An Inside Look at One Bank’s Agile Marketing Transformation


Process optimization has been a hot topic among marketers in the banking sector for quite some time. Then, as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted in-person visits and sent everyone home, the importance of transforming ways of working to boost agility simply couldn’t be ignored. The ability to respond quickly was no longer a nice to have; it was vital to cope with the uncertainty that became part of marketers’ daily work lives.

To achieve that shift, a growing number of industry leaders in the financial sector have been turning to the use of Agile frameworks inside marketing, also known as Agile marketing. The 4th Annual State of Agile Marketing Report that came out in the spring of 2021 revealed that 18 percent of the marketers employed in the sector have adopted one or more Agile frameworks, and 51 percent of marketers overall have done the same.

M&T Bank Corporation is among that pioneering group. They’re well on their way to transforming into a truly Agile marketing department. They’ve graciously agreed to share their story for those looking to follow in their footsteps, and chances are it’ll sound familiar. After struggling with tangled lines of communication, conflicting priorities and overworked employees, they’ve already begun to reap the benefits of their agility in the form of faster time to market and a closer connection to their customers.

M&T’s Marketing Before Agile
Before setting out on the path toward marketing agility, M&T had a role called a relationship manager (RM) that connected marketing with the business. The RMs were aligned with different targeted lines of business, typically a specific product or a customer base.

They would work with the business lines to determine what campaigns need to be run, what emails need to be sent—basically, whatever the business needed. Then, RMs would coordinate with various roles within marketing communications to get the work completed.

They would reach out to a data analyst here, a copywriter there, and so on, to get the job done. This created what their Senior Digital Program Manager Zach Meixner calls, “a spaghetti-like situation” as RMs scrambled to connect with resources all over the marketing organization.

To add to the complexity and inefficiency of this already complex and inefficient situation, most groups were actually using different tools to track and organize their work (if they were using any tool at all).

In this jumble, prioritization was virtually impossible. Certain teams had requests coming in from a number of RMs, and even teams outside of marketing. Basically, every request was the highest priority to someone, so there wasn’t any overarching prioritization framework for anyone to turn to.

Because of this fragmented point of view, teamwork wasn’t as good as it could be. Many people were working on a project or campaign, and they would do their work and their work only. There was never much collaboration among the doers across the different pieces of the campaign. Due to the lack of a prioritization mechanism, whoever was the loudest among the RMs got their work done first.

As Meixner explains, “we heard things like ‘this is the highest priority to senior management,’ ‘this is a regulatory requirement’,” basically anything to get their request pushed to the top of the pile.

“Sometimes they were, but sometimes it was just a lack of planning. And then, more often than we care to think, a lot of our resources had multiple things in flight at once,” he continues.

In reality, everyone wanted to be able to tell the stakeholders that their work was in progress. This essentially just resulted in huge amounts of context switching and jumping from task to task throughout the day, which is enormously inefficient

The bottom line is that under M&T’s old marketing framework, team members were not as effective as they could have been. In addition, management couldn’t ensure that the highest priority work was getting done. There was a lot of motion, but little progress.

The Beginning of the Transformation
What really triggered the organizational transformation of M&T’s marketing operations was the arrival of several senior leaders. They had previously worked in Agile environments and knew the benefits of operating that way.

With their incentive, the company started its Agile journey. Understanding that a big bang transformation was less likely to be effective, they chose several changes to implement at the beginning. They emphasized embracing the Agile mindset, as well as adding specific Agile ceremonies, and then focused on making the pace of work sustainable.

Their early efforts were successful, making progress in solving the biggest process issues they had. But they still needed to address the structure of the marketing teams.

Evolving Team Structure
Achieving agility in marketing is a little bit different than in other types of work, because it can be difficult to keep all the members of the team busy all the time.

Like other Agile marketing departments, M&T had serious difficulty managing the capacity of their people. According to Meixner, “there were groups that ran a very specific campaign every fall. That very specific campaign needed a very specific role to be completed, but there’s nothing really for that person to do on that team for the other nine months of the year.”

To solve this and other similar problems, M&T used a Center of Excellence (CoE) model.

What is the Center of Excellence?
The essence of the CoE model lies in creating service groups within marketing that support the other marketing teams within the organization.

“We don’t take an existing team and figure out what they can do, we determine how it makes the most sense to break up the work and then build the team around that,” says Meixner.

“We target trying to build the teams to complete about 80 percent of the scope of their work. So now how do we get that other 20 percent? Well, that’s what the centers of excellence come in. So these are groups of shared services that essentially work in a factory model.”

If a team needs help with a creative piece of work, they put in a request to the creative services CoE. There, it’s prioritized in their backlog, assigned to a person with the needed skills, and that person joins the requesting team in a temporary capacity.

If that team has enough work to keep creative resources busy for an entire year, then management does everything in their power to actually assign a designer to that team as a full time member.

This way the team wouldn’t need to submit requests to the creative service CoE, because they’d already have that skill set embedded.

M&T’s marketing department has several different CoEs, and this area is continuing to evolve as their transformation matures. However, marketing leaders always ensure that there’s enough capacity in the CoEs to keep the system running smoothly. The exact composition of the CoEs depends on a blend of factors, including what the teams are built around doing, how many people are available, and the demands of customers and the market.

M&T Bank’s Approach to Agile Marketing
Everyone that was placed on an Agile team was trained in the fundamentals of Agile marketing through a transformation partnership with AgileSherpas. The marketers got acquainted with the ceremonies, the roles, the practices and the thinking that needed to make this new way of working successful.

M&T also received leadership-specific training for upper-level managers so they could understand their role in the transformation journey.

Then, they embedded AgileSherpas coaches to guide the organizational transformation, adjust the things that teams were doing to operate more efficiently, and help them solve issues that came up.

Most marketing teams at M&T rely on the Scrum framework to manage their work. Within that framework, most also operate in two-week sprints. On the other hand, the service CoEs are working in more of a Kanban model, because they have continuous requests coming in. This hybridization of frameworks is a common hallmark of Agile marketing in particular.

When new work originates, it gets assigned to the permanent, cross-functional teams. They’re at liberty to work with the stakeholders to prioritize everything in the team’s backlog. Since the individuals within each team work together, they are now able to collaborate closely with the stakeholders and to focus on the highest priority work. They exchange feedback often on what they’re doing, which results in higher-quality work that gets done faster.

It is important to point out that enterprise strategy remains the responsibility of senior marketing leadership. They continue to set priorities and align with larger organizational objectives. But execution plans—the way those priorities will be achieved—are now developed by the teams themselves. This allows them to better manage their own capacity and eliminates the context switching problems that plagued individual contributors in the pre-Agile days.

The New Way of Prioritizing Work
Focus and speed are only possible with careful prioritization, and M&T has found a prioritization approach that works well for them. To start, marketing leaders prioritize large bodies of work that they call epics. Each epic is then broken down into user stories: smaller activities that all need to be completed for the epic to get done.

This wasn’t the first attempt, however. “Initially, we just gave each team a backlog of a whole bunch of individual stories. That can get pretty overwhelming,” says Meixner.

To avoid that feeling of a work avalanche, management started to prioritize epics first, then repeat with the user stories within each epic. If need be, they go to the backlog and make adjustments to individual stories.

This two-part prioritization system now allows the marketing teams at M&T to prioritize work effectively while still responding to changes efficiently.

Agile Planning within the Marketing Organization
There’s a common misconception that agility and planning don’t belong together, but that’s simply not true. To boost their marketing agility, M&T changed the way they plan work as well as how they execute. Instead of preparing detailed annual marketing plans that are out of date the moment they’re released, they now put together a tentative plan for each quarter. This enables them to analyze the performance of previous cycles of work and adapt accordingly. The data they collect during each quarter provides powerful planning inputs and makes them more responsive.

In the short term, they only plan for 50-75 percent of the capacity for each particular sprint during these quarterly planning sessions. The rest of the work is added during the sprint kickoff meeting.

“We are still working on planning, getting quarterly planning even better, even getting our sprint planning better. Although there’s still room for improvement, we’re really proud of how this mechanism is working,” says Meixner.

The Impact of COVID-19 on M&T’s Marketing Transformation
M&T’s marketing transformation started before the pandemic. Still, COVID-19 had a noteworthy impact.

First of all, it made it incredibly difficult to form teams. “We couldn’t co-locate our teams. They couldn’t sit side by side. They couldn’t have the sticky notes up on the wall, like every other organization on the planet. We had to work virtually and live in WebEx,” Meixner says.

The second major pandemic effect was that it made the effective use of digital project management tools much more critical. Jira quickly became the source of truth for all the teams and all the work they are doing. Now their mantra is that if work isn’t in Jira, it doesn’t exist.

Following in M&T Bank’s Footsteps
Unlocking agility has become a major prerequisite for achieving marketing success in 2021. It enables organizations in the financial sector to do more with less effort and adapt to changing circumstances with less difficulty.

M&T is a fantastic example of the problems marketers in the industry face and the ways that agility helps mitigate those pain points. They walked a long road to agility, and their journey continues. But they’re living proof that Agile marketing works in the financial services world.

Want to learn more? Hear the full story of M&T Bank’s Agile transformation as told by Zach Meixner, along with insight from the makers of the Jira tool that helped untangle their spaghetti workflows, and the trainers at AgileSherpas that helped it all come together in this on-demand webinar.