Agility: A Marketer's Most Important Quality

What are the most important attributes of a strong marketer today? The list can be long: marketers must understand brands, media, marketing integration, performance metrics, and the list goes on. Marketing may be one of the fastest changing, functional roles in business. No surprise then that a recent Korn Ferry study finds that agility is the most important quality in marketers. In the study, 61% of executives say that agility is the most important attribute, while only 34% say cross functional skills, 4% cite relevant functional variants and 1% education. What do executives mean when they say marketing agility? Some adjectives come to mind when describing agile thinking:

  • Decisive
  • Perceptive
  • Flexible
  • Inclusive
  • Inquisitive
  • Open to change
  • Risk- tolerant

Here’s an example of the opposite:

Recently a fellow marketer recounted a situation in which a marketing firm was on its 43rd revision of a packaging design for a client, a process that had been ongoing for many months. Without knowing the details, I think it’s safe to infer that these managers are extremely cautious and indecisive, leading to an environment that stifles innovation.

If so, can organizational cultures be agile?

For some time, we have considered companies as agile when they are competitive, responsive to market challenge and opportunity, growth-minded, nimble and willing to change. These are qualitative attributes that get at the core competencies and competitive advantages of a company. We find the approach much more useful for describing the company than by its size, such as midmarket — although large companies are far less likely to be agile.

Why has agility become an imperative for business? A few trends to consider:

  • Business is changing at a rapid pace.
  • The way businesses go to market is changing.
  • Fast changing business processes are calling for agile marketing processes.
  • The increasing complexity of the marketplace, new levels of competition and buyer choices, and heightened levels of marketing noise all make it quite difficult—even impossible— to anticipate the outcome of a marketing planning initiative. (in other words, the days of invoking Wayne Gretzky’s wisdom of “playing where the puck is going to be,” for marketing purposes are over.

Agility has rich meaning in software development and manufacturing

The agile software development process is a response to the traditional “waterfall”  model, which is based on an exacting planning process that aims to specify the final solution before any development begins, then holds firmly to the plan until software is delivered. Up-front planning is long and detailed, in an effort to avoid expensive development mistakes downstream. In contrast, agile development begins with a rapid and inexpensive prototype, followed by testing, incorporation of insights, then development. But input doesn’t stop there. The agile development process continues to absorb feedback from users, building new insights into an evolving product.

Similarly, agility in industry is known as “lean manufacturing,” with roots in the Toyota Production System and John Krafcik who coined the term "lean thinking" is now being expanded to organizational management, as a means to customer value creation.

The opportunity for agile marketing

This success-based approach is essential when working with social media, one of the hotbeds of change in marketing. Social media is all about listening, connecting and the responses between organizations and their audiences. And what is learned by the agility of social media marketing can be applied to an organization’s other digital marketing, website, product development, customer service, etc.

Marketing needs to be agile because the marketplace is moving fast...and because the rest of business is responding. Marketers who seek to control their brands, anticipate the outcomes of their programs and otherwise manage the marketing process as though it were the 1980s, will find that their results are far worse than the proverbial adage “half of my marketing doesn’t work. I just don’t know which half”