Why 2014 will be the year of the growth hacker

Barrie SeppingsIn this guest post, Barrie Seppings suggests that 2014 will be the year that agencies start trying to figure out how to charge clients for ‘growth hackers’ – a hybrid marketer, strategist and coder. 

A couple of years ago, agencies went bananas for creative technologists. Everybody started hiring them (except Wieden + Kennedy, apparently) and so lots of people started adding that title to their LinkedIn profiles.

More recently, agencies have been creating customer experience roles. These are often based on more traditional user-experience skillsets, blown out to encompass more of the real-world touchpoints where customers meet and experience the brand, including call centres, retail environments, live chat, user groups, social networks and so on. Again, lots of people with related skills are recasting themselves with this title.

Here’s a prediction: agencies will spend 2014 hiring ‘growth hackers’

This job title is quickly emerging from start-up land, where it was originally coined by Sean Ellis in a post on his Startup Marketing blog. Growth Hacking originally described the low-to-no budget art and science of attracting new users to a brand new web-based start-up. Ellis describes a growth hacker as “someone whose true north is growth. Everything they do is scrutinized by its potential impact on scalable growth.”

Now the term is stretching and morphing to describe the pursuit of customer growth, to the exclusion of all other business-related pursuits.

They’re part marketer, part coder, part strategist and all do-er. Growth hackers don’t learn to do, they learn by doing. They embrace that ‘fail fast, fail cheaply’ attitude to in-market experimentation. Instead of talking a lot about agile/scrum/lean/bootstrapping methodologies, growth hackers just fire up a browser, whip out the credit card and code together some existing services to create a new mini-machine for growth – one that can be switched off as soon as it stops firing.

Most importantly growth hacking is the newest skillset to emerge from startup land. Like most cool, new things born out of startups, ad agencies will soon want some of that action.

Another prediction: agencies will spend 2014 trying to figure out how to charge brands for ‘hacking growth’.

This will be the tricky bit. A lot of brands will probably sit in the agency boardroom and listen to the growth hacker pitch, take a long, deliberate pause and then ask, in varying degrees of politeness: “Then what the heck have I been paying for all this time?”

The other problem will be that true growth hacking is characterised by its lack of budget. Many claim that this lack of working dollars are precisely the precursor chemicals required for the bootstrapped, agile, bare knuckles marketing innovation (the ‘hacks’) that are the most valuable product of growth hacking. Agencies are generally unfamiliar, if not downright uncomfortable, recommending their clients don’t give them wads of cash.

Hacking your growth to spite your agency model

Growth hacking is lashed irrevocably to the mast of performance – everything is obsessively tracked and relentlessly analysed. When growth hacking starts emerging as a practice in large, established agencies, some parts of the business are going to be very familiar with this level of accountability (media, social) and some less so (creative, strategy). By contrast, newer, smaller agencies constructed of a small, senior team supported by an agency operating system will be, by definition, growth hacker agencies.

Another potential hiccup is individual agency, with a small ‘a’. Agency-side growth hackers will need authority to act and access to the tools that allow them to do so. Can they speak or act on behalf of the brand? Can they download a new app without needing IT to unlock their machine? Do they need finance to pre-approve a subscription or software purchase? This procedural stuff is not trivial.

Speed is critical for growth hacking to be effective – under-exploited APIs have a limited lifespan as viable hacks. If you’ve got to make a pretty powerpoint and wade through rounds of meetings with the VP of No, the opportunity you want to hack might have already evaporated. By way of example, Airbnb famously ‘hacked’ Craigslist to get to build its own critical mass, now that hack has been shut down.

Prepare for the growth hack hype-o-thon

One of the clear indicators the growth hacking is not quite ready for big-brand prime time is the dearth of method and repeatability. This will be a fine line: too much process will kill the creativity at the heart of growth hacking but, like social before it, some commonly accepted tools and best practices will have to emerge before it moves out of the garage.

Agencies are very familiar with creating processes and methodologies and frameworks, then packaging them to create perceived value. I have no doubt this will happen. I have no doubt it will also inspire the growth hacking backlash.

How agencies might get it right

Leaving cynical re-branding aside for a moment, I definitely see a place for growth hacking thinking, services, teams and talent, delivered within a traditional agency structure and applied to specific projects for established brands.

Think: new product launches; land-grab new market entries; activation campaigns; aggressive, short-term competitive plays.

Neil Patel is a leading educator in the growth hacking scene and he doesn’t see the role staying in startup-land for long, either.

The part that makes me, on balance, optimistic about the rise of the role of growth hacker is that it could offer a valid hybrid role for people who don’t fall into rigid definitions and job descriptions, yet still enjoy working alongside talented specialists on big brands to create things with genuine commercial impact. Agencies still have a chance at remaining one of the best places to do that from.

Barrie Seppings is creative director, IBM growth markets, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide. He also writes his own blog, w2fm. Follow him on Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+.

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