Interview with Stephen Brent May – His Agile Marketing Journey

Stephen Brent May and Hami Arrington of Houston marketing agency, One Foot Over, are photographed April 17, 2018 at Lindstrom Studios. Nathan Lindstrom Photography ©2018 Nathan Lindstrom

Today’s post is an interview with Stephen Brent May about his years of real-world experience with Agile Marketing.  We spoke earlier this week…

For starters Stephen, why don’t you give a little background about yourself?

Alright. I’m Stephen Brent May. I live in Houston, Texas but I’m originally from West Virginia, born and raised. I started my marketing career in restaurant and hospitality marketing working for boutique hotels. That turned into to a sales position during the economic downturn. Once I moved to Houston I knew I wanted to get back on the marketing side, and I ended up at a software company called cPanel. cPanel is a web hosting automation platform used by web hosting providers around the world to help people manage servers and web hosting accounts.

That was my career in a nutshell until about a year ago when I decided the next move for me was going out on my own. I met someone who ended up being my business partner, and we started our inbound agency about a year ago. That’s how I went from small town West Virginia hotel marketer to Houston, Texas agency owner.

If I’m not mistaken, the new agency that you’ve started is called One Foot Over and your partner is Hami Arrington.  And that’s been going on for almost a year now, correct? 

Yes. We officially started the company in April 2017, but we were doing a lot of the background stuff to get things off the ground before then. We put feelers out there for clients and saw what the situation was in the market. By that October we’d gotten so busy that it was going to be impossible for me to keep trying to build it as a business on the side. So I left cPanel in mid-October and One Foot Over became my full-time job.

It took off faster than we expected. It’s very lucky that it ended up that way, but that’s how we got here.

Hey, nice problem to have – growing faster than expected! And I saw that you are both actively involved with the AMA in Houston.

That’s right.  I’ve actually been involved with the American Marketing Association in Houston since 2011 as a volunteer and joined the board of directors in 2012. Our fiscal year runs from July to June and about three weeks ago I started my term as the President of the Houston chapter. It’s actually how Hami and I met. She was asked to be on the board several years ago when she first moved to Houston from Atlanta. We ended up working together on co-chairing our big awards gala here in Houston.

That experience of working together was how we ended up having a lot of conversations and decided that being business partners made sense for us.

That’s great and congratulations by the way on your position as President.

Thank you.

You and I first met back in February of 2014 when the cPanel marketing team came to my Agile Marketing training class in Washington DC.

Yes, it was an interesting journey for us as a team. Working in a company that’s very focused on development, the company had already been using Scrum for software development. At that time, I think they were about two years into their adoption of Scrum for software development and there was a lot of turnover, especially from the management side in marketing.

We started looking at what we could do to improve efficiency in marketing. What we could do to increase the value, the transparency, all those things. I forget how the initial research started into using Agile for marketing as opposed to a traditional marketing management or marketing framework. It was presented probably the first time around October of 2013. There was a director or marketing manager at the time who was very opposed to the idea.

Needless to say, he didn’t last much longer. After his departure the conversation really picked up again. We brought a couple people in to just casually talk about using Agile methodologies for the marketing department. Those conversations were very loose, and there wasn’t a lot of structure to them. We continued the research and found the training class that you were running and said, “Hey let’s try it. It’s working for development. It’s greatly improved their output and their efficiency, so let’s give it a shot.”

We registered for the class and all headed to DC. I think what worked well was that we also had our boss with us, who was a C-level executive. So we already had that buy-in from the top, sitting in the class with us because he wanted to understand what we were learning and he had bought into the process and bought into the idea.

That’s one of the things that makes a big difference when companies or departments are looking at adopting an Agile methodology, is whether you have that buy-in from the top.  And he had very honest conversations with us that this is something he wanted us all to try. We’ve got to try it for six months to a year. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.  But he at least wanted us to make the effort to try this inside of the department.

We were still doing it when I left, and the team is still operating as an Agile Marketing team.

Wow, that’s great! Going on four-plus years.  Do you remember how you got started once you came home from the training?

I remember that. I think we came back from the boot camp in February and I think we got started the second week of March. We spent a couple more weeks building the backlog and getting things ready, but I think it was less than a month before we really kicked off with it.

It’s a funny story because I remember our first sprint vividly. We had a Scrum Master who was an experienced Scrum Master inside of the company. He actually worked on one of the software development teams, and they assigned him to the marketing team as our Scrum Master and I was the product owner.  I was going into it looking for a lot of guidance, and I was leaning on our Scrum Master for that. He did a really good job, but he was trying to help us break things down in the way that a software development team would do it.

So one of the first projects we were working on was redesigning our job site. It was a separate subdomain from with its own look and feel because we really wanted it to showcase the internal culture of the company. We went about redesigning it and we started with the home page. I remember in that first sprint the user stories were broken down so granular. The navigation bar was a user story, the hero slider at the top was a user story, the “Why work at cPanel?” section was its own user story.

I struggled with it as a product owner because it did not make sense to me to break it down that way. And the team was looking for more from the acceptance criteria or the definition of done – they said it wasn’t specific enough. I was trying to dig in and find out what kind of specifics they needed, and they said, “Well it doesn’t say what font we have to use for this or what color this has to be.”

I said, “Well if that’s what you all want, you’re designers -you still need to be the experts in this. I can’t tell you what size the font should be or how much spacing.”  I was thinking there has to be some level of decision making there.  But there was a lot of confusion about whether to just give someone a list of things to check off versus a high level “here’s the value we’re trying to deliver” type of direction. So that first two-week sprint was very contentious, and everyone was like, “Umm, this isn’t working for me.”

We determined from that first sprint that the user stories were too granular, and we should probably be looking at the website a page at a time.  And we had estimated that our first page was going to take our team of five people two full weeks. But by the end of the first two weeks we were sitting around twiddling our thumbs and we didn’t have anything left to do, so we were really getting our footing.

Our first sprint was probably one of the worst work experiences for our team. We all came out of it thinking, “Oh my god this is horrible.” Which is funny because we laughed about it for the next several years after that. It was one of those lessons where as we went into the next sprint and the next sprint, we truly did what Agile teams do: we figured out what the ideal user story size was for our team, how much flexibility the team needed versus how specific the acceptance criteria needed to be for the team to really feel like they had what they needed to succeed, and we figured out how much we could actually put into each sprint.

Do you recall how long it was before you felt comfortable with it?

It wasn’t a long time, probably about six months in when we collectively felt we really hit our stride, it was really starting to click, and things seemed to be working, meaning we had a good cadence and we had a good idea of how much work we could pull in. It didn’t take us as long as I think some people thought it would.

What were some of the benefits that you started to experience once you hit your stride?

Before we had moved to using an Agile Marketing framework there was a lot of project creep and scope creep and a consistent barrage of:

“Oh, we need this!”

“Marketing needs to do this, and can you do this too?”

“We need that for next week, but can you still work this in really quick?”

It was like we were spinning our wheels and never actually getting anything done because we were constantly moving on to start the next thing.

Our project management system before this was essentially built of tasks. There’d be times when there’d be over 200 things in there that needed to be done, and people were just trying to find the ones that were the easy wins they could check-off to feel like they were getting something accomplished.

When we switched to and started getting good at it, we were finishing things and we were finishing things that had a lot more value. And when other departments asked for things, like designing a t-shirt for front-office staff, we were able to say the business value in that compared to other work, like redesigning the company website, was really low. While we can add it to the backlog, the chances of us doing it are slim to none.

I would say moving to Agile Marketing was harder on the rest of the company than it was for our team.  Before we did that, there was a lot of BS work that the team ended up doing that’s not really happening anymore. It stopped because we were actually able to say “no we can’t do that because we’re doing this” and you could see what we’re working on.  Building in that transparency gave us that ability to say “no” to things that weren’t valuable to the company as a whole.  Before, it was just like “yeah we’ll add it to the list”, and whoever was the loudest usually got their work done.

Yep, that last part probably sounds oddly familiar for a lot of people.

I still hear stories from people that end up doing stuff like that and they spend a lot of their time creating t-shirts and posters and I know there’s something out there that can help them fix this.

Were the people outside of marketing noticing how this benefited the business?

Yes, I think so. One of the things that happened, and I think the timing was perfect, was the redesign of the cPanel website.  At that point, it was 2014 going into 2015, the website was about three years old, but that version of the site took about two years to build. So realistically the site was four to five years old.  So it was time for the company website to get redesigned and completely rewritten from the ground up.

After we’d hit our stride and we’d done smaller projects like our annual conference site and our job site, taking on the company website still seemed like a huge undertaking. I remember we started in early November and, I still remember the specific date, we launched the site on March 24th, 2015. It took us less than six months where previously it took over two years. To me that was one of one of our biggest Agile marketing successes, the way we were able to complete that project in such an efficient manner.  And then also turn around and show results and say here’s how the previous site performed, and here’s how the new site is performing.

The fact that we were holding demos, explaining user experience research to people, and showing the data that went into making the decisions about the design changes and about the content changes – the whole company got to see this in a new way.  It wasn’t just “here’s what we think and here’s our idea”, we were making these decisions based on research and data.

To me that’s still one of the biggest successes and it’s the example I use when I explain to people how much more efficient and how much more valuable your marketing team can be by adopting an Agile mindset.

That’s a fantastic example. I also noticed in 2015 you spoke about Agile Marketing at conferences. Tell me more about those experiences.

We were always trying to figure out ways for cPanel to get on stage at events and we had seen such good results from it that we decided to talk about it. When we were sponsoring conferences or when we were attending conferences, they would reach out and ask if cPanel wanted to speak about anything. We pitched the idea of Agile Marketing and they said it’s a great idea.

We got a lot of really good responses from it. The thing that was exciting about it was that the concept of Agile was not unfamiliar within the hosting industry because there’s so much development that goes on there. A lot of these companies are already familiar with the concepts of Agile and Scrum.

So when they heard about it being used for marketing, there were a lot of other people within the hosting and web infrastructure world that asked if we’d be willing to answer questions about it or talk to their marketing teams about how they can do it. I answered a lot of questions for people and there’s at least two other companies in the web hosting space that I know adopted an Agile framework for their marketing departments because of what they saw cPanel do and talk about.

Wow, that’s great evangelism!

I even talked about it at local AMA events and it was interesting to see some of the companies that were interested in it, from marketing departments of four or five people all the way up to large marketing departments where they had 50 employees. It helped when I gave real world examples. You can give people facts and figures and their minds are wired to just see those numbers and think “oh, well that’s interesting.”

But when you give them a story, an example with a narrative wrapped around it, then people can really see how that could work. Anytime I’ve had a chance to give real world examples versus facts and figures, that’s when people really seem to take to it and want to learn more about it.

You mentioned before that cPanel is still using Agile Marketing. Has this carried over into your new agency, One Foot Over?

One of the questions that always comes up when I talk to people about Agile Marketing was whether it can work for an agency. It’s a lot more difficult to be on agency side, trying to tell your clients everything is going to be done in a two week sprint while we’re trying to fit in X number of clients within those two weeks.

What we did was take the approach and restructured it in a way that worked for us and how we approach our clients. We’re not going in and creating 12-month marketing strategies and marketing plans.  Because what’s true in January may not be true in December, and it may not even be true in April. We break it down and say, “Let’s look at everything in 90-day sprints so that we can launch, measure and iterate, and at the end of 90 days let’s take a look at what worked, what didn’t. Let’s amplify what worked, let’s iterate on what didn’t work and launch the next 90 days.”

While it’s not as traditional as a two-week sprint, it’s still taking a framework and a structure that I know works, and making it fit inside of the agency model for working with clients. We also have clients that work using Kanban or Scrum within their marketing department. We’re on the phone with them every two weeks for their sprint meeting, for example, and we follow along with their board and even add our tasks to their board so they have transparency of what we’re doing on the agency side while they’re working on things internally.

We’ve really tried to adapt the approach and make it work for us and more importantly for our clients.

That’s interesting and it makes sense. For the clients used to the annual marketing plans, getting them to shift to a 90 day or quarterly cadence is still a big improvement, and then for the ones that are used to dealing with almost constant change like a Kanban flow of work, it sounds like you’re able to meet them where they’re at and do more frequent collaboration with them.

Internally do you guys manage the work within One Foot Over on a particular cadence?

We do to an extent. We operate internally with a Kanban system, and we use a project management tool called Hive. We have it set up in the typical four column format of To Do, In Progress, In Review, and Done. We try to manage all our work that way, our client work and our own marketing. As you know, as a business owner, marketing your own business is the thing that tends to happen last but it needs to get done.

Understood, and it’s interesting you mentioned Kanban. That seems to be something growing in popularity over the last couple years with Agile Marketing teams and also with software teams. 

There were times at cPanel where it felt like we would try to fit things into a sprint that weren’t necessarily a good fit, especially our annual user conference. Because our event planner was on the marketing team, we were responsible for marketing and executing the conference all the way down to planning travel and event venues for everything.  Trying to make that fit within the framework was probably our biggest struggle.

What worked for us was to manage that using a Kanban approach where we were pulling some things into the To Do column for a sprint based on the hard deadline on it.   We knew event planning was very deadline-driven, so not everything could be written as a user story delivering value but you had to get it done or else you wouldn’t have a venue on August 21st.

There were times when we had to adapt the approach a little bit to make things work. That was one of the things we talked through as a team, we figured out how to make it work for us, and we ended up producing successful conferences at the same time that we were launching websites and creating marketing campaigns.

Looking back, I’m sure that’s probably one of many things that you learned along the way that you weren’t expecting when you started out. What else has been surprising or unexpected in hindsight?

Honestly, the most surprising thing for me was how things turned out anytime we decided to abandon the process. If we had a lot of travel, the entire team is going to a conference, whatever the reason was, we’d decide to not do a sprint that week. We knew we had things on the board that needed to get done, but we’d decided to not officially follow the process. We’d wait and hold-off on starting the next sprint until the following week.

It was surprising just how inefficient people were and how nothing seemed to get done that week. There was no accountability anymore. We were still a team, and even though we didn’t have things formally in a sprint, we could still see what each other was doing. So it was really interesting and funny to me that once the process went away for even three or four days, things just went to crap. It was surprising how quickly it fell apart when we walked away from the process we had gotten used to.

That is definitely a valuable insight. Things can slide back into chaos pretty quickly.  What else struck you looking back?

Another thing was that the team had been through several managers before moving to Agile Marketing, and they constantly and consistently refer to the time after adopting it as the most they’ve enjoyed working there and that this was the best team they’ve worked on. They actually felt like there was accountability for their work, versus before when there was never a way to say whether marketing was successful or not, there were no goals, and there were always a million things that had to get done.

Finally, at the end of every two weeks you had a group of people that could say we actually did this and we can measure it versus all the other things they’re asked to do.

It’s great to hear that people noticed and liked that new way of working that much more. On a similar vein of looking back, if there was one thing you could go back in time and say to the younger you, even back when you were in Virginia just getting started in marketing, what would it be?

You don’t have to know everything about everything and you’re not expected to be the marketing strategist, the copywriter, the graphic designer, and everything else too. Figure out what it is that you love doing and what you’re good at, and lean into that versus trying to be everything-marketing. You’re never going to be successful at everything-marketing. Figure out what part you’re passionate about, which part you’re good at, and really make that your career.

Sounds like good advice.

Hopefully. Maybe I’ll figure it out one day.

And at this point, now looking forward, what are you most interested in or what are you really excited about?

I love how technology has moved marketing forward. Houston is a really interesting place to be a marketer because we have a really robust marketing community here and we’ve got really talented and really smart marketing people, but we’re also the capital of oil & gas and healthcare. These two industries aren’t the fastest moving and progressive when it comes to adopting new marketing technologies. It’s a weird juxtaposition to be around so many smart marketers and be surrounded by industries that aren’t as fast moving compared to how fast marketing actually moves now. I’ve seen a lot of shifts over the last two to three years where you see oil and gas companies embracing the digital transformation and you see healthcare companies embracing new technology and trying to bring healthcare into the digital space.

We’ve got some really cool stuff now with TMCX at the Texas Medical Center and JLABS.  Seeing what’s happening there and how they’re embracing innovation in healthcare and marketing this technology, that’s really what’s exciting to me. Also, being a part of this community of marketing minds and how it’s embracing innovation in a city that hasn’t been considered the most innovative city in the country is exciting to me.

Well great, and I look forward to hopefully hearing more good news about what you’re doing and about what’s going on down in Houston.  Anything else you’d like to add, popped into your mind?

I specifically remember something you said at the training class.  And I always brought this up when we were talking about the conference stuff at cPanel.  You specifically said in your class about how event planning is probably the one thing that is hardest to fit into sprints for an Agile Marketing team. And I remembered that because it always rang true every time we were trying to fit event planning into our sprints.

Well, as impressed as I am thinking back about my own prescience, I’m glad to hear you guys found a way to make it work.

I would still say that that is a fair statement that event planning is not easy to do in sprints and it doesn’t naturally fit into it. I still stand by that, even though we made it work, it’s still a valid statement.

Hmm, I’ve got an idea for a future article… Thanks again for taking the time for this interview! It was great to hear about your journey and I look forward to hearing what new insights you’ve learned on the agency side. Best of luck with One Foot Over!

Thanks, Chris – it was good talking to you too.

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