In the well-known race scene in Lewis Carroll’s classic Through the Looking-Glass, the Red Queen tells Alice, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

Given the pace and pervasiveness of change happening everywhere around us — in technology, in culture, in business, in consumer behaviors and expectations, in media and more — I’d imagine that many marketers feel like they’re racing alongside the Red Queen in Looking-Glass world. Writing and rewriting marketing plans in a constant state of flux. Favoring near term wins over long term value. Adopting agile approaches from IT brethren. Darting from shiny object to shiny object. Whipping around flavor-of-the-moment blind spots only to stumble over competitors also turning the same corner. Jumping through hoops thrown across their paths by customers and by their own C-suite executives. Busy busy busy. It’s exhausting work and ultimately gets you nowhere. Fast.

I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date! You chase the White Rabbit and then — fwoop! — just like that, you’re tumbling head-over-heels down a very dark hole. (Yes, I know — that’s the other Alice book. Work with me, people.)

You could hardly be blamed for feeling a bit like a befuddled Alice who, having grown up in a world where doing “all the running you can do” generally gets you “to somewhere else,” can’t quite wrap her mind around this paradox. You’re doing all the things you’ve been told to do — social and mobile, video and apps, deals and gamification, this and that — but still you find yourself more or less exactly where you started. At the starting block and on par with just about everyone else. Panting from exertion as you stare quizzically at the Red Queen.

If an incident from literature frames the challenge, a theory from the world of evolutionary biology — inspired by the very same race scene, of course — may help shed some light on why it is a challenge. Dubbed the Red Queen’s Hypothesis or Red Queen Effect (those evolutionary biologists are a clever lot), this theory essentially states that “continuing adaptation is needed in order for a species to maintain its relative fitness amongst the systems being co-evolved with.”

Ah. Now We’re Getting Somewhere (wink)

Arguably, evolution in biological systems moves at a relative snail’s pace when benchmarked against the rate of today’s business revolution. Yet, in biology it is a species’ inability to adapt alongside co-evolving systems that drives those species’ to and — unless something changes — beyond the point of extinction. Clearly, failure to adapt to today’s evolving business environment will have (and indeed has had for businesses as diverse as Blockbuster and bailed-out automakers) the same effect.

But now, consider the fact that the forces shaping our business environment don’t roll forward at a slow, methodical crawl but sprint forward at breakneck speed, lurch side-to-side, occasionally double back then retake the lead again from behind. If you’re standing still, you’re falling behind. If you’re keeping pace, you’re still falling behind. You might survive but you will not thrive.

And Along Comes Agility

The agile movement got its start in the world of technology, where some developers shifted to a rough-and-ready continuous improvement process that favors frequent small changes over the more traditional, cumbersome waterfall process made up of phase after lengthy phase of discovery, documentation, design, coding, testing, and deployment just to get to a single release. More recently, some marketers have embraced a similar shift. As Mike Moran describes in a recent Biznology column, marketing has itself become more of a continuous improvement process that “is built around experimentation — try small cheap ideas and see if they work, rather that planning big expensive campaigns without knowing how successful they will be.” That sounds an awful lot like one of the theses I laid out in microMARKETING (which I like to think of as Through the Looking-Glass for big brands) a couple of years back, so you’d think I’d be one of agile marketing’s loudest advocates.

But here’s the rub…

Agility may bring speed, flexibility, and nimbleness. But by definition, agility is rooted in reaction. Agility is “the ability… to rapidly respond to change by adapting its initial stable configuration”, “a rapid… change of velocity or direction in response to a stimulus”, “the capability of rapidly and efficiently adapting to changes.” This is not a bad thing. Rapid response to change — keeping pace with the evolution of the systems that you’re co-evolving with (like media, the economy, the consumer population if you are of the marketer species) — is better than a sluggish response, and certainly far better than no response at all. Better than facing change with your eyes glued to the rearview mirror and one foot riding the brake. Proactive beats reactive. If your choice lies between doing what you should have done yesterday and doing everything you could be doing today, I’d like to think the decision is obvious and agile marketing is an engine for evolution.

That said: While it might allow you to be the ball (Danny), it probably won’t put you ahead of the ball. It might set you off running but, just like Alice in the Red Queen’s Race (full circle, people), doing all the running you can do just to keep pace isn’t the same as getting ahead. And in the end, you’ll probably find yourself in the same relative position. A position of parity.

There is no advantage in just keeping up.

Beyond Marketing Agility (or Outpacing the Red Queen)

Obviously, I’m not outright against the concept of agile marketing — and that isn’t really the point of this post anyway. But I do support the notion that the marketers that will thrive, truly move forward, get ahead of the pack are those that step beyond the simple state of response to change, and step into a position of leading change. This begs the obvious question: How does a marketer get there?

For an answer, let’s revisit Looking-Glass land. What was the Red Queen’s advice to Alice as the two raced their way to a standstill?  She said, “If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” Taken literally, that order is so tall as to be unscalable. Run twice as fast? We already are! This year, we’re running at least twice as fast as we did last year, just to keep up. Next year, it’s conceivable that we’ll run twice as fast as we do this year, and still just keep up with constantly shifting market conditions. And if it turns out we’re running in the wrong direction — if we’re chasing White Rabbits shiny objects, there’s a good chance we are — we might get somewhere else but it’s not likely to be a place we’d want to be.

But what if instead of running twice as fast, we were to think twice as far ahead? What if rather than being first to react to a sudden shift in present market conditions, we were first to anticipate the future state of markets? (Trade in our sneakers for a time machine, so to speak.) What if instead of instead of settling for agility, marketers were anticipatory?

Rather than fret over this approach or that for Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter; the collapse of Zynga or the triumphant return of MySpace; whether Pinterest or Instagram is right for your brand; or the relative merits of infographics vs memes –  you might instead focus on big picture considerations with the potential for lasting business impact. See the challenges that your business — or even better, your consumers — will face in the future, so that you can solve them before they happen. See the opportunities that tomorrow’s markets will present then do the things necessary to turn those opportunities into realities.

Make the future happen for you, rather than wait for it to happen to you.

You may need to place some bets, take some risks. But the future isn’t as unknowable as it seems. Here are just a few things that we already know to be true:

    • The world’s population is aging as the Boomers head toward their golden years.
    • Digital natives will continue to enter the workforce and consumer adulthood, bringing with them clearly carved preferences and expectations for connected experiences.
    • Emerging economies in India, China and Russia will continue their march toward consumer culture and their demand for more and more consumer goods.
    • Technological advancement will continue to accelerate, along the way making technology smaller, more powerful, and ultimately so pervasive as to be invisible.

Formulate a clear vision for how your business will anticipate these trends (and others). What will your product portfolio include? What will your distribution strategies be? What will your business models look like?  How will you sustain meaningful relationships with consumers who will undoubtedly be savvier and more skeptical, more time-starved and attention-strapped than they are today?

This isn’t agile thinking (although agility may play its part). This is anticipatory thinking, backed up with future-forward doing that promises to drive the corporate growth agenda. It gives you a far better answer than the Red Queen could. You’re running a marathon rather than a sprint. You don’t need to run twice as fast (and certainly won’t need to do so much reactive running around) to take yourself, your brand and your business to someplace new.

So tell me. Am I onto something or am I as mad as a Hatter?