, and while they knew how to adapt to change, they lacked the expertise to create an effective marketing and communications action plan for their future. With deep expertise in agile ways of working, Zen Ex Machina understood that the right relationship and working iteratively with Scrum would provide them with the ability to learn quickly, adapt and pivot solutions, and attract the attention of the market in the right timeframe.
3.2 What We Did
Fishbat was recommended to Zen Ex Machina and the two worked to rebrand their website, with Zen Ex Machina also undertaking an agile coaching role for fishbat. Rather than starting out with the traditional big, upfront plan, Zen Ex Machina and fishbat started immediately with Scrum, creating intermediate goals and delivering in Sprints to achieve them. We worked together, fostering a high level of collaboration, ownership and faster time to market. The outcomes for fishbat and Zen Ex Machina were very positive. Under Zen Ex Machina’s coaching, fishbat started to understand what working with agile could bring to address the agency’s burning issues.
Figure 1. Visualizing challenges facing fishbat
The relationship between Zen Ex Machina and fishbat continued, using Scrum to structure how fishbat advised Zen Ex Machina on meeting its other digital marketing needs. Sprints continued to frame how goals were set and work executed at a sustainable pace deliver goals, and when there was a need to pivot to disruptive change or a new learning the two agencies adapted to change over following contracted deliverables in a statement of work.
After some time working together in this way, Zen Ex Machina then approached fishbat with an opportunity to operationalize this framework throughout the whole agency. It had worked for us so far, so it seemed like the right way forward to address our current problems.
Zen Ex Machina introduced fishbat’s management to Scrum.org’s Professional Agile Leadership (PAL-E) course, covering contemporary ways of working from a leadership perspective. Throughout the course, our leadership team learned some key concepts:
- Scrum: roles, events, and artefacts and how to use them effectively for digital marketing.
- Goal setting with hypotheses using Toyota Kata—building-in learning as a mechanism to reflect on needed change and then adapting goals and tactics.
- Cross-functional team design.
- Management 3.0—decentralization of decision-making and self-managing teams for more effective execution.
- Value streams and optimizing flow using batch theory and reducing work in-progress.
- Value-based prioritization, with a particular focus on both David Husseman’s Dude’s Law and Donald Reinertsen’s Cost of Delay.
- Agile metrics and OKRs with Evidence Based Management.
Importantly, Zen Ex Machina delivered the course in a way that made sense for digital market instead of just relating agile as software development. Together, we discussed a lot about understanding and prioritizing clients and work by value, and how value streams can provide clarity into time to market, delays, and waste. Team design was particularly challenging, with several attempts at both understanding what digital marketing cross-functional teams would look like, but also the work that each team would likely undertake with Scrum as our way of working.
With a good understanding of the framework, we designated our roles, set up our Daily Scrum, and kicked off our first Sprint. During this ramp-up period where the staff adjusted to Scrum, we saw significant buy-in from the team. It’s a process that still evolves month to month, supported by agile coaching from Zen Ex Machina, but quickly made an impact.
Figure 2. Learning about goal setting with hypotheses using Toyota Kata
We put our Agile learnings to the test with an existing client, a food processing company. We were seeing an increase in work coming from them, which was exciting, but also challenging since they were disorganized in how they assigned and prioritized work. Our monthly plans with the client were not followed, as they would come to us with additional work throughout the month and ask us to pivot away from work that was already in progress. We knew this would be a great opportunity to put Agile into practice.
Agile has made significant impacts on our digital marketing capabilities:
- We learned how to prioritize work based on what the client values while not overloading our teams.
- We clarified our communication methods with clients to be more digestible.
- We are getting more done in less time with greater communication and focus.
- We learned to pivot to changes in the market much more easily.
- We increased client revenue 30% by upselling existing clients, made possible by our more efficient and effective operations.
Let’s revisit our food processing client example. We began weekly Sprint Planning meetings with them to make sure our monthly plan was on track, or pivot where necessary. We developed a Value-Based Point Pricing system as well, assigning points to work items based on how important they are to the client and how much time it would take our team to accomplish. Because of our organization and efficiency, we were able to win work away from other agencies they were using, maintaining all of their strategies and most of their marketing initiatives.
Agile also improved internal operations:
- The new team approach has left people less overwhelmed.
- We now focus on delivering value to clients rather than “work,” which is easier through well refined backlog items and meeting a standard level of quality (the Definition of Done).
- We can see where and how time and/or weight on deliverables is being allocated and adjust quickly.
- Hiring new team members is a more collaborative process since we can easily identify what is needed within each team.
Although we’ve already seen tremendous improvements, our team has learned some valuable lessons from adopting Agile that will allow for continual improvement going forward.
Figure 3. Diving deep into team maturity and its relationship to effective decentralized decision-making
4. What We Learned
Although fishbat’s journey with Agile is just getting started, we have already learned a lot of valuable lessons about our approach to digital marketing, client management, and working together as a team.
First, we learned that it is acceptable to gradually ease into Agile. We started with one week Sprints and worked into two week Sprints to get our clients up to speed with planning their work requests. We took time to get the team’s buy-in for this cultural shift, showing grace towards mistakes and remaining flexible as we adapted. It took us time to learn what worked best for us; for example, Daily Scrums were more productive for us when held in the middle of the day.
We also learned that it’s best to let our clients in on the process. Many of them really enjoy this way of working and can better communicate with us with this knowledge, but it was not an overnight shift. For example, one of our clients, an employee benefits administration software company, had begun rapidly increasing the amount of work they were giving us. While this was beneficial for increasing revenue, it became difficult to organize the workload.
First we tried monthly planning, but the client was not following the plan and kept approaching us with ad hoc work within the month. This sparked a conversation about our migration to Agile as we were able to present Agile as a way to successfully respond to their pivots and changes.
We then added them to our Asana board for full transparency into how we were managing the workflow. Although we still planned work on a monthly basis, we incorporated weekly Sprint Planning meetings. This proved to be successful—we are now able to manage the work in weekly increments and focus on the tasks that held value in that moment. In return, the effectiveness and efficiency resulted in them continuing to increase their work with us.
Finally, we’ve learned that there are great tools to help facilitate our Agile way of working, especially since we have made the decision to remain fully remote in the wake of COVID-19. For example, we utilize Asana for Backlog management, Everhour to help us understand the weight of our work, and Mural for all forms of Team Collaboration.
But above all, we learned that Agile is an evolving process. We continuously revisit the way we weigh certain Product Backlog items and structure our deliverables. This has allowed us to adapt seamlessly to changes to our client needs along with the digital marketing landscape. We have seen that our clients’ values and needs change quickly—and so do ours. But with the right systems in place, our team is perfectly prepared to respond to these changes and deliver favorable outcomes.
Figure 4: Reflecting on agile metrics as a part of feedback loops to make the right pivot
The Agile Manifesto highlights that customer collaboration over contract negotiation is a critical behavior for agile ways of working. This was the underlying approach that Zen Ex Machina introduced to fishbat to deliver on its own digital marketing needs, which then evolved into a deeper partnership where agile ways of working were shared to deliver outcomes for both agencies. The impact that Scrum made for fishbat demonstrates that Scrum isn’t just for software development. When the ability to pivot is critical, and when disruptive change is adversely impacting an organization’s ability to deliver its products and services, Scrum’s simple framework can provide sufficient structure and discipline even for the ever-changing landscape of digital marketing.