Why read this? : We share why many businesses find marketing planning a challenge. Learn the importance of separating the marketing planning process from the plan itself. Plus, we share key tips on how to make planning more actionable and less painful to do. Read this to learn how to do marketing planning better.
To paraphrase a colourful ex-colleague, the marketing plan in most businesses is like the broken paper towel dispenser in the bathroom.
Everybody looks at the pile of towels on the floor and says ‘yeah, someone needs to fix that”.
Then those same people carry on with their day expecting some other poor sucker to fix it.
But what happens when it’s your business and your marketing plan? And your boss turns around and says you’re the poor sucker that needs to fix it?
The challenges of marketing planning
Most marketers could tell you about the challenges in creating great marketing plans. It sounds like it should be easy. You run into lots of barriers. People who don’t get your ideas. Or who don’t believe them. Who think it costs too much, isn’t big enough, or there are other priorities.
Sounds familiar, right?
We recently came across some old notes from when we were researching ways to improve marketing planning. They’re from the book, Definitive Guide to Marketing Planning by Angela Hatton.
Yes, a book.
One of those old-fashioned paper things from before Kindle’s were even a glint in Jeff Bezos’s eye. It was published in 2000 (we said the notes were old).
You can still buy it on Amazon. In fact, if you want to buy it, you can click on the link above and we’d earn commission on the sale as we’re Amazon Affiliates.
Be warned, it’s a whopping A$149 though. And we haven’t actually read it again since. There are probably better ways to spend your money.
Where it all goes wrong with marketing planning
Our key learnings from the book can be summed up in these 6lessons. And as we re-read these 20+ year old notes, we were inspired by an even older movie scene. The one with Meg Ryan in the restaurant.
- The strategic planning process is normally top down – it’s never owned by those who must implement the plans. Yes.
- It’s driven by the priorities of the business or products rather than the customers (resources may be used efficiently, but rarely effectively). Yes.
- The process focusses on the production of a document rather than an action plan which will direct operational activities for the next year. Oh god yes.
- The plan is inflexible – once written, it cannot be modified even if events and markets change (managers will also go for the lowest risk option). Yes!
- Often produced in isolation from the business plan and not communicated to those charged with implementation. YES!!
- Left to staff with no real understanding of the tools and parameters which make planning a dynamic and invaluable part of a manager’s role. YES!!!
We’ve led and worked on multiple marketing plans in different categories and countries since these notes.
If you look at those 6 points, we believe most marketers would recognise all of them to still be true to this day. Marketing plans haven’t got better in the last 20 years. If anything, they’ve got worse.
For us, too many big business leaders overvalue the importance of “why” they should do something. And they undervalue the importance of “how” to do things.
Many business leaders like the ‘why’ question. We’ve all been forced to sit through that Simon Sinek video and pretend to feel all meaningful and wise about being clear on our ‘why’.
We get it.
But ‘why’ on its own doesn’t get shit done.
It’s the ‘How’ (and it’s lesser acknowledged anagrammatical side-kick ‘who’) which connects the ‘why’ to the ‘what’. That’s where you find real brand expertise.
So here’s some ‘how’ actions we’ve seen make marketing planning work better.
Separate the marketing planning process and the marketing plan
In many businesses the same person runs the process and the plan.
Those are HARD yards to carry.
If you separate the roles of process owner and plan owner, things run more smoothly.
Often, the most senior marketing person feels responsible for the whole marketing plan delivery. But in reality, their role is to initiate the process and own the outcomes.
But they’re not the right people to then lead the marketing planning process.
Ideally, the process leader is someone with no major stake in the outcome of the plan. Who’s independent and unbiased about the outcomes.
So, they can focus on managing the process itself.
The process owner makes sure the mechanics of the process work. They take notes and write actions. They make people stick to timings and agendas.
The process owner helps everyone participate and makes sure everyone gets a fair hearing. They capture all the marketing decisions. That way, the plan owner gets clear recommendations at the end of the process.
Find an unbiased planning process leader
(Read more about bias in this business books article we wrote).
The marketing director wants to make sure they have budget and resources for next year and don’t lose them to some other function.
The insights leader looks out for their team and budgets and makes sure they have enough research projects to keep them busy next year.
And agency planners, even those who will claim to be ‘neutral’ won’t be able to help themselves steering the conversation to a media / advertising / digital / innovation led outcome.
Whichever one just happens to reflect the ‘value add’ their agency offers.
Whoever you choose to lead the marketing planning process facilitation role needs to be free of bias. Make clear their role isn’t about the actual problem or the decision outcome.
They don’t need to throw in ideas and knowledge. The ideas and knowledge come from the subject matter experts in the process.
You could ask someone from inside your business from another function or a specialist facilitator to do it. Just make sure it’s someone who understands the need of an unbiased process.
Make it an actionable document
We’ve all been in those meetings which start with someone fumbling around trying to get their laptop to project on the screen.
Which usually involve various remote controls and plug adaptors. And then a frantic call to a PA and someone from IT who appears 10 minutes later, but only takes 30 seconds to get it going.
But you’re already 20 minutes into the meeting, and you look at the bottom of the screen and see that Slide 1 of 127 in Powerpoint. Urgh.
We’re not against using Powerpoint to write up detailed plans. They can be a useful working document for the person or team who puts them together.
But those types of plans should be read and not presented. They’re a reference document, not a way of really running an action plan.
New approaches to action plans
The Amazon approach of writing a 6 page memo everyone reads in advance before opening up a discussion is an interesting take on the process.
They’re clearly a business which focusses on actions. (though there are challenges when it comes to selling with Amazon).
We’re also fans of using the Business Model Canvas.
It works well to convert a marketing and business plan into a more actionable document.
(See our market research in the marketing plan guide for more on the Business Model Canvas).
And obviously one new way of working which has come in since we were looking at marketing planning in the early 2000s is the use of agile methodology.
This is where you break teams into smaller empowered groups who focus on a series of short-term goals. It’s a great way to create momentum and focus on outcomes and deliverables.
The challenge with agile in marketing planning is the short-term focus. The 2 week sprints make it easy to lose track of the longer-term goal. You need regular reviews to make sure all those short sprints are moving you towards you goal.
You can read more about agile methodology in our guide to marketing innovation.
Reviews are for steering the ship ...
Which brings us to our final and most challenging thought on marketing planning.
Most bigger businesses have some sort of formal review process to check progress against the plan.
We’re not talking about the daily, weekly or monthly dashboard meetings where you review all your marketing data.
We’re talking the quarterly or half yearly reviews where all the senior team get together to have a ‘serious’ check-in on progress.
And it’s usually all the things which go wrong when putting the marketing plan together in the first place, being repeated in a much tighter timeframe.
... not punishing the crew
Except, there’s an even more challenging factor to deal with. There’s no such thing as the ‘perfect’ marketing plan. And certainly not one that’ll be 100% correct over a long period of time.
Something will happen which the business can’t control. And this is where it gets tough. Where it’s hard not to look for answers.
Sometimes marketing fails. Learning from your marketing mistakes helps you be a better marketer. Building these lessons into the marking planning process to create a more breakthrough culture helps you create stronger marketing plans.
It’s a challenge to make this session NOT feel like the Spanish inquisition. To not point the finger, and ask probing questions like why didn’t you see that coming?
Because automatically, the poor soul sharing the ‘bad news’ goes into justify mode. They get defensive. It’s only human to feel under pressure when you deliver bad news.
So, the process and plan owners have to make sure the focus is on the future plan. Not picking apart the plan that’s just gone. To create a constructive and positive review process.
You can’t go back, in any case. So you apply the lessons to make sure your next marketing plan is better.
Conclusion - the marketing planning way forward
Given how much marketing technology has changed in the last 10 to 20 years, it seems ironic most marketing plans still start on post-its and flip-charts.
We’ve talked with a few companies over the years who claimed they can bring automation into the marketing planning process.
Some interesting ideas. But we’ve yet to see one that convincingly has a process that works for everyone.
There have been some breakthroughs in process like agile and the Business Model Canvas. But we’re still a long way from these being used regularly.
To go back to our original paper towel analogy, we’re still waiting for the equivalent of the Hand Dryer to come in. In which case, we’ll still be getting our hands dirty picking up the towels for the foreseeable future.