Agile Agencies: Skunk Works of the Marketing World

By Michael LeBeau
CEO, Managing Partner, Founder


Lockheed’s Skunk Works became legendary for its ability to create impossible flying machines in no time flat. As Matthew E. May explains in his Fast Company article, “the term skunk works has come to refer to any effort involving an elite special team … usually tasked with breakthrough innovation on limited budgets and under aggressive timelines.”

When you look at the compressed timelines, lean teams, and simplified approvals process of the classic skunk works project, it all reminds you of the creative forces that shape agile marketing. What Lockheed’s Skunk Works did to aviation speed to market, agile methodologies promise to do for marketing agencies and departments.

What is agile? Agile originated with software developers and tech companies like Apple, around the time that manufacturing companies pioneered “lean manufacturing.” Lean started at companies like Toyota, as a process to speed up production, promote collaboration, and identify cost efficiencies.

Agile practices that grew out of the lean philosophy have spun off into agile marketing, which modernizes old school marketing and advertising habits.

Agile is a process that uses small, self-sufficient teams to work on projects meant to be completed in an abbreviated time-scale. Agile methodology delivers in three ways:

  1. Produces great work in the shortest period of time;
  2. Gains huge efficiencies with leaner creative brand management teams; and
  3. Improves the quality of client output by staying highly focused.

Instead of the traditional campaign development cycle in which you’re briefed by a client, go through a lengthy planning process, formulate ideas, mull them over, and finally present a concept, agile identifies a selection of smart ideas and quickly puts those concepts out into the marketplace to validate which ones work.

Agile marketing places great value on feedback from the field versus relying on traditional market research. Agile tests ideas, so they sink or swim. The key is securing real-world feedback.

You start by determining what a “minimally viable product” (MVP) may look like, and then you examine how quickly you can:

  1. Articulate your MVP and create a prototype;
  2. Get your MVP into the hands of would-be customers; and
  3. Prove your idea via customer feedback. Specifically, do they like it? Would they buy it? And what can be improved?

In each iteration, the agile practitioner is making a bet, with the idea of scaling up those ideas or programs that do work. But you’re placing a lot of small bets rather than one big high-risk one. Naturally, not every bet will pay off. But some will. Failure occurs only when the bets are limited, i.e., below the radar — limiting any damage to consumer relationships — not to mention brand reputation.

Agile marketing flattens agency hierarchies. It identifies the essential team members at an agency and leaves agencies lean because layers have been cut and the nonproductive removed. A traditional agency has multiple tiers of approvals; an agile agency has one. The agile agency model is compact, streamlined, and dynamic. Is it any surprise agile is attracting more and more attention — and assignments — from brands big and small?

Agile agencies are the skunk works of the marketing world.

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