How marketing agility became a mandate for the new, responsive customer experience

Agility has never been more important than it is now as brands put the customer at the heart of their marketing processes. But what does it mean to be agile in 2021?

Girl jumping with a tennis racket. Behind her is a blue background.

2020 was a watershed year in marketing for so many reasons: budgets contracted even as corporate reliance on marketing expanded; shopping habits changed dramatically as consumers relied on digital customer experiences to help them identify the products and services they needed; and agility went from being a nice-to-have to a marketing essential.

Brands that performed well during the pandemic quickly recognised the need to make changes to their business processes, organisational structure and marketing messages at speed, according to the New Era in Experience report from Adobe and the London School of Economics.

New products and updates were released “in a matter of days” instead of the weeks and months it might have taken prior to the pandemic, and brands moved to refined offers with test-and-learn approaches that enabled them to identify and quickly deploy improvements, the research found.

Those that were able to adapt quickly to their new customer found some short-term upside and repeat business, as well as longer-term brand benefits. “Their strong digital presence will enable them to react, adapt and flourish in the long term,” the New Era in Experience research concluded.

Quote from Ann Lewnes, CMO at Adobe - "Data scientists, web product managers, analysts, filmmakers and copywriters... this is the 21st century's marketing organisation."

Customers clearly appreciated agile experience delivery during the pandemic. In a recent Deloitte study on marketing agility, six in 10 respondents could recall at least one brand that quickly pivoted to better respond to their needs, and 82 percent said this led to them doing more business with the brand.

For some marketers, agility is synonymous with using kanban boards for project management or working in scrum: More than 50 percent of marketing teams in some markets are using agile methodologies, while 38 percent say the pandemic accelerated their plans to do so.

But an agile mindset that transcends formal frameworks and artefacts is fast becoming part of the marketing mainstream as leading brands in most markets have made the shift to put the customer at the heart of their marketing processes.

“Marketing agility has become a mandate and leaders need to orient their people, process and technology around the customer and drive innovation to do that effectively,” argues Adobe Chief Marketing Officer Ann Lewnes.

So what does it mean to be agile in 2021?

Unified view of the customer enabling data-driven decision-making

The first prerequisite of marketing agility is that the customer must be at the centre of decision-making. In this new era of the digital customer experience, that means obtaining a single view of the customer.

For some, this is achieved by implementing cloud-based data management tools that can integrate disparate data sources; for others, it may mean implementing an enterprise customer experience platform or API integrations.

It’s very evident that manual processes to deal with duplicated or siloed data cannot keep pace in this rapidly changing customer experience landscape or disseminate data quickly enough to enable organisations to respond in a timely fashion.

Australian fintech Hay took a unified approach to customer experience management from its inception, using it to shape service delivery — in one case, monitoring how customers were interacting with the brand’s TinyBig rewards referral program to quickly drive improvements.

“Within hours we could see how people were using the program, which helped us plan the next iteration as we further developed our product,” says Head of Digital Brad Pidgeon.

Multi-disciplinary teams with the customer at the centre

The agile concept of self-sufficient teams that can make decisions autonomously has been relatively slow to make it to marketing, which has traditionally been reliant on external partners such as creative agencies for execution and hierarchical structures for approval.

But traditional corporate hierarchies organised around products or business functions, with marketing either centralised or devolved to those business units, fail to align corporate actions with customer interests.

Increasingly, businesses are reorganising around customer segments, with functional team members assigned to those segments, leading to seamless customer journeys and personalisation based on deep customer insights.

Lifestyle and loyalty program The 1, which is part of retail conglomerate Central Group, recently reorganised its teams around customer segments to promote customer-centric decision making, improving the customer experience and, ultimately, increasing conversion.

The new structure is described as “one team of new-generation and multidisciplinary talents, from data-driven marketing, data analytics and insight, and artificial intelligence to digital technology, all with consumer-centricity at the heart”.

Similarly, at tertiary institution RMIT, which has campuses in Australia and Vietnam, the marketing team works in independent, cross-functional teams focused on particular audiences.

Each team develops hypotheses, conducts experiments and releases minimum viable products. Visitors to the website receive a personalised experience, which has helped increase click-through rates by as much as 30 percent.

Rapid experimentation and iteration

We live in “fast-paced and unpredictable” times, the New Era in Experience report asserts, meaning the modern marketing organisation must be able to experiment based on data - testing concepts, content and offers, improving messaging and fine-tuning the customer experience in near-real-time.

Speed is critical in agile organisations, along with prioritising activity according to strategic goals that align with customer needs.

According to Adam Chiew, who heads up mobile and digital at Singapore’s United Overseas Bank, a test-and-learn approach to serving up insights to customers based on their transactional data in real-time has attracted response rates of about 25 percent.

“When we want to make any changes through the data we collect, it cannot be a three-to-six month process,” Chiew says. “We need systems that can react proactively, make changes on the fly and then we can really test and learn and see what’s going on with the customer.”

Re-skilling and bringing in new talent

With the data democratisation, digitisation and rapid iteration evident in contemporary marketing organisations comes the need to re-skill those teams to take advantage of the new opportunities that agility creates.

Some agile marketing structures incorporate chapters or guilds that bring together staff with the same skill sets to share learnings and deepen expertise.

It’s an approach Woolies X, the digital innovation arm of Australia’s Woolworths supermarket group, has implemented through an enterprise business approach to agility that is being rolled out across the organisation.

As well as fostering existing skill sets, today’s marketing teams must develop new ones, such as being able to quickly move from data to insight, and from insight to execution.

Adobe has experienced this shift in its own marketing team. “Data scientists, web product managers, analysts, filmmakers and copywriters… this is the 21st century’s marketing organisation,” says CMO Ann Lewnes.

“Above all we looked for people with a new mindset that is a mix of creativity and data.”

Organisational agility

We may well look back on 2020 as the year that organisational agility, or the ability to quickly pivot to meet shifting market conditions or rapidly changing customer expectations, became a core skill in business and marketing.

Successful organisations during the pandemic were more likely to be those whose leadership teams demonstrated an ability to change direction based on data, halting action that wasn’t working and ramping up activity that was.

“The New Era requires a new type of leadership - one that is visible and accountable, embraces change… adapts quickly and is willing to learn from mistakes,” the New Era in Experience report found.

In marketing, that may mean a more autonomous approach that looks for ways to ease the bottlenecks of the past, enabling flexibility and collaboration.

Sometimes it means acknowledging that marketing teams can no longer get by on intuition in a competitive landscape – one in which customer experience tools, such as AI-driven insights, can dramatically shorten the time it takes to deliver effective customer experiences.

“With the introduction of new tools, organisations also have to be willing to change the way they work,” argues Eric Cox, Vice-President, Digital Media GTM and Sales, describing Adobe’s own agile, data-driven operating model (DDOM).

“For some time, a great deal of resources (and mindshare) had been focused on a few specific mobile apps that we had instinctively felt were priorities for the company. What DDOM revealed to us - through the new KPIs that focused on user journeys - was that some neglected apps were actually driving tremendous value for our customers.”

“DDOM has been crucial in surfacing actionable insights that would have either been noticed too late or were counterintuitive to the way in which teams were thinking.”

Prior to 2020, many brands were already on the road to digital transformation, argues the New Era in Experience report. COVID-19 merely accelerated that change, resulting in widespread adoption of new technologies, greater focus on customer-centricity and more agile ways of working.

In a competitive environment in which consumers no longer measure brands against their competitive set but against the experiences they’ve encountered, the bar has been raised, and agility is now a core requirement to providing customers with the responsive customer experiences they expect.

To hear more about how brands such as Hay, Central Group’s The 1, Woolies X and others are driving digital transformation and growth through the pandemic and beyond, watch Adobe Summit 2021 on demand now.