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The Fragility of Agility

Robert Sprague

Something happens when an agency’s staff grows past an even dozen.  Up to that size, everyone is able to know everything, all the time.  One leader/proprietor can manage by fiat. The agency is “agile” by default.  But also limited in its ability to handle large or complex accounts.

Once the number of employees gets into the double digits, communication and coordination become a lot more difficult.  So leaders and managers—with the best of intentions—start to invent elaborate procedures, policies, and tracking mechanisms to deal with the chaos.

Most of these innovations fail dismally. Why? Because no one understands them, has time to learn them, or wants to give up their own way of doing things. Pretty soon the bureaucratic kudzu has crept over everything, slowly strangling productivity and frustrating staff, leaders, and clients alike. 

This is the fragility of agility.

The rapid growth of Yes& was creating a lot of pressure. So as the agency neared 80 employees, we swallowed the Kool-Aid and adopted agile as our workflow management process.

Agile for advertising agencies is a discipline pioneered by Jack Skeels and his Agency Agile team in Los Angeles.  It draws its inspiration from agile software development, but has been heavily modified for the agency environment.  We trained the entire agency in agile, and continue to provide refreshers for current staff and new employees joining the team.  Agile is not a panacea, but we have seen boosts to productivity and a significant reduction in time consumed by meaningless bureaucracy.

To me, the agile methodology revolves around three basic principles.

People learn in different ways. Some people, including most clients, are auditory learners—they have to talk things out.  That’s why it’s common for a client to ask “walk me through it” when they get a document.  Agency people tend to be on the visual or kinesthetic sides of the triangle, learning through sight or experience.  (Almost no one learns well by trying to read someone else’s long, detailed written description.)

Agile facilitates different learning styles through a roadmapping process during which projects are scoped using colored index cards stuck to a wall with painter’s tape. Words on the cards satisfy the auditories… the colors and shapes appeal to the visuals… and the tactile experience of placing and rearranging cards on the wall helps the kinesthetics learn. 

Humans do best with small, manageable tasks.  It is difficult to grasp the complicated structure and months- or years-long period of many advertising campaigns.  People like tasks that are clear, definable, and brief.  Small, manageable tasks are easy to keep in one’s brain, and there’s something very satisfying about checking things off.

Agile leverages this principle by breaking even the most complicated projects down into units of value called “stories.”  A good story involves no more than 20 hours of work, and can be completed within two weeks.  Gathered together on a chart called a Kanban, the stories form a constantly moving picture of the agency’s progress.  It’s a simple way to communicate, and it results in the elimination of a lot of time-wasting update meetings.

Creatives are pretty good at managing their own time. Interruptions—ranging from update meetings to “hey, got a minute” drive-by shootings—claim a large portion of the day at most agencies.  Given a reasonable set of clear, definable stories to complete, however, the “do-ers” of an agency can be very successful at completing them one-by-one with little need for monitoring or intervention. 

Agile creates a daily cycle meant to maximize “flow time,” the efficient and fulfilling state of uninterrupted creativity.  Meetings and coordination are compressed into the beginning of the workday, with the balance available for productive activity.

There are many other ins and outs of agile.  It certainly cannot solve every challenge that arises as an agency grows.

At Yes& we have found, however, that the results include a lifting of frustrations for agency staff.  And for clients?  They are happy that our agile is less fragile, and that we can be transparent and nimble no matter what they send our way.


Yes& is the Washington, DC-based marketing agency that brings commercial, association, and government clients the unlimited power of “&” – using a full suite of branding, digital, event, marketing, public relations, and creative capabilities to deliver meaningful and measurable results.

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Robert Sprague

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