Power Essay by Publicis Cortlan McManus: Why software is eating the (agency) world

By Cortlan McManus, Group Director, Content Practice, Publicis Media

In 2011, the well-known venture capitalist Marc Andreessen wrote an influential article titled, “Why software is eating the world.” Andreessen was arguably one of the first to predict, correctly, that “[O]ver the next 10 years, I expect many more industries to be disrupted by software, with new world-beating Silicon Valley companies doing the disruption in more cases than not.” In fact, it is not just the software that will be disruptive but it is the software firms’ process that is just as disruptive. Without the process, they wouldn’t develop the product. You see, software firms are organisations based on ‘agile’ methodologies, with 90 per cent of those using the Scrum framework (don’t worry, both will be covered shortly). The question is, what effects would happen if Scrum was applied to content agencies’ process? Would we see a dramatic change in the product the content users see in their feeds? 

In business school one of the first classes you take is organisational behaviour (OB), a key driver of process and therefore product. Most don’t think OB is that important, but upon graduation and reflection, you actually realise OB could be the most important thing for a firm’s continued future success – it’s how you confront macro issues, adapt your strategy from within and make decisions. OB partially explains why 90 per cent of Fortune 500 firms are replaced every 60 years – just ask Kodak, who owned “content” for more than 100 years, or Nokia, the inventors of the smartphone, the device that now creates and consumes more content than any other. Many of the newer Fortune 500 entrants, especially the tech and software firms at the top, have agile and Scrum as part of their OB. What can content agencies learn about this process to impact their product? 

The buzzword we hear most between the day’s first and fourth cups of coffee is probably “agile”. Straight up, agile doesn’t mean fast, as in “You need to be more agile, you’re too slow.” This is actually the antithesis of agile – the word “you” does not exist in agile, only “we”. Agile in fact means to invest the least time making something until it’s “done”, so it’s released often to get feedback from key stakeholders – platform users and customers, clients and agency business leaders. This is the foundation of agile and Scrum: empiricism – that is, to learn from experience. “Agile” in a software sense, and now this content sense, actually comes from 1950’s Japanese lean manufacturing, specifically Toyota, which is why there are so many Japanese words you hear in the space – from “Kanban” to “Kata” to “Genchi Genbutsu”. 

Around the same time lean manufacturing started, the first creative revolution happened within our industry: Bill Bernbach organised the creative team pairing of art director and copywriter as equals. As digital started to take hold about 10 years ago, the second creative revolution occurred as agencies expanded creative teams to include user experience, developers and producers, as well told by one of my favourite Harvard case studies. Now let’s talk about today, especially in regards to content agencies. A medium-sized agency will create thousands of pieces of content and tens of strategies each year designed for platforms, performance and commerce. We needed to find a new process that could deliver this different type of product, so in our case we looked to Scrum. Could Scrum be the third creative content revolution? And what is Scrum anyway?

For a moment, let’s forget about our HR titles and functions and instead focus on the three roles that make up a Scrum team: product owner, development team and Scrum Master. The team is self-organising and cross-functional. They decide how they operate to deliver optimised value with the increment, or features, which could be content, strategy, analysis, chatbots, Lenses, performance content, etc. The development team includes all the needed experts from copywriter to animator to strategist to engineer. The development team decides how much time something takes and how much they can deliver in the “Sprint”. The product owner is the interface between the development team (i.e. the “work”) and the key stakeholders. The Scrum Master is crucial to the success because he or she is the voice of agile within and across whatever agency structure they operate. 

Remember, we looked at changing our process to see what impact it would have on our product. The results have been exceptional. Our velocity has increased six times. Now, instead of one piece of content per hour on average, our Scrum teams can create six pieces in the same amount of time. We’ve gone from thousands to tens of thousands of pieces of content. Scrum focuses on higher quality product, which for us means if we create better content for users and customers it will have higher value for our clients. We’ve seen a minimum two-fold increase in ROI and sometimes much higher. As we get feedback from each piece, the work gets better and better.

To summarise, as an industry and as content agencies, we need to inspect our current OB, our past, and our competitors’ present, so that we adapt and software doesn’t eat our world. Process and product are intrinsically linked and will ensure we have a seat at the dinner table and can eat too. Let’s plan on eating for a long time. How does six decades or longer sound?