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Agile for agencies, is there such a thing?

Johannesburg, June 17, 2015.

By Danelle Stiles, Operations Director NATIVE VML

For the past year or so I have been asking myself this question: Agile for agencies, is there such a thing? Agile as a methodology seems to have the answers to so many of our problems yet seems impossible to implement in an agency. So I ask myself, why? Why is it so difficult for us to get right?


I started by looking at the Agile manifesto.

The first point is ‘individuals and interactions over process and tools’.

Sounds simple enough. Everyone in an agency knows how much we like to meet, isn’t that enough interaction? It could be but seems to be too much of the wrong interaction.

When the founders of Scrum came up with the methodology they had dedicated teams who would sit together from start to finish on a project. In our fast-paced agency world that is almost an impossible ask. Creative and development teams often work on the same project at completely different times. Individuals also work on more than one project at a time. This makes real-time collaboration nearly impossible forcing us back to process and tools.

The second point of the manifesto is ‘working software over comprehensive documentation’.

To me it feels as if we are stuck on a pendulum. We started off with documents that were so overly detailed and spent months producing requirements which by the end of the signoff process became irrelevant.

Enter the lean thinking era and we have swung all the way to the opposite side of the pendulum. We start a project by producing visual prototypes which definitely have their value in providing a tangible picture of the end product, however all the meat once found in the functional specification has been lost.

We need to find the balance of just enough detail relevant to the piece of work or production sprint that is about to begin.

‘Customer collaboration over contract negotiation’ is the third point.

There are a couple of things that come to mind when I think of this. Our clients would be more than happy to be 100% part of our teams, making themselves available for planning sessions, daily scrums and retrospectives. Unfortunately their busy schedules just don’t always allow for this.

We also mostly quote projects with a fixed budget and therefore a fixed scope. There is a definite reluctance by clients to buy a retained team which means forcing a contract negotiation upfront and agreement on what their fixed budget will buy.

We find ourselves in a catch 22. In order to agree to a retained team model you need to earn the client’s trust, which normally only comes after you have delivered the first few sprints that are either an individual coherent feature or a minimum viable product.

The fourth and final point is ‘responding to change over following a plan’.

Again the fixed budget and scope is one of the main reasons why this point is hard to implement. Every change has an effect on the budget whereas a retained team have the flexibility to adapt as they go.

Extremely tight deadlines are part and parcel of agency life. This also doesn’t lend itself well to changing scope. Each change adds further pressure to an immovable deadline with fixed deliverables that all need to be included by go-live time.

So what are the answers?

After 13 years of being in the industry the one thing I can say about trying and adopting new methodologies is it will never be a perfect fit. If you try and adopt a methodology word for word it will always feel wrong. Methodologies are just as much culture as they are process.

The way we are tackling Agile is to start with a few concepts that fit well with our people and the work we do, learning from each application and moulding our very own version of Agile for agencies.