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Agile: Resistance is Futile

Despite his best efforts to thrive in creative chaos, copywriter and content chap, Dave Barton talked himself into working in a more Agile way. If only other freelancers and agency folk would follow suit…

The best thing about being freelance is the exact same thing that sucks about it — the work. Well, actually, doing the work is the fun part; organizing the way I work is what bites.

I’m a copywriter. A pen for hire. One that’s worked agency- and client-side across PR, advertising, and marketing for the past decade. I’ve long dined out on the notion that to be ‘creative’, one must adopt some form of chaotic modus operandi; complete with bad hygiene, questionable knitwear, and a junkyard desk space. I never deliberately set out to be Agile. I’ve had to work at it. But I’m glad I did.

Agile? What exactly is this ‘Agile-ness’ you speak of?

Ok. Let me level with you. There’s a lot of B.S. around the term ‘Agile’ (as opposed to merely being ‘agile’). Basically it’s a smart way of working. A methodology. One that’s championed by software developers and continues to help cross-functional teams collaborate better.

In short, it helps a number of individuals, playing different roles in a single project, get sh*t done quickly, without the need for constant committee approval — ensuring that everyone involved is aware of what’s happening every step of the way.

But how? Is there a secret sauce or something??

Nuh-uh. It’s just a way of organizing information, delivering outputs in a phased approach, and committing to deadlines.

Easier said than done. If you’re used to working in large or cumbersome teams you’ll be accustomed to navigating approval processes and pandering to corporate egos. Not the case with Agile. Basically everyone starts on the same level playing field and takes personal responsibility for doing their bit.

If you’ve ever worked alongside those curious beasts known as ‘devs’ you’ll know that they’re focused on delivering software quickly and refining it through user feedback.

What? That’s crazy!?

I know, right? But it actually works for all concerned; because there’s a tangible product ready for everyone to tire-kick from an early stage. And users love kicking tires…

Admittedly, the concept of bringing an incomplete product to market as quickly as possible and tweaking it bit-by-bit seems crackers. But imagine the reverse happening: developers spend ages creating something and everyone hates it, so they have to change it anyway. Using Agile methods, users have the chance to influence and co-create, which can only be a good thing.

‘Kay so it works for software people. But I’m a marketer…

So this is the thing: Agile is, erm, agile enough to be adapted for any kind of business. But second to software, it lends itself to marketing very well. Consider my case: I began freelancing as a side hustle about three years ago — whilst working a full-time job, and ‘helping’ my wife raise two wonderful children (another has since been added).

Time is a precious commodity. In between my main job and family life, I have evenings, lunchtimes, and my daily train commute in which to complete client work. Working iteratively is crucial given these timeframes. My clients are keen to see the fruits of my labor. But they’ll have comments, edits, and suggestions to make — fact of life. So I need to get stuff done quickly to give them the chance to present their thoughts, and to ensure that I don’t head too far off in the wrong direction. Plus some pieces of work have a tendency to linger. Lingering helps no-one.

In this way, you can start to see how agencies can be Agile too. As agency folk know well, clients are increasingly time-poor. Lengthy briefs are a luxury; reserved for the big budget brand pieces. There are a lot of smaller campaigns to get out the door too, and sometimes they need to happen yesterday. Or they never happen. For an agency, work like this is untapped potential. It’s the small fry that leads to the bigger stuff. That’s why being Agile matters — it can have a direct impact on your bottom line.

With the shoe on the other foot, as a freelancer, or an agency bod for that matter, it’s easy to overservice clients. Which is fine. Sometimes. But making a habit of it eats away at your profit margin. However, adopting an Agile approach to time management can help you and your staff stick to firmly to your guns. If your time really is their money, you owe it all parties to accurately report how long a task ‘actually took’, to set expectations if nothing else.

This means working more openly. Not documenting every minute detail, but giving your clients an opportunity to take a closer look at what you’re doing — being transparent. Think of it as collaboration rather than scrutiny; or a small team approach to large team workloads.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve flirted with different collaboration platforms — basically anything I can use for free. Skype’s a godsend for chatting to people. Slack too. And I couldn’t function without Google Docs. I’ve used tools like Trello, Asana, and Basecamp, to keep track of activity, but Favro’s kanban-style layout and the power apps it comes with, really help me streamline how to best attack the fun and operational stuff.

Using tools like these, I can essentially curate my own chaos, assured that everything I need to know is about any piece of client activity is here — somewhere. I can quickly discover exactly what needs to be done by when, and keep track of who I’m waiting on for approval, and what’s been assigned to me, so it’s great for teams too.

favro planning board

Ultimately, if every single piece of work can be broken down into a series of actions, then by Jove, break it down. And by keeping a record of each action, you’ll or your team will never* lose sight of the overall purpose of what you’re trying to achieve, because everything you’re doing contributes to it. Running a well-oiled machine is hard — as an agency or as a freelancer — no doubt about that. But if, like me you find your headspace is increasingly limited, then taking a new approach to how you do business just might help you work better.

*Ok, let’s go with ‘rarely’. Or just ‘sometimes’.