Advertising & the allure of agile.

Advertising, scrum and other agile techniques at face value seem to be a match made in heaven. Let’s face it, if advertising had an unspoken motto it would be more for less. More output, more promises to clients, with less time spent actually doing the work and spending less on creative resources that gets the work done. There are no Oscar winning production budgets in advertising. The reality is operating on wafer thin budgets so that profits are maximised where the cost of talent and overheads can be obscene (in both a good and bad way) and the client procurement teams are tasked with tightening purse strings year on year. In all this fray, Scrum looks like a shining steed that promises to allow you to do ‘twice the work in half the time’. So you may think that it’s natural that advertising and scrum are made for each other. I mean you wouldn’t need to be flogging a dead horse if you could achieve those kind of productivity increments. In the ideal world, if every advertising personnel within an agency adhere to the rules of scrum I’d agree. Truth is, like someone pointed out, so called scrum implementations actually devolve into rapid waterfall models. I once heard a creative moan that the clients didn’t know how agencies worked. Well here is a peek behind the curtains on the challenges of getting Scrum to work for you in an agency.

Look around and listen and you hear agencies trying to implement elements of Scrum in their daily operations. Or so they would have you believe. It’s not exactly a selling point to clients after all. Stand up meetings and weekly review meetings for project reporting is an ideal example of how Scrum manifests itself, right? Truth be told, the weekly meeting in most agencies involve stakeholders that don’t really need to be there, and falls into a routine rut. While Scrum stand ups are to help establish and eliminate roadblocks, the weekly agency meeting more oft than not devolves into a progress report for the upper echelons to keep track off across multiple teams. The fact is that there is no overlap between most of the teams, resulting in in-efficiencies and an inevitable waste of time.

Scrum works best if you have one project that you focus on. Look at job applications for advertising and you will inevitably see that they want candidates who excel at multi-tasking. Why? Because teams are often spread thin across multiple projects with timeframes that clash. So these resources would be at the beck and call of clashing scrum masters. What’s more since you are handling multiple work flows, a daily scrum meeting across each workflow isn’t going to see much progress.

Scrum revolves around sprints. Advertising revolves around mad dashes. It’s sometimes incredulous the time creative teams are given to churn things out. Clients are spun a good yarn about how the team has been slaving over weeks over creatives that probably were hashed out over a weekend or Friday night.  If you stepped into advertising’s hallowed halls you might notice builds and artwork is taken down to the line forget providing enough time to iterate. Some are even done in a cab ride to the client’s office. Scrum on the other hand advocate workable builds after each scrum sprint in a two week timeframe.

Scrum advocates a level of transparency that you rarely see in advertising. True there are some agencies that try to institutionalise this a bit better than others. However if the prevailing attitudes are that everyone will find out by talking to each other and there is no formal way of distilling information to teams, implementing scrum becomes difficult. This is especially true where certain teams such as account management have always functioned by carefully controlling and distilling the flow of information from the client to agency stakeholders. This is partly to keep teams motivated, with the account management team caught between a rock and a hard place also to ensure client agendas are achieved. Agencies that work on a secondment model, where they work on agency premises, do try to eliminate this gap and form a better model for Scrum (unless there is a scrum that includes the client and a progress WIP that doesn’t). This is an excellent way to boost transparency, while ensuring that the agency provides a dedicated team that isn’t two timing its clients by moonlighting behind its back.

Having a scrum master on the team and having final say about how the project proceeds is another thing agencies will have to wrap their heads around. While it is true we do have creative services teams and do have project managers, in today’s advertising world they are definitely the glue that holds things together. However they are often unsung heroes, with little power. There is a considerable amount of glamour associated with the creative and account management teams. Support teams like creative services on the other hand (where scrum masters are likely to be slotted in) is a thankless job that sees people being underpaid for the pains they go through to birth award winning campaigns. These project managers and creative service staff are often not equipped with the right tools of the trade. And I am quite sure few have been inculcated and empowered to run teams using scrum. What’s more these creative services teams draw the last straw, having to make the impossible happen against impossible deadlines. An empowered creative services team that uses scrum and who can stand-up to key agency stakeholders is the bedrock on which the next generation of agencies will be built on.

Though I do believe that scrum does show some interesting promises for advertising. I am especially excited about Jeff Sutherland’s pricing model on how to implement Scrum with clients from a cost point of view. The technique basically calls for associating scrum points for the effort taken for a certain task. Instead of buying hours, the client pays for Scrum points which he can then reallocate across different tasks and deliverables. This gives the client flexibility to iterate and not fall into a change request pricing trap. At the same time it allows the agency to avoid over burning its hours. Will this work? Will scrum points become a panacea for hours? I think there is going to be a lot of negotiation between account management and procurement teams before this becomes the norm. But procurement might be convinced of this as they try to tighten agency budgets, it just might be the better for it.

What I do believe is that scrum is perfect for those newly formed agencies that are pioneered by people who have seen the way Ad Land works and wants to make a change for a more fair, equitable and balanced approach to doing business. Hopefully they share a vision for shorter work days and no work weekends and have the tills ring with cash with a team that is more empowered, agile and focussed on solving client problems. More creativity, less operational chaos and costs. That would truly be the sign of success of scrum in advertising.