Is Scrum the Right Way to Manage Your Marketing Projects?

Does the agile project management approach contain secrets for effectively managing marketing teams and projects? 

5 min read

Being Agile

scrum for marketing

The agile man­i­festo was born at a ski resort in my home state of Utah in 2001.

Ver­sions of agile and Scrum for soft­ware devel­op­ers are the obvi­ous default method­ol­o­gy. (Good luck find­ing a dev team still man­ag­ing water­fall projects.)

In 2007, I was the Direc­tor of Mar­ket­ing for web-based project man­age­ment com­pa­ny Work­front. That was the year Steve Jobs announced the iPhone, the TGV broke the world record for pas­sen­ger train speed, and the year our engi­neer­ing team adopt­ed Scrum.

We went all-in. Scrum and XP From the Trench­es became our bible. There were in-depth-train­ings, quizzes for employ­ees, and recog­ni­tion for those quick­est to catch the vision. Key employ­ees were sent off to cer­ti­fy as Scrum Mas­ters. And Jeff Suther­land, an orig­i­nal agile man­i­festo sig­na­to­ry, came and spoke.

It was­n’t just for devel­op­ers. The whole com­pa­ny was required to have a work­ing knowl­edge of Scrum.

On the mar­ket­ing team, I felt like the more tight­ly we mir­rored the cul­ture tak­ing shape in prod­uct, the more aligned we would be. So we imple­ment­ed Scrum for our mar­ket­ing projects.

Back then Scrum for mar­ket­ing was unheard of. Now I’ve been run­ning Scrum with my mar­ket­ing teams for near­ly 12 years and it has become vogue as agile mar­ket­ing or trib­al scrum.

What is this Scrum you speak of?

I’m going to assume you’re read­ing this because you are at least a lit­tle famil­iar with Scrum. If not, check out Scrum in Five Min­utes.

See you in five.

Okay, now that you know what we’re talk­ing about, you prob­a­bly have some ques­tions. What fol­lows should answer most of them.

First, it’s impor­tant to acknowl­edge that Scrum is not native­ly designed for the prob­lems encoun­tered by a mar­ket­ing team. It requires some adap­ta­tion.

What’s different?

Scrum in its pure form does­n’t assign sto­ries to indi­vid­u­als dur­ing plan­ning. The team picks up veloc­i­ty and effi­cien­cy because devel­op­ers pick items they want to work on dur­ing dai­ly scrums. It’s assumed the team mem­bers have rough­ly equiv­a­lent skills

Mar­ket­ing teams, espe­cial­ly in small com­pa­nies are often orga­nized in cross-func­tion­al cells where team mem­bers inten­tion­al­ly pos­sess dif­fer­ent skills (design, copy­writ­ing, ana­lyt­ics, etc.). This team make­up means there’s not the same egal­i­tar­i­an dynam­ic for grab­bing what­ev­er sto­ry is wait­ing to be worked in the sprint. While it’s pos­si­ble to have mul­ti­ple writ­ers or design­ers, team mem­bers have to more or less stick with­in their swim lane.

Draw­ing on the dif­fer­ent skills of team mem­bers means mar­ket­ing projects usu­al­ly have depen­den­cies and a crit­i­cal path; so sto­ries have to be com­plet­ed in a par­tic­u­lar order. Scrum itself does­n’t account for this—but as a Scrum mar­ket­ing team lead, you will need to.

With a few adap­ta­tions to fit mar­ket­ing teams, the fre­quen­cy of sprints and the iter­a­tive mind­set usu­al­ly win out in terms of out­put and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty.

What’s the same?

Many of the key ben­e­fits agile offered to soft­ware devel­op­ers also apply to mar­ket­ing, which is why this is even a thing.

The car­di­nal virtue of deliv­er­ing short, func­tion­al iter­a­tions is per­fect for mar­ket­ing projects.

Scrum for mar­ket­ing: The car­di­nal agile virtue of deliv­er­ing short, func­tion­al iter­a­tions is per­fect for mar­ket­ing projects. Click To Tweet

One of my favorite con­ven­tions of Scrum is the writ­ing of sto­ries. Just the name bears the whiff of mar­ket­ing.

Sto­ries force both devel­op­ers and mar­keters to artic­u­late the scope of work in terms of units of busi­ness val­ue. “The user will be able to do X” or “Such and such will be live on the web­site.” This con­ven­tion makes for dis­crete deliv­er­ables, with­out ambi­gu­i­ty around what “done” means.

There’s also no hid­ing behind a smoke­screen of domain jar­gon. By artic­u­lat­ing sto­ries in plain lan­guage and a busi­ness val­ue per­spec­tive, cycles are not lost on projects with unknown or ques­tion­able val­ue to the com­pa­ny or client.

Mar­ket­ing teams exe­cute work in “sprints” typ­i­cal­ly last­ing any­where from one week to one month. Fre­quen­cy is deter­mined by how often the team gains val­ue from quick adap­ta­tion ver­sus the amount of plan­ning required.

burndown vectors
The orig­i­nal burn­down chart was based on air­craft car­ri­er land­ing vec­tors

Work­ing in sprints means sprint plan­ning meetings—Fibonacci Plan­ning Pok­er is option­al, the keep­ing of a pri­or­i­tized back­log, cal­cu­lat­ing time and esti­mat­ing work in sto­ry points. It means check­ing in via a dai­ly scrum, a Scrum board or Kan­ban board (Kan­ban is a bor­rowed term from Lean Man­u­fac­tur­ing and in its orig­i­nal form is dif­fer­ent from a scrum board, but many teams and Scrum soft­ware appli­ca­tions call their scrum boards Kan­ban boards). The board gives you what you need to cal­cu­late a burn­down chart.

Mar­ket­ing Scrum teams also ben­e­fit from the prac­tice of mea­sur­ing their veloc­i­ty, improv­ing their skill at esti­mat­ing sto­ries, ret­ro­spec­tives, pub­lic demos, and lab days between sprints.

Mar­ket­ing teams adopt the Scrum roles which pro­vide the essen­tial checks and bal­ances. There is a Prod­uct Own­er who owns the back­log, some­times called a Mar­ket­ing Own­er or an Agile Own­er for clar­i­ty if there is already an engi­neer­ing Prod­uct Own­er. There is a Scrum Mas­ter who keeps the process mov­ing and removes imped­i­ments for the team, and then the indi­vid­ual team mem­bers.

The checks and bal­ances inher­ent in each role are essen­tial. For instance, the Prod­uct Own­er can scope the work, but it’s up to the team mem­bers to esti­mate how long it will take.

Interested? Here are some resources to do it yourself.

Scrum can be done entire­ly man­u­al­ly, down to post it notes and a phys­i­cal Scrum board—if you keep a bul­let jour­nal, this might be for you. But there are some great soft­ware options avail­able. Espe­cial­ly if your team is dis­trib­uted this can be essen­tial.

Here’s a list of high­ly rat­ed soft­ware solu­tions. I per­son­al­ly like Piv­otal Track­er, Asana, Scrum­wise (when you’re just get­ting start­ed), and Trel­lo has a Scrum addi­tion if you’re already using the web’s favorite check­list tool.

Jira by Atlass­ian is pop­u­lar too, espe­cial­ly among devel­op­ers. Per­son­al­ly, I find their inter­face so clum­sy and user-hos­tile I don’t rec­om­mend it for mar­keters.

Final­ly, here’s a good look at how to deter­mine which is right for you.

Addi­tion­al Read­ing: Adopt­ing Scrum at Slee­knote, some exam­ples of Adopt­ing Scrum for Mar­ket­ing from Quo­ra, AgileMarketing.net, and Why We Trans­formed to an Agile Inbound Mar­ket­ing Com­pa­ny by Sprout Social.


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@cmo_zen is a blog of micro med­i­ta­tions for mar­ket­ing lead­ers, designed to help them find clar­i­ty and peace in the mar­ket­ing mael­strom.

Published by Chad Jardine

@chadjardine is the CMO @goreact, an edtech company making game film for the classroom. He teaches graduate finance course @uutah and is the coauthor of Pillars of Inflection: Seven Fundamental Strategies for Explosive Company Growth. He accepts a limited number of consulting engagements each year.