Why (and How) We Should be Hacking Marketing

Do you feel like you’re “juggling an explosion of digitally powered interactions in a tornado of constant change?”

Are you struggling with “continuously changing requirements. Rapidly evolving technology. Mounting complexity. And demanding stakeholders who [have] little appreciation for those difficulties”?

Ya, me too.

Scott Brinker’s new book Hacking Marketing: Agile Practices to Make Marketing Smarter, Faster, and More Innovative, feels our pain.

Although primarily focused on marketing management, this resource is packed full of inspirational passages, timely tips, and the kind of “why didn’t I think of that?!” moments that marketers need to break out of our daily grinds.

Scott argues that marketers aren’t the first to experience these feelings of struggling against mighty forces outside our control. Software development has been around this block, and they brought back a lot of really good ideas.

Hacking Marketing lays these ideas out in a way that’s concise and easy to follow while still going into sufficient depth to be convincing. And, as a bonus, it’s cleverly written and massively fun to read.
These are, in my opinion, some of the most vital takeaways, but don’t take my word for it. Go read it and share your own reactions in the comments.

Creating Clarity Around “Hacking” Marketing

Scott draws a good deal of his definition of hacking from “The Hacker Way,” a section of Facebook’s S-1 registration in which Mark Zuckerberg provided an explanation of how his company would continually evolve in the future.

Some of the key components of this mini-manifesto:

  • “Hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done.”
  • “Hackers try to build the best services over the long term by quickly releasing and learning from smaller iterations rather than trying to get everything right all at once.”
  • “Instead of debating for days whether a new idea is possible or what the best way to build something is, hackers would rather just prototype something and see what works.”
  • “The Hacker Way is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration. Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it.”
  • It’s an important point that gets at the heart of what Scott is trying to do in this book. Hacking marketing doesn’t mean sneaking in through the back and messing things up. It means getting more small things done fast and then doing them all better.

Scott’s definition:

The bad kind of hacking breaks into systems. The good kind makes new inventions — in fast, fluid, and fun ways. It imagines what’s possible, figures out clever ways to realize those ideas within the tangle of real-world constraints, and above all, celebrates the courage to try, think, and learn.

The Marketing/Software Intersection

There are several important ways that software and marketing have been colliding in recent years.

  1. Both rely on a combination of creativity and intellectual prowess to succeed in producing remarkable experiences.
  2. The explosion of marketing automation tools and other marketing-specific software has caused individual marketers to act more and more like software developers themselves.
  3. Digital marketing has created the capability for marketing to respond in near real-time, and people inside and outside our organizations expect that we’ll be doing that.

If all of this sounds both exciting and terrifying, you’re not alone. As Scott puts it in his introduction, it’s both a fascinating and dizzying time to be a marketer.

Fortunately for us, we aren’t alone.

We’re actually newcomers to these digital dynamics; software developers and IT professionals have been here for a while:

As the world’s very first digital professionals, they’ve been wrestling with how to manage digital dynamics for longer than most marketers have…We can learn from the experience of software developers and IT, borrow ideas they’ve forged in the digital fire that are relevant to our own challenges today, and adapt them to suit marketing’s unique characteristics.

Fallout From the Digitization of Marketing

It’s important to realize that, according to Scott, taking these lessons from software management isn’t really optional for marketing. He argues that around 2012, we passed the tipping point and are now a fully digital profession, regardless of whether or not we market any type of technology.

We are now dealing with the one-two punch of “accelerating tempo and growing complexity” that comes from the speed, adaptability, adjacency, scale, and precision of the digital world.

While we certainly can use predigital management practices to try and handle this sort of juggling in a tornado world, Scott likens this to, “trying to fly a plane by reading the driver’s manual for a car. Yes, they’re both transportation, but you’re dealing with a different set of levers and gauges — and some very different physics.”

Given the massive explosion of marketing-specific technology out there, laying the groundwork to achieve this on a technical level is relatively easy. What’s challenging, and why we should be embracing the hacker mindset, is reducing “unnecessary organizational constraints to take maximum advantage of digital malleability.”
Can we leave behind our legacy approaches and charge bravely into a marketing approach and corporate culture that makes all of this possible? Scott’s call to marketing management is that they must do so or perish.

Managing Changes to Marketing Management

Once again, however, we don’t need to figure out how to manage on our own in the digital world. Scott argues that there are, “successful, digitally native management concepts from the software community that modern marketers could borrow and adapt to conquer their own digital dragons.”

The risk of not doing so?

Running a digital profession by the rules of nondigital management imposes artificial limits on what we can do and lead to organization dissonance.

The issue that sometimes comes up with managers on agile teams, however, is the focus on getting things done faster. If we’re planning things in cycles that are three times smaller than our old year-long marketing plans, things should be happening three times as fast!

But really speed isn’t the panacea for marketing teams.

Scott’s argument is that management’s cadence is really holding most of us back:

It’s not the speed of activities individuals perform that is our bottleneck. If everyone in your company were suddenly able to type twice as fast, that wouldn’t double your responsiveness in the market…Our challenges with speed are at a higher level. What we really need to accelerate is our cadence of management — how we determine which activities we’re working on as an organization, to be able to nimbly adjust where and how we’re targeting our energy. Primarily, we want faster feedback loops, with the ability to update our plans fluidly based on what we learn.

That might be what most of us want, but I also want to eat cookies for dinner and have six pack abs. What can we actually do about it?

4 Facets of Modern Marketing Management

Fortunately Scott doesn’t leave us at the theory level. He spends a huge amount of the book diving into very specific, tactical ways to make all of this happen in our departments.

The last four sections of the book focus on what he calls the “four major facets of modern marketing management — agility, innovation, scalability, and talent — and describe a collection of software-inspired ideas to help us better harness digital dynamics in each of them.”

For individual marketers who aren’t running departments,

there’s still a lot of value to be found in these sections, especially if you’re looking for new ways to bring a more agile approach to your team.

Getting to Agility

Not surprisingly given my serious love for agile marketing, the section on agility was my favorite.

Scott’s reminder that while “it’s nice to aspire to be agile — as a generic synonym of nimble — to actually achieve that agility requires concrete changes to the way we operate…What will make tomorrow different form yesterday? The fearless pursuit of answers to that question is the essence of the hacker spirit.”
With data coming in from every direction, reactive marketing is very common. The problem with this approach is that it causes us to shift our priorities even when we don’t realize it.

By responding instantly to changing conditions, we’re choosing not to continue what we were doing before that change happened. If we do this without considering the possible fallout, we risk creating more and more urgent and unexpected issues.

I want to print this out as a poster and hang it over my desk: “Just because an organization reacts quickly doesn’t mean it’s agile.”

When we routinely give in to knee-jerk marketing:

it degrades its ability to execute well-thought-out plans in an efficient and coordinated fashion. It becomes, as a software developer would say, “interrupt driven.” That’s not agility. That’s management by crisis.

Our plans are important but adaptable.

What Agility Looks Like

More effectively than any pretty much any other resource I’ve seen, Hacking Marketing gets deep into the “how” of agile marketing.

Scott goes through the entire process, providing detailed examples of:

  • A marketing Kanban board
  • How to visualize your particular workflow
  • Using customer stores (a.k.a. user stories) to drive marketing campaigns
  • What an agile environment looks like
  • Striking the balance between strategy, quality, and agility

Let’s Get Hacking

Whether you’re already on an agile marketing team or you’re looking for your next testable iteration, this book is for you.

There is no better argument I’ve seen for upper management and executives to get on board with agile, and the sections covering how individuals thrive in agile environments can help bring around any doubters in your midst.

The only constant in modern marketing is change, but Scott offers us a way to manage, mitigate, and even embrace the different.

“What will make tomorrow different from yesterday? The fearless pursuit of answers to that question is the essence of the hacker spirit.”


MarketerGizmo book overviews aren’t like your typical book reviews. It’s our goal to help you understand the central premise and takeaways of marketing-related books so you can decide whether or not to read the whole thing yourself.

Have a particular question about Hacking Marketing? Ask us in the comments!

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Andrea Fryrear
About the Author:

Andrea Fryrear

Andrea loves to dissect marketing buzzwords and fads looking for the pearls of wisdom at their cores. Her favorite topic is agile marketing, which she believes holds the key to a more fulfilling (and less stressful) marketing career for individuals and a more powerful marketing department for business. When not scrutinizing the latest agile methodologies, Andrea can be found on the volleyball court, at the park with her two delightful kids, or baking “calorie-free” cookies. Connect with her on Twitter @AndreaFryrear, or on LinkedIn.

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