Is Agile Harder for Agencies?

I once sat in a pitch meeting and watched a new business exec tell a potential client that his agency followed an agile workflow process at all times. The potential client nodded wisely, and they both agreed that agile was indeed the way to go.

The meeting progressed and they signed off on a contract for a massive project, to be delivered in a standard waterfall fashion, with all manner of phases and key deliverables.

Of course both of them left the meeting perfectly happy, because neither of them knew nor cared what an agile workflow process might be.

That was about five years ago. As 2015 heaves into view I think it’s fair to say that attitudes have changed. Perhaps the same number of people claim to do Agile™ now as in 2010, but I think more of them are telling the truth.

As a developer in an agency that works primarily with larger organisations, this year I have started to see a shift from agencies pushing agile methodologies with their clients, to clients requesting and even demanding agile practices from their agencies. Only a couple of years ago this would have been unusual behaviour.

So what’s the problem?

We should be happy then, no? Those of us in agencies will get to spend more time delivering great products, and less time arguing over out-of-date functional specs or battling through an adversarial change management procedure because somebody had a good idea during development rather than planning. We get to be a little bit more like our brothers and sisters in vaunted teams like the Government Digital Service, which is using agile approaches to great effect on projects that have a real benefit to their users.

Almost. Unfortunately, it seems to be the case that adhering to an agile framework such as scrum is more difficult within an agency/client structure than it is for an in-house development team.

This is no surprise. The Agile Manifesto was written in 2001 by a group of software developers for their own use. Many of the underlying principles of a framework like Scrum assume the existence of an in-house team, working on a highly technical project, and working for the business that employs them. The agency/client model must to some extent be retrofitted into agile frameworks. It can be done though, and there are plenty of agencies out there doing it well.

This article isn’t meant to be another introduction to agile techniques – there are too many of those online already. This article is for people just dipping their toes into this way of working. I’ve laid out a few of the key reasons why adopting a more fully agile approach seems difficult, at least initially, for those of us working in agencies.

1. Agile asks more of your clients

When a team adopts Scrum everyone has to get used to a number of unfamiliar roles and rituals. Few team members have a steeper learning curve than the person designated as the product owner.

The product owner carries a lot of weight on their shoulders. They have to uphold the overall vision for the project. They are also meant to be the primary author of the project’s user stories (short atomic descriptions of project features which are testable and relate to a real business need). They should own this list of stories (called a backlog) and should be able to prioritise the order in which the stories are developed, to ensure that the project is delivering real value to the business early and often.

When a burst of work is completed (bursts of work in Scrum are called sprints), the product owner leads a review or show-and-tell session with the wider project stakeholders. The product owner needs to understand the work that has been completed, and must champion it to the business. Finally, and most importantly, the product owner is responsible for managing the feedback and requests from stakeholders in such a way that they don’t derail the project team’s agreed workload for any given sprint, without upsetting or offending any of the stakeholders – some of whom may outrank the product owner.

If you follow that spec, this is a job for a superhuman in any organisational context. And within the agency/client structure this superhuman needs to be client-side for the process to be at its most effective.

So your client, who in the past might have briefed a project to an agency team and then had the work presented back to them every few weeks, is now asked to be involved with the team on a daily basis; to fight on behalf of the team when new or difficult requests come in from senior figures within their organisation; and to present the agency’s work to their own colleagues after each sprint. It’s a big change if all that gets dropped into someone’s lap without warning.

There are several ways agencies can mitigate this issue. The ScrumAlliance suggests some alternative ways to structure the product owner role. The approach I have taken in the past is simply to start slow, and gradually move more of the product owner role over to the client side as and when they feel comfortable with it. If you’re working together long-term on a project, and you both see tangible improvements in the quality of the work after adopting an agile process, then your client is more likely to be open to further changes as the partnership progresses.

2. My client wants fixed costs, fixed deadlines and a fixed scope

I know. Mine too. Of course they do – it is the way that agencies and clients have agreed to work in digital and other creative service industries for a very long time. On both sides of the fence we’re used to thinking about projects in this way.

Of the three, fixing scope is the one that agile purists would rail hardest against. The more time we spend working on digital projects, the less sense it makes. James Archer, CEO of UI/UX design agency Forty puts it like this:

For me, the Agile approach is really about acknowledging that disturbing truth that every project manager knows, but has trouble admitting. The truth that the project plan is wrong. Scope creep. Change orders. Shifting priorities. New directions. We act shocked and appalled when those things happen during our carefully planned project, even though they happen on every project ever.

Successful relationships require trust and honesty, and we shouldn’t be afraid of discussing this aspect of project management. If you do move away from a fixed scope of work, then the other two items (costs and timings) can be fixed – more or less. If you can get your clients to buy into this from a standing start then you are doing well. In fact you probably deserve a promotion. For most of us this is a continual discussion.

Anyway, as soon as you’ve made headway on the argument that it makes little or no sense to try and fix the scope of a digital project, you usually run into a related concern, which we’ll look at next.

3. Fear of uncontrolled costs

We all know that a dog is for life, not just for Christmas. At this time of year perhaps we should reiterate to everyone that digital products and services also need support and love once we have taken the decision to bring them into the world.

More organisations are realising that their investment in digital platforms should be viewed as an operational expenditure rather than a capital expenditure. But from time to time we will find ourselves working on projects for people who have a finite amount of money to invest in a product at a given point in time. When agencies start talking about these projects as rolling investments those responsible can understandably worry about their costs running out of control.

There’s another factor at play here. Agile, on the whole, prefers to derive a cost for services from the hours a team spends working on a project. In other industries this is referred to as charging for time and materials, and there seems to be an ingrained distrust in this approach among people in general. See, for example, the Citizens Advice Bureau’s “Top tips for employing a builder”:

“Bear in mind that if you pay a daily rate, this makes it easier for a builder to string the work out and get more money so agree what you will do if the job takes longer than expected.”

It’s hard not to feel stung if you are in the builder’s shoes here, as we are when we’re talking about our role as an agency. But if you’ve ever haggled with a builder over time and materials, and also moaned about your clients misunderstanding agile methods, take a moment to reflect on the similarities from your client’s point of view.

Again, there are some things we can do to mitigate this issue. Some agencies put in place a service level agreement around their team’s velocity (an agile-related term related to how much work a team delivers in any given sprint) and this can help.

As the industry moves further towards a long-term approach to investment in digital I hope this fear will subside. But that shift in approach leads to the final concern I want to address.

4. Agency structures need shaking up

If you work for a company that has spent many years developing a business model around the waterfall process, you may have to break through many layers of entrenched thinking in order to establish new practices and effect organisational change.

There are consultancies that exist specifically to help agencies through their own agile transformation. One of these companies, AgencyAgile, provides a helpful list of common pitfalls. They emphasise the need to look at your whole agency’s structure, rather than simply encouraging project teams to adopt new workflows.

Even awesomely run Agile projects can have a limited impact on the overall organization.

If you’re serious about changing the way your company approaches projects then try talking to people who sit outside the usual project delivery team. Speak to the finance department if you have one, and try to convince your senior management team if they’re not already on board. And definitely speak to your new business people, who go out there and win the projects you get to work on.

It’s these people who need to understand the potential business benefits of working in a new way, and also which of their existing habits and behaviours they might need to change to accommodate a new approach.

Otherwise you’ll find yourself with a team of designers, developers and project managers who are ready and waiting to deliver work in an iterative and collaborative way, but by the time they get hold of the project a cost has already been agreed, a deadline has been imposed, and a functional requirements document has been painstakingly put together. Nobody wins in this situation.


So where should we go from here? I certainly don’t have hard and fast answers – I’m not sure that they exist in a one-size-fits-all approach for agencies.

There are plenty of smart people thinking about this problem. It’s a hot topic right now. Earlier in the year a London-based meetup was established called Agile for Agencies. If you’re in the capital and want to discuss these issues with your peers it’s a great opportunity to do so.

I’ve mentioned James Archer and Forty already. Both James and Paul Boag have written in the last twelve months on this subject. They both come out on the side of the argument that suggests you adopt agile principles, but don’t have to worry about the rituals if they don’t fit in with your practices.

Personally, I think the rituals and the discipline mandated by an agile framework like Scrum can provide a great deal of value to your team, even it if is hard to implement within an agency culture that has traditionally structured its work and its services in another way.

In whatever way you figure out the details, when your teams collaborate with your clients rather than work for them at arm’s length, and when everyone prioritises frequent delivery, reflection and iteration over exhaustive scoping and planning, I believe you’ll see a tangible difference in the quality of the work that you create.

About the author

Charlie Perrins is Technical Director at Dare. He’s a front-end developer by trade, and a nut for semantic and readable code. He writes and talks about technologies old and new to anyone who’ll listen. Most recently he’s spoken at events run by Faber & Faber and at Front End London.

Charlie tweets pretty regularly, but is an unreliable blogger. His crowning achievement in self-publishing came some five years ago and was entitled simply ‘The Bacon Project’.

Photo by Steve Whittington

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