Get Agile: Running a Marketing Team Like a Startup

Kirsten Knipp
Kirsten Knipp



Last quarter, your sales team hit quota, and everything was hunky dory … for about a day.


Then Q2 started, and you were back to square one in terms of leads and sales.

In some companies, that sales and marketing cycle happens monthly or even weekly. In the meantime, your competition has launched a new product, there’s been a regulatory change, and your CEO decided to acquire a new product line via mergers and acquisitions.

How on earth can today’s modern marketer keep up?

One word: agile.

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You may be thinking "Don’t you mean agility?" Not quite.

Although agility is one major benefit of implementing an ‘Agile Methodology’ to your marketing, other benefits include focus, transparency, prioritization, and predictability. 

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What is agile?

Agile describes a certain type of planning and execution.

The concept of scrum as part of agile development stems from the software development world where there was a need to move away from the ‘waterfall method,’ a process known for long planning and coding before any new release, often resulting in stale or late-to-market products.

Instead of building a huge, full-featured offer, Agile relies on the completion of small chunks of ‘shippable code’ that can be defined, built, tested, and shipped in the time span of a single 'sprint,' usually lasting 15 to 30 days.

Here’s the beauty of it. Agile doesn’t have to be limited to development teams. In fact, we’ve been using Agile and sprint planning to execute our marketing plans here at HubSpot for a year and a half. Anyone can apply the concepts to their projects or work to improve effectiveness and increase their ability to ‘turn on a dime.’

Here are a few definitions you’ll want to know to understand the core idea:

  • Sprint: a defined period of time during which a team commits to complete certain work output
  • Task/User Story: a tightly defined chunk of work with specific outcomes
  • Story Points: the estimated level of effort a chunk of work will take to complete
  • Standup: a daily standing (literally) meeting where team members share what they worked on yesterday, what their plans are for today, and any ‘blocking’ items hindering their work progress
  • Sprint Commitment: a public meeting where teams commit to and reveal their stories for the coming sprint
  • Sprint Review: a public meeting where teams review accomplishments and lessons learned from the previous sprint

"But wait. I have a 2020 marketing plan to hit!"

One step at a time.

True, marketing departments are often measured by how well they achieve annual goals. They usually have some quarterly targets based on big initiatives with ‘fuzzy’ definitions. That can make it super hard to be a marketer.

So how do you prove the return on marketing effort? How can you adapt to fast-changing market conditions when you've already pre-paid a 6-month campaign? How can you respond to immediate sales needs without dropping other balls?

Our marketing team operates in monthly sprints where each sub-team drafts stories, estimates points, and collaborates to prioritize and commit to a month of stories.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have a plan for this year. We do. But, we know that working on smaller monthly goals, be it a total leads number or a unique content piece, is much more manageable than chasing after a 12-month goal.

In fact, by breaking down our big, hairy 12-month goals, we are able to focus and deliver on the things that matter.

Agile Marketing

Marketing teams are always asked to do more with less. That’s not going to change anytime soon, but using a process like Agile can deliver a few amazing benefits for you.

1. Focus

When you create a user story and success metric, you’ve given yourself a ‘checks and balances’ system. If the success metric doesn’t move the needle, then you might rethink working on that story.

If you decided to stop working on it, would the business suffer? If the answer is "no," stop doing it.

2. Transparency

A lot of companies see marketing as magic. It’s not. There are key activities that drive success, and measuring them helps you figure out what they are.

At HubSpot, we share our plans with the entire company — getting feedback and buy-in along the way. Because of this, we get more credibility, help, and engagement in the process.

3. Predictability

Using a points-based system and sharing statuses and blockers during daily standup meetings means there are rarely big surprises.

If a team member has an issue, we typically know within 24 to 48 hours. And as a team, we can decide if another member can chip in or if we need to influence another team to help remove the blocker. In almost all cases, you don’t get to the end of the month and find that ‘stuff didn’t get done.’

The personal ownership and team accountability that scrum and daily standup foster can’t be replicated by a boss telling a team what to do, and that’s hugely important in today’s flatter and faster organizations.

4. Prioritization

No one is good at saying no. We are humans; it’s hard. But we all know that the more we add, the lower the quality will be or the less likely stuff will get done.

Agile gives you a bit of a leg up here. You’ve got a list of what you are working on, and it’s public. Sure, you might take on a small favor here or there, but if someone asks for a big shift, it’s a much easier conversation.

With Agile, anyone on the team can say, based on priorities, "I CANNOT do this particular story instead." Prioritization becomes a very rational and productive conversation, instead of a tug of war.

All these benefits add up to smart, fast, and flexible marketing, a total must in today’s world of social media and inbound marketing . In fact, recently, our marketing team realized we needed to respond to a specific challenge we recognized.

So we met, brainstormed, and each picked a specific story we could tackle to contribute to the bigger challenge at hand and agreed upon which of our current stories should get pushed off until next sprint.

Because of this ability to adapt, we’ve already seen some positive results in our lead numbers. Now that’s agile!

Editor's note: This post was originally published in May 2011 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

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