Skip to content
Ideas Strategy2021-01-28

Agility is important. But it’s not a strategy.

Toby Roberts

This article was co-authored by Jo Pereira

2020 was the year that marketing ‘agility’ came of age. Marketers needed to react swiftly as successive waves of Covid-19 ripped through the world and protests exploded issues of systemic racism into the public consciousness. And they did. Agility went mainstream as brands sprinted to keep up with the speed of events and demonstrate their relevance to the huge shifts their audiences were making across the globe.


Of course, marketing agility is not a new concept. It’s been kicking around for years, arguably hitting the big time when it was validated by McKinsey’s publication of the Step by Step Guide to Agile Marketing in 2016. 


As we look ahead to 2021, everyone seems to agree more agility is a good thing. Everyone from Campaign and The Drum to Deloitte and Forrester are all highlighting that agility and adaptability will be the big play in 2021. Brands will be expected to act in sync with the trends and topics of the day in order to remain relevant.


The idea that brands should respond to changing circumstances, new data, new opportunities, better ways of doing things is, of course, the right one. (And we are particularly proud of our ability to help clients do this.) But agility in and of itself is not a substitute for strategy. They are both important but they are not interchangeable. Conflating the two is dangerous, and can distract us from the real problems we face.


Not only that, while agile marketing feels good to execute, there are important questions to be answered about its effectiveness. 


In April 2020, when public disruption was absolutely at its highest in the UK, System One researched the performance of 85 brands’ new Covid comms against the performance of their previous work. The headline: on average, the new work performed better. A win for agility.


But, of course there’s a ‘but’. This is an average. In System One’s own words the difference in performance, at an overall level was ‘slight’. Many brands’ Covid work actually underperformed their pre-coronavirus activity. The conclusion is that brands who made an effort to help—System One calls out food retailers and telcos in the report—saw better performance. Brands who simply ran messages of solidarity would have been better off continuing to run their pre-Covid advertising.


Please also bear in mind the research context: the UK, in April 2020. When consumer disruption and uncertainty was absolutely at its highest. In a nice addendum to the story, System One’s research into Christmas advertising in December 2020—as the UK prepared for a Christmas like no other—found that the most successful ad, from both a short and long term basis, was, you guessed it: The Coke Trucks. The same ad that has run in the UK for decades.


Rapidly changing contexts require rapidly changing responses. This is the case for agility and we agree with it. But in adopting an agile marketing mentality, marketers must be careful not to become entirely reactive, constantly holding up a mirror to consumers, constantly shifting messaging in an attempt to stay relevant.


There are huge challenges ahead—massive shifts in retail and media behaviour, income inequality and the growing digital divide, increasing awareness of systemic injustice and the climate emergency and the perilous economic state of our countries—these are not things we should be ‘reacting’ to. These are things we need to be planning for and conversations we should be leading. Let’s talk about how we plot a strategy for brands to navigate through this new reality and what frameworks we need to put in place to ensure that they can win. Then we can talk about agility.