My first job was breeding and selling lizards. At one point I had more than 200, and in some surprising ways, it prepared my 10-year-old self for the challenges of scaling a marketing department. Whether shepherding Chinese water dragons or high-performing creative teams, you’re adapting to changing environments, anticipating product evolution, and planning for proliferating resources.
If your career hasn’t included lizard farming, to effectively scale during hyper-growth periods marketers can also learn from product engineers who have adopted the concept of ‘agile’. The agile model has a core goal of maximum user value, and agile teams are structured to rapidly, autonomously, and scalably deliver this value. I introduced the agile model to Ada’s Marketing Department in May 2018. One and a half years later, I can share how it’s helped Ada grow faster than any other medical app and what I’d do differently next time.
Structuring for targets, not skills
When setting up a marketing department from scratch, most tech companies structure by skills instead of targets. This means increasing the number of designers for the design team, copywriters for the content team, performance marketers for the growth team, and so on. This traditional structure helps people with the same skills learn from others within their area of expertise. However, it has two shortcomings: It’s not easily scalable, and it’s focused on skills instead of company targets.
Setting up full-stack teams
Ada’s marketing teams are set up as full-stack teams dedicated to specific targets. Teams generally consist of copywriters, designers, and additional specialists, such as analysts, performance marketers, or front-end web developers. Each team can be seen as a fully-functioning mini-company – they have all the tools and people required to contribute to specific company targets, without depending on other teams.
Removing dependencies coins the term ‘agile’, as success won’t be affected if one of those agile teams, or mini-companies, does something that might not contribute to the short-term success of the business – like trialing new marketing channels or localization strategies.
Each team sits together in the office and works towards specific company targets, like user acquisition within Team Growth. Teams independently generate value for the company as they can function on their own. However, the old-school idea of organizing teams around skills has the benefit of learning from others that share their skills.
Connecting teams with chapters
So, how to ensure people continue to improve their skills while meeting targets? This can be achieved by introducing chapters. Where teams are people with different skills working towards specific targets, chapters are groups of people with similar skills supporting long-term targets. For example, the content chapter ensures individual copywriters provide valuable content for their team, while all copywriters work together from the same brand guidelines, performance insights, and messaging strategy. The chapter lead, acting as line manager for chapter members, reviews and defines guidelines for chapter members to help them constantly improve their output.
Chapters also remove the risk of ‘silos’ – when teams work in isolation without sharing relevant information with others. A design lead has an overview of design assets across all teams. If a design asset performs very well for one team, the design lead can trial it with other formats in other teams. This is essential to ensure long-term brand equity is built while teams deliver short-term goals.
Introducing agile into Ada’s marketing
After iterating several possible structures, we’ve settled on six delivery teams and three chapters for now.
This structure has two core benefits at Ada. First, it promotes target-oriented thinking – for teams and individuals. Whether you’re a designer or a developer: If you’re on the same team, you work towards the same targets. A team lead breaks a target into smaller tasks and assigns them to individuals, who work in two-week ‘sprints’ to complete the task and prove an impact on the target. This steady cadence makes each individual’s impact clearly visible, creating a strong sense of ownership. For example, a designer in Team Growth needs to understand and demonstrate how their work contributes to the acquisition funnel. Outside of agile teams, you’ll rarely find a designer who speaks ‘performance’, such as “I’ve increased store visits to install rates by 17 percent in Germany, which has lowered our overall cost per install by 31 percent.”
Second, teams and chapters create balance and offset potentially competing short-term and long-term priorities. For example, a copywriter in Team Growth may feel compelled to write something that generates an impressive click-through rate to meet a short-term target, but the copy is then filtered through the chapter to ensure it doesn’t jeopardize long-term brand trust and favorability.
Implementing agile into your marketing department
By dividing your marketing department into agile teams, you won’t see marketing running like a well-oiled machine from day one. Three tips I can share that supported implementation at Ada:
- Communicate openly, honestly, and often with team members about adopting a ‘growth mindset’ and becoming comfortable with change.
- Set up teams based on specific marketing and company targets they should deliver on, limiting overlap between teams where possible.
- Be flexible with sharing resources across teams when it makes sense – don't live and die by the structure.
Ada’s marketing teams can now consistently hit company targets, quickly adapt to changes, and collectively support the long-term objectives that will help Ada become a global health leader. Investing time last year setting up the right agile structure means we can easily add new teams and chapters as Ada continues to grow into the future.
I’ve resisted any allusions to lizard farming and growing at scale, but can’t finish without emphasizing that the word ‘scalable’ really means to successfully grow with the same systems, and without jeopardizing performance. Any marketer in a hyper-growth period needs to structure teams for scalability, and it’s hard to find a better system than agile.