Are you running an agile marketing organization?

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged brands in every conceivable way, but it has tested their agility above all else. Every day brings new developments and consumer habits, and marketers must be ready to make sense of all the changes and adapt quickly, all while staying cool under extreme pressure.

“Agility has always been the hallmark of successful brands, but in 2021 it will be a top priority for every marketing leader,” says Adobe CMO, Ann Lewnes, in a recent paper for the Marketing Science Institute. “From re-inventing events for a virtual audience, to redesigning our entire employee experience, to rethinking the way we engage with our customers and communities, the only constant today is change”.

According to Lewnes, agility has become a mandate for every business during the pandemic, and leaders must do everything in their power to adapt to the needs of their customers, finding creative ways to innovate and stay one-step ahead of change.

True marketing agility is the sum of many parts, but at its core it is a delicate interplay of people, process, and technology. Here, we break down the three components of an agile marketing approach and outline how all of these pieces add up to an excellent customer experience.

Agility as a cultural mindset

Change in an organization begins with its employees and their skillsets. Even the most comprehensive transformation plan will fall flat if people haven’t bought into the vision, or if they don’t have the resources and training to bring the vision to life.

When Adobe made the transition from packaged software provider to subscription-based cloud vendor, it built a new category in the world of digital marketing and customer experience management, but real change for the company came from within, recalls Lewnes.

“Our market researchers become data analysts; our media team learned to build new ad formats and programmatic; our designers became content machines to keep pace with digital demands, and we brought in data scientists to do marketing-mix-modeling and media attribution analysis. This framework, which we continue to reimagine and build upon, is the reason our company was able to shift quickly in response to COVID-19 and continues to stay resilient,” she says in the paper.

For its part, UK Bank TSB has undergone a major cultural shift in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, complementing its investment in new digital experiences for customers with a more agile and change-ready mindset across its teams. TSB is the first bank in the UK to roll out the Adobe Experience Platform, an open system that transforms all of a company’s customer data into robust profiles that update in real time, and provides AI-driven insights to inform experiences across every channel. Now, TSB branch employees have access to the latest data on each customer’s online and mobile activity, giving the organization a complete picture of who its customers are, which helps to synchronize experiences across the TSB ecosystem.

TSB’s COO, Suresh Viswanathan, sat down with Adobe international president, Paul Robson, late last year and revealed the extent to which a data-driven approach has made the organization more agile. “What would have previously taken 24 months, we achieved in just three months,” he said.

Agility at the heart of operations

The next layer of agility comes when teams are empowered to work together and collaborate in a way that delivers value to customers as well as the broader business. This is a common sticking point for companies that have grown in siloes over the years, especially large organizations that cover many markets and geographies.

As Lewnes writes, “Great marketing requires cross-functional cooperation, but the truth is, most departments across an enterprise use data, run analyses, and report findings very differently. Different teams have different customer views, requirements, and practices, and these differences create friction.”

Adobe is no stranger to this challenge. There was a point when Lewnes and her teams were using more than 100 key performance indicators to measure the health of the business, most of which were not even standardized. It would take weeks to evaluate the impact of campaigns because finance, product, sales, and marketing teams each had their own interpretation of the data.

That all changed in 2016, when Adobe adopted a new data-driven operating model (DDOM) for its Creative Cloud business. DDOM has since become Adobe’s company-wide playbook for data-driven insight, ensuring that the entire organization works towards a common goal. From Adobe’s leadership through to the marketers on the front lines, everyone has access to the insights they need to make quick, informed decisions in the face of fast-shifting market conditions.

Agility has been doubly valuable during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for brands that deliver critical services to the public. Take Wintrust Financial Corp., an Illinois and Wisconsin-based banking provider that built a new online portal to pay out small business loans to customers as part of the Small Business Association’s (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Using Adobe Experience Manager, Wintrust was able to build the portal in a matter of days, and integrate it within its overall website experience.

Agility fueled by technology

To reshape a company’s culture and operations for agility, is to rewire its entire way of working. The final piece of the agile puzzle is the technology required for this modernizing to pay dividends. “You need the technology chops to understand the customer experience you are providing and determine where there’s room for improvement,” says Lewnes.

Take State Street Global Advisors, the world’s third-biggest asset management firm. With the COVID-19 pandemic inspiring customers and prospects to gain more control over their finances, the Boston-based company used Adobe Experience Manager to rebuild 150 websites into a unified and user-friendly digital experience. Combined with more precise customer personas and more targeted email campaigns, this approach has helped State Street boost its website engagement by 40 percent.

Marketers need more than data, they need the tools to test, learn, and adapt to customer needs based on the information they collect. “Beyond analytics, you need a culture of testing.” Lewnes adds, “Optimizing our website for different audiences is job number one… and requires constant testing to ensure all our content and experiences are personalized for each visitor.”

Within days of the COVID-19 outbreak taking global hold, Adobe updated its website with the latest resources for customers, paused marketing campaigns that didn’t serve people’s immediate needs, and redesigned hundreds of pages to keep its communities and employees connected and informed.

Among a range of initiatives, the company gave funding to nonprofits in the Bay Area to support to the community’s COVID-19 response, created a $1 million Creative Residency Community Fund to empower creators everywhere to get their projects off the ground, and made Adobe Talent on Behance available for free to help businesses connect with the best creative talent.

Creativity and innovation still reign supreme

With more uncertainty ahead in 2021, companies may be content to simply close the gap between their current offering and customers’ basic needs until the COVID-19 pandemic passes, but real agility is not a short-term concept. The ability to continuously test and optimize gives brands the freedom to innovate and differentiate themselves. Meanwhile, customers have never been more receptive to new ways of engaging with the companies they love.

From retailers like Bloomingdales and American Eagle, which reimagined the digital shopping journey over the holidays, to Shell, which updated its mobile app so customers can make purchases in the forecourt of its gas stations, leading brands have become more creative in the way they conceive digital experiences, and more fearless in the way they deliver them.

This “creative agility” is the key to brands distinguishing themselves today and setting themselves up for a successful future. Marketing leaders are no strangers to change. Between a deluge of data, the rise of mobile devices, and disruptive brands resetting customers’ expectations each day, top marketers have been on the forefront of what’s next for years. The COVID-19 pandemic has now amplified these forces, and it will take new levels of agility and creativity to meet them head-on in the coming year.