Press "Enter" to skip to content

Triptych of the Modern Brand: Part 1 – An Ode to Agility

This latest post is all about agile software, nimble brands, creative leaps, and the unforeseeable benefits of falling flat on your bum. It is also part one of a series of musings about technology, creative branding, and how the two seem to be getting along nowadays.

While this could easily become a dry, boring and technical series of posts, if you’re one of my regular readers you”d know I don’t do “dry or boring”. I promise to make this as entertaining and engaging as I can, and hopefully give you heaps to think about in the process.

Sound like fun? Great, then let’s start things off with a brief introduction to agile and why it’s all the rage in branding circles nowadays.

For all the dedicated rock-dwellers out there,  “Agile” has been banded around by programming teams for years now. It refers not to a specific technology or programming language, but to a method of software development.

The concept originated back in the 1970’s in a remarkable paper by Dr Winston Royce, in which Dr Royce criticized the practice of developing software in a sequential and linear manner, like some kind of ‘assembly line for software’. He called this the “Waterfall” method – a term that came to epitomize this particular approach.

Dr Royce argued that Waterfall development was not only ill advised and risky, it actively invited failure as it didn’t allow for sufficient collaboration between the specialized groups and individuals involved in the development process.

His thoughts were echoed in 2011 when 17 programmers all got together in sunny Utah and co-authored the Agile Manifesto –  one of the seminal works on the subject of agile software development.

“All well and good…”  you say  “…but so what? What’s this got to do with branding, brilliance, or badly-bruised buttocks?”

Well, the process of refining one’s software, is partially a process of refining one’s thoughts. The challenge lies in having your thoughts and ideas expressed as elegantly, effectively and meaningfully as possible within your algorithms.

These refinements helps impart your product with a functional, relevant and compelling competitive advantage amongst its user base, and differentiates it as a superior product when compared to other software in its category… and if that whole scenario isn’t a perfect analogy for the brand development process, then I’m a pickled eggplant.

Agile software development, and strategic brand development, are highly similar processes at their core: both are built on a constant cognitive-cycle of empirical assessment, interpretation, observation, reflection, development, distribution. re-evaluation and refinement. Both are practiced by a team of inter-dependent specialists, and both have to be implemented within a wider context of intractable commercial constraints.

resize-1469436570-agile-methodology trg-employer-branding-framework-illoThe parallels are clearer if you look at the processes side by side. The top (clickable) image is a graphical representation of a’typical’ agile software development cycle, as currently used by countless software development teams worldwide (image source here). The bottom (clickable) image however is a standard brand planning cycle, a common brand-development paradigm, practiced by brand-development firms around the globe for at least the last decade or so (image source here). The underlying cognitive processes in these two cycles are so similar, much of the descriptive language and working practices in agile, are directly applicable to brand development.

The key difference between agile development and brand planning lies in the underlying principles which govern the agile process – these are what give agile development its power, but in my experience at least, this is also where many brand-focused organisations fall down horribly.

The guidelines run as follows (I’ve made some amendments to demonstrate agile’s relevance to the brand planning process):

  1. Customer satisfaction by early and continuous delivery of valuable software  content.
  2. Welcome changing requirements, even in late development
  3. Working software is delivered Touch points are delivered frequently (weeks apart rather than months)
  4. Close, daily cooperation between business people and developers the brand team
  5. Projects are built around motivated individuals, who should be trusted
  6. Face-to-face conversation is the best form of communication (co-location)
  7. Working software Brand equity is the principal measure of  yardstick during progress
  8. Sustainable development, able to maintain a constant pace
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design
  10. Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential
  11. Best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams
  12. Regularly, the team reflects on how to become more effective, and adjusts accordingly

In my opinion Agile methodologies have a lot going for them for both software and brand development alike, and I’m far from the only one saying it.

All that being said, the success or failure of every branding methodology out there hinges on its implementation, and when implementing agile branding, it’s an all or nothing proposition.

I’ve seen several marketers try to combine incompatible brand development methods together simply because they don’t trust the new model, and the result is a real dog’s breakfast. It becomes this ugly, waterfall-cum-agile, “let’s hedge our bets” method of branding I’ve come to refer to as “agile on a stick”.

“Agile on a stick” is when reflective, adaptive, agile-like thinking happens up-front between brand planners and their client,… but the outcomes are then shoved down the line in a rigid, linear fashion to the creative department – who then have to implement them as the planning department dictates. It’s more agile-like than the old waterfall method of brand development… but it’s still fatally flawed, as it treats creative input as secondary consideration.

It’s lunacy as work practices go, because it still retains all the ‘lack of consultation’ flaws of the waterfall method …but it still happens surprisingly often.

So why is this hybrid approach so relatively common? Personally I see three primary forces that continues to drive ‘agile on a stick’ thinking in agency-land.

Firstly, most creative departments are horribly overloaded and over-worked, with creative’s head-hours being rationed-out so tightly they simply don’t have time to attend strategy meetings, let alone provide ongoing strategic input.

Secondly, with the advent of the planning department back in the late nineties and early noughties, strategic decisions were taken out of the hands of creatives, and both rightly and wrongly, its stayed that way ever since.

Thirdly, given analytics ability to uncover emergent properties and deliver empirical insights, the creative department is no longer seen as as reliable source of strategic direction (this is of course complete rubbish, but you’d be amazed how many marketers care only for metrics, and ignore the less-tangible, more instinctive considerations altogether.)

For reasons I will elucidate on in coming posts, much like the waterfall model, this hybrid brand management process can be an invitation to failure and inefficiency.

Creative development and strategic development are two sides of the same coin – they are mutually inclusive and inter-dependent. You can’t create them separately or sequentially as each strategic decision carries a creative consequence, and vice versa.

The agile brand development model is a reasonably sound one – it allows for incremental improvements and subtle refinements in your brand(s), as well as a controlled migration in your positioning, from your current position of advantage, towards a stronger position, as changes in the market necessitate.

On the flip-side however, the whole process has one obvious flaw in that it’s also repetitive and recursive:  it invites you to think about the future within a framework of everything you’ve done in the past, and that’s dangerous.

Through necessity, agile brand development requires a certain amount of circular thinking. This is supposed to be an adaptive and progressive cognitive process – but it can very easily turn into collective navel gazing if you’re not careful.

Effective as the brand planning cycle / agile branding processes are, in my experience – WHEN IMPLEMENTED ON THEIR OWN – they’re not systems that readily accommodate or enable massive breakthroughs, radical discoveries or tangential / sideways movement. Without making a few modifications, these methods of thinking often won’t engender ideas that result in radical, game-changing paradigm shifts for a brand.

To achieve one of those, you need to fall on your arse…