There was an interesting article on ClickZ announcing Razorfish's formation of an agile practice.
Called Agile, the program is geared mainly toward online projects that require complex application development. It brings together 50 creatives and technologists who engage clients first in a training process before moving into a design phase. Razorfish has practiced the approach since at least last year, but it hasn't been formalized till now.
This is a significant break from the old agency standard of “The big idea” towards an iterative "test and learn" mindset. What is even more interesting is the polarized responses the new practice has received on Twitter and blogs. Many people comment the idea makes sense. Some including myself are surprised it has taken a major agency so long to embrace this new way of thinking. Others think it is "BS" (their words not mine). That the big idea at the heart of marketing and that an iterative approach is just a cop out for not being able to come up with one.
So who is right?
A collision of cultures
Interactive development is a collision of two worlds, ad/marketing/creative agencies and IT consultancies. The process you prefer will likely be determined by which side you come from.
Marketing is built around the interrupt and repeat model. The big idea is the engine that drives that model. Traditionally marketing is built around enhancing a brand. To do this, you must cut through the thousands (literally) of ads consumers see each day to not only notice your ad, but to remember it take action.
The development world is built more around a “the software is not done until the last user is dead” mentality. Software is for users. Truly impactfull websites are mostly software. Websites should be built around what users want.
What users want is complex. Software development is complex. More than a decade ago agile methodologies emerged based on the principle that the best way to deal with these complexities is to build something, then let users inspect it and adapt to make it better. Since then, agile has transformed software development world.
Agile's impact has been felt in the software industry. All of the top web properties leverage agile principles. Many including, Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Twitter, SaleForce.com, Amazon, Ebay, etc, even use open methodologies such as Scrum and XP that are published for anyone to learn.
Agile is proven and it's accessible, so what’s the hold up? Why is it just now that major marketing agencies are looking at agile? Answer; the "new ROI fetish" (again, their words not mine, but it has a ring to it).
It has become increasingly harder for agencies to justify themselves as just building brand. Clients want us to show them the money. They actually want a return.
Or as Crump from Razorfish added, "Marketers are getting smarter and more demanding about the effectiveness of the work."
Why now? (part two)
The nature of web has fundamentally changed. Leading websites are more like software than they are like advertising. Web 2.0 has finally taken hold. To compete and win eyeballs and mind share you need those fancy widgets, convenient time savers, must have gizmos, and intuitive interfaces. In other words you need those all those advanced features users have come to expect in a leading interactive experience. And that is a lot of software.
Advertising has traditionally been about spoon feeding delectable morsels of sugary decadence. It’s about the candy. Software has been about the meat or in our more animal friendly world, it’s about the protein.
A great web presence can no longer be just desert. Users are too smart, their tastes too evolved and their pallets too refined. The competition is offering them full meals. The smart consumer (pun intended) knows where to go to get what they need
Have your cake…
So is this the death of big idea campaigns? No. You need both the big idea and the continual improvement of agile.
I believe one of the shortfalls of the way agile is taught in many books and seminars is the lack of a big idea. In agile, up front planning is often vilified to the point that it is seen as an evil to be avoided at all cost. What often gets lost is vision and big picture strategy. The forest gets lost through the trees.
said it best, agile is about "adequate planning and frequent conversations". Without the big idea, agile will still help you deliver incremental innovation around stakeholder requirements with remarkable efficiency - but innovations towards what?
Ultimately three things have to be in the center; the user, the big idea and ROI. If you keep the user at the center, you will build a great web presence built around what users want. If you also integrate in the big idea, you will delight users with things they didn’t even know were possible. Add in ROI and now you have a sustainable engine that will keep delighting users for years.
If you want to be truly world class, the big idea needs to be a part of your definition of "adequate planning". It serves to both focus your efforts and create breakthrough ideas.
As the web evolves, marketing agencies will have to think more like IT consultancies and software developers will have to integrate marketing concepts. Just as agile has revolutionized software development over the last decade, I believe you will see marketing agencies adopting agile practices.
On the other side, development shops cannot just build a collection of features. They have to be cohesive driven by a great concept. They have to have a great vision.
These processes will collide to get the best of both worlds. Big picture strategies will be created at the beginning of an engagement and revisited once a year or so as needed. Agile will be the engine that, (sprint by sprint) efficiently turns out continual improvement towards that vision. ROI will be the measure that provides feedback and fuel for sustainability.