The fine line between business agility and fragility

Charlie Spargo's picture
Sharon Whale, OLIVER UK

Sharon Whale, UK Group CEO at OLIVER UK, has a challenge to businesses - is what you're doing actually agile, or are you just doing more damage than good? Shortcuts are not agility - here's how you actually achieve this holy grail of marketing practices.

Agility is arguably the most overused word in marketing. It’s become a catch-all for whatever you want it to mean and, in business, that’s a problem.  

It’s a problem because it creates a misunderstanding between agile methodology, and what it actually means to be an agile company. 

Business agility is - in our industry at least - when brands and agencies work together to bravely change course, often in response to developments in customer behaviour, market conditions or company purpose. 

Agility with a small ‘a’, however, is generally characterised by moderate, more ringfenced change: being lean with resource, project sprints and non-negotiable deadlines. Organisations using this kind of shortcut responsiveness cannot be said to have true agility. In fact, they risk fragility in their business by not committing to putting big ‘A’ agility at their core.  

But how do you achieve big ‘A’? 

The businesses that have true agility at their core are household names, because they're arguably the most successful: Amazon, PayPal, Google and so on.

At face value, what they’ve done is scale simplicity for their customers. But scaling simplicity is far from simple. They could only achieve this by investing heavily in agility so as to create products, services and customer experiences that meet people’s true needs and wants. 

Their strategy isn’t tokenistic agility - it’s business survival. 

Any focus on short-term agile methods just perpetuates old ways of working. It’s a budget suck that leaves nothing for creating services that are truly valuable in the world. Big change, for big ‘A’ agility, is where the real value lies. It enables what we all really want - rapid evolution when the time calls for it, in order to sustain a robust and useful brand for customers. 

Sometimes, agility needs time.

This seems counterintuitive to any company whose aim is to become more agile. Agility conjures images of speed and getting stuff done. But the process also has to be accurate and effective. Budget restrictions put a whole other spin on it. 

In the current socio-political environment, few organisations have the luxury of parking the day-to-day, but it’s important that we take time out (and invest) if we want to be agile; to reflect, to research, to iterate forwards. 

It’s in this space between time and cost that technology comes into its own. Real marketing agility is fully connected, transparent and delivers real results. Technology allows for this because it can optimise performance, evaluate live data across multiple channels and create work that evolves with precision. 

You also have the benefit of filling your organisation with data in which to gather insight from. That’s where you can start to build processes that put the right people in the right place in order to deliver experiences that really matter. Both within and without your organisation. 

If technology doesn’t underpin your organisation, why not? 

Perhaps a better question for fast-tracking an agile mindset is this: What are your reasons for becoming agile in the first place? 

Today, marketers need to deliver programmes with clear benchmarks and achievable targets. Agility usually comes into play as an afterthought and on an operational level. But it needs to happen much, much earlier. 

The goal with agility is to achieve large-scale, long-term digital and technological transformation for the business, for your people and for your customer. Businesses must be willing to go beyond the buzzword and create an organisation that is better equipped to react consciously to rapid and unexpected disruption, in a way that engages with its customers, and delivers a return as a consequence. 

Avoiding fragility

One watch-out: the answer should never be ‘to get faster’ or ‘to save money’. At OLIVER, our in-house agencies are faster and they do help reduce costs. But for our clients, that’s not the reason we exist within their businesses.

Our teams have a remit and the capability to deliver better work, with a proximity to the client that enables them to adapt quicker with speed to market. In other words, the model has agility built in. 

It’s a model and way of working that isn’t perfect from day one. For us, we constantly test and improve. Our recent drive with Visit Britain lasted six months - in that period, 261 briefs were submitted, and we serviced the client across 22 worldwide markets. 

The point is that until you test it, you can’t nail it. And there will be a teething period. It’s why a roadmap is essential. 

And given the disruption all around us right now, a clear North Star is a welcomed asset for any global business.