Traditionally, agile project management has primarily been applied to corporations that develop software and tech processes. A segue to implementation in other types of business has long been the subject of debate. Adopting agile requires staff trained in agile principles and a corporate culture paradigm shift. And even if there is an agile (or Scrum) PM in the mix, it is likely they don’t have sufficient knowhow to implement the methodology outside the realm of technology building.
Very few words captivate the writer with the same mixture of fascinated cringe than the combination travesties of the PM tech revolution. “Dev-centric” – to describe the agile mandate – a personal favourite.
Conservative agiliophiles (I made that one up) are often distressingly puritanical when it comes to applying the method to any business that doesn’t involve churning out minimal viable products (MVPs) in an iterative technical delivery framework. These are probably the same people who prefer Texas Hold ‘Em poker to the more gallant Doc Holliday version. Easy come, easy go, strip it back, turn and burn.
In their defence, at face value agile does look like the quick and dirty method best suited to getting a piece of technology on its feet and running around coding things as fast as possible.
You can’t use agile in, say, a creative advertising agency. Because that’s an intricate, multi-layered strata of Mad Men in suits and creative ingénues who wear shorts to work. Nobody can impose a system of MVPs on that lot. You can’t use agile to manage a business that essentially charges other people to think.
This is a myth.
You can use agile to manage your breakfast. If that’s your idea of a good time. And you can certainly use it to manage creative projects in an ad agency.
Agile is about collaboration with every stakeholder, at every stage of the project.
Smart agencies involve their clients at the earliest possible stage. After all, clients know their brands better than anyone else ever will. If they can see what you’re doing, they can believe what you’re doing, and they tend to buy what you’re doing. Collaboration throughout foregoes much of the time-squandering backing-and-forthing that fragments agency billings more than anything else.
Agile is about getting things done in teams.
Nothing happens in an ad agency in isolation. Marketing depends on strategy, strategists depend on researchers, client service depends on creative, and creative depends on everybody. Copywriters work with art directors in self-organising partnerships akin to office marriage. The system has been an agency mainstay for more than fifty years. It works.
Agile is about delivering products on time and in pieces.
Creative agency teams produce advertising campaign elements individually until they can be presented as a cohesive inter-functionary whole. Rounds of sign-off and amends are constant. Producing a campaign iteratively makes final client approval an expedited reality.
That happens too – if you missed the last article about it, catch it here. Often different media elements in a campaign have different deadlines, particularly if there is a pre-launch or teaser marketing phase preceding the main campaign thrust. Creative production timelines are sketched back from media deadlines, effectively in finite timeboxes.
Agile brings the buildability (I didn’t make it up) – the feasibility of what you can do properly in a defined period of time.
Project managers exist because somebody has to be holding the ledger and saying “that’s great, but you won’t be able to build it in the time you have”.
Consider how the agile process could be applied to that most notorious of project nightmares – the agency account pitch.
It is hard to imagine any business more prone to overestimating buildability than an advertising agency in a pitch frenzy. From the second the potential client issues the invitation, the whole pitch team becomes Alexander the Great. Hungry, determined, overambitious and punch-drunk with potential.
The zenith of crisis is usually four days before the presentation. Practically nothing seems to be working. Nobody has slept since May 1997. Account executives (suits) fluctuate between endurance shouting meetings and client-changed-the-brief Olympic apologising. Copywriters who normally slope in ironically and glitter with laconic headline brilliance before proofreading something and vanishing, suddenly lose the ability to form sentences, change clothes or go home. Art directors renowned for their mattress-like über-forbearance become the Guy Who Cries at Work. Someone is always shouting at the print shop because of the wrong blue. Traffic managers obtain casual doctorates in corridor psychotherapy. At least five people nearly resign, everything becomes about pizza and nobody is allowed in the boardroom.
In creative agencies, an agile culture can ensure that expectations are realistic about what can be done well, and what should be done later.
Nothing can be done about the pizza.
Everything changes. Agile doesn’t just accommodate change – it assumes it, allowing the process to be adapted without disrupting the project flow and delivery timelines.
Two days before the pitch presentation, the taciturn creative director will calmly steeple his fingers and ask if anyone has “actually read the brief”.
Panic, Blaming, Four AM and Making It Up, the four horsemen of the Pitch Apocalypse, reign in. The suits have a collective stroke. And creative re-executes the entire concept in forty-six hours. Then has a bigger stroke.
Ad agencies have entire departments dedicated to scheduling and managing the inevitability of change. They are known as Traffic. All Traffic people are endemically agile. Always be friends with Traffic, for upon this pivot spins your destiny. And, quite often, whether you will have a pitch to present at all.
When everything changes on a dime, as it so often does in an agency, agile can provide the dexterity to change with it. In an industry where wasting time is criminal, agile is Superman in a phone booth.
Agile is no longer the sovereign territory of developers and tech gods. Managing non-sequential projects in any multidisciplinary industry demands the same speed, collaboration, adaptability and high team functioning as any competitive software builder. Application to creative agency processes is not only swift and painless, but is likely to be embraced by the fertile ground of agency culture.
If there’s pizza.
Lecturer – Copywriting/Digital Content
and affectionately known as the ‘Admiral’
(This article first appeared in The Project Manager Magazine, 2016.)
Miller GJ. Going Agile. Atlanta: Maxmetrics GmbH; January 2013.
Craddock A, Roberts B, Tudor D, Godwin J, Stapleton J, Richards K, et al. Agile Project Management Handbook. Version 1.2. Kent: Headley Brothers Limited; December 2013.
AgencyAgile. Too Many Myths: The Fifteen (Mostly False) Reasons Why “Software” Agile Doesn’t Work for Agencies. Posted by Jack Skeel. Last accessed 2 March 2016 at http://agencyagile.com/the-agile-myths/
PS. We’ve just launched a Project Management online short course which will show you – in practice – the value of these agile skills. Read more.