When will Design Thinking and Agile be the norm for Marketing and Marketing Agencies?

By Katie Lowell

In the last two months, we have run into no less than four companies that are struggling with their current Marketing agencies. While each decision maker has been wildly successful, they still managed to get roped into having signed long-term contracts with no measurable goals and/or objectives for the agency to achieve. In other words, there is nothing to hold these agencies’ feet to the fire. This inevitably creates frustration, angst and a really bad name for Marketing.

To further emphasize this point, we have heard countless times how they [the agency] ‘just don’t understand our business’. The client expressed to us that they think the agency is listening, and they take copious notes, but the result is as if they had just told the agency to go and work without any direction at all. And how many times have you this story: you invest in a ‘big campaign’ push, only to discover that it didn’t resonate with your customers after having spent so much time, resources and money on it.

Let us give you an excerpt from our soon to be published book. This is a perfect example that we experienced first hand working with an outside agency that shows how we were fooled too:


There is always a first for everything, right?! This story is more recent and from the perspective of outsourcing to an agency. As the client in this story, we gained an even greater appreciation for Agile methodology.

We had worked with this agency to help us develop a new positioning strategy for the company we worked for. After doing so, we decided on a way to ‘launch’ it was by the creation of a cornerstone company overview piece.

SO…Here’s how this went down:

With the agency, we discussed the vision, requirements, defined the purpose, all the necessary things for the statement of work they asked for. Having worked in Agile for many years, we advocated that we reconvene a couple of weeks later. We wanted to discuss progress, see an outline or draft (preferably an MVP) and the approach as it got fleshed out. When the call came around, they didn’t have much to show or discuss (not sure they had even started). This was a bit of a yellow flag for us, but we had worked well with them so far (and we liked them), so we decided to continue forward.

Then it came time to “wow” us and present the “final” piece – sadly, we were less than impressed. The piece completely missed the mark. And in this instance, we were the customer and for them, the customer wasn’t right. They were so in love with their work, they went so far as to express how deeply offended they were. They almost yelled at us – literally.  They were incredulous that we weren’t ecstatic with their work.

We explained the same thing to them that we did with our own marketing team at the time. You cannot go behind the black curtain to come out with a big “Ta-Da”.  You can’t afford to spend the time, money and effort to run the risk of missing the mark – for whatever reason.

In the end, they made it right. They ate some humble pie and got feedback from their colleagues and friends that validated our sentiments. We ended up working together to provide specific feedback and reset. And ultimately got the piece that aligned with our expectations and goals. This was a harsh reminder for us that Agile was not only important to how we work within our team, but also externally with consultants.  We wasted a lot of time and effort that could have easily been avoided had we worked in an Agile method with them.

And all of this was against our better judgment. We adjusted to the way they preferred to work. We thought they knew better because they were established/successful consultants. This seriously was a great lesson for us to have been the stakeholders in this experience and realize the frustration that working in a traditional way usually causes. All in all, there is no other way than saying it was a painful project. However, there’s always a silver lining, it turned out to be a wonderful lesson for us in the importance of Agile and working with stakeholders more effectively.

The mindset of that agency was not putting themselves in the customer’s shoes, iterating, experimenting, and learning. Rather they had a fixed mindset, one that aligns with a waterfall project management style.

What’s your mindset?

Whether you realize it or not, your mindset is so incredibly important. At the core of anyone’s approach either your approach is of a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.

When we think of fixed, we think of the waterfall project management approach of gathering requirements, going behind the curtain and eventually revealing finished product months later. It’s slow, laborious, high potential for failure with a lot of time potentially wasted. The majority of the time spent is not focused on the customer, it’s spent creating and perfecting your product. Traditional Marketing, a waterfall approach to development and product development are exactly this, a fixed mindset.

When we think of growth, this is where Design-Thinking and Agile come into play. A growth mindset is flexible, collaborative, testing, iterative and driven with data insights. It also allows you to get things done quickly, more effectively and creates autonomy. And above all else, it’s prioritized for creating value to your customer.

To create value for your customer leveraging Design-Thinking and Agile, it’s 90% mindset and 10% methodology. That’s why mindset is so incredibly important. It’s not necessarily about the process.

The lines all start to blur together…

We have found by embracing a different mindset, a growth mindset, you can discover the power of these two methodologies (Design Thinking & Agile) put together and apply them to Marketing. We know, Design thinking is often associated with innovation and the concept of Agile is traditionally associated with IT/Development, but it literally is the perfect fit for Marketing!

Let’s explore this idea of mindsets more. Digging in a little deeper than just a growth mindset, we have borrowed from IDEO’s Human-Centered Design to share the mindsets (90%) that it takes to be effective with Design-Thinking and Agile together.

Learn from Failure

It begins when not knowing the solution to a challenge. Instead of rebelling against the idea of failure, embrace it and use it as an opportunity to experiment, learn from it, and start again. This is where growth happens.

Make It

Design thinking is about experimenting with prototypes. In Agile, we develop minimum viable products (MVPs). In both instances, the mindset is that only through ‘building’ and testing will you be able to know if the ‘product’ (a piece of content, value prop, message, brochure, website) or service is doing what it should do. This allows you to get feedback early and often.


Having the mindset of understanding your customers better can help you solve problems from their perspective and gain insight into the design process. Regardless of what it is, your product should be designed and created to improve and add value to other people’s lives and experiences.

Embrace Ambiguity

Often you are starting without knowing the answer to the problem or challenge. Having the mindset to embrace the ambiguity is totally uncomfortable at first, but by embracing it you will open yourself up to creative ideas and come to unexpected solutions.

Iterate, Iterate, Iterate

For us, this mindset is one of the most critical of them all. Iteration. This one was and still is hard for many people to accept, but you need to receive feedback from customers early and frequently. By constantly improving and refining your work, you will be able to refine your ideas and concepts that will become better suited to adding value to your customer and become the right solution.

So what is your mindset?

Is yours a fixed mindset? Or a growth mindset?

If you answered a growth mindset in your head just now, our last question to you is when will Design Thinking and Agile be your new norm for Marketing?

We’d love to strike up a conversation about any of this, the mindsets and/or the methodologies of Design Thinking or Agile.

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