Why read this? : We explore how to make marketing planning run more smoothly. Learn the benefits of separating the process from the plan. Plus, how to find an unbiased process leader to ensure the plan focuses on actions. Read this for ideas on how to master marketing planning.
To paraphrase a colourful ex-colleague, writing 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 who needs to fix it?
The challenges of marketing planning
Most marketers recognise the challenge of creating a great marketing plan. Many barriers get in the way. People who don’t understand or believe your ideas. They tell you, it costs too much, isn’t big enough, or there are other priorities.
Sounds familiar, right?
On that theme, we recently found some of our old research notes into ways to improve marketing planning. (From Definitive Guide to Marketing Planning by Angela Hatton). Yes, notes from a book.
One of those old-fashioned paper things from before Kindles 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. If you want to buy it, you can click the link above and we’d earn a commission as 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
We noted 6 key lessons on marketing planning. And as we re-read those 20+ year-old notes, we were inspired by an even older movie scene. You know 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 focuses on producing 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.
And we reckon most marketers would recognise all 6 of these points 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, it starts when business leaders overvalue “why” they should do something. And undervalue “how” to get things done. The ‘why’ question is very popular among leadership types. We’ve all been forced to sit through that Simon Sinek video and pretend to feel all meaningful about being clear on our ‘why’.
We get it.
But ‘why’ on its own doesn’t get shit done.
It’s the ‘How’ (and its lesser-acknowledged anagrammatical sidekick ‘who’) which connects the ‘why’ to the ‘what’. That’s where you find real brand expertise.
So here are some ‘how’ actions which 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.
Separate the roles of process owner and plan owner and things run smoother.
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 lead the marketing planning process.
Ideally, the process owner has no major stake in the plan’s outcome. Who’s independent and unbiased about the outputs. They focus on managing the process itself. For example, taking notes and writing actions. Making people stick to timings and agendas.
They encourage full participation and make 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 owner
We’ve seen marketing directors, heads of insight and agency planners try to do the double role of leading process and plan. It rarely works well. It’s almost impossible to avoid injecting bias. (Read more about bias in this 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 claim to be ‘neutral’ won’t be able to stop themselves from steering the conversation to a media / advertising / digital / innovation outcome. Whichever one reflects the ‘value add’ their agency offers.
Whoever owns the marketing planning process facilitation role should be bias-free. Make clear their role isn’t about the 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 should ask someone from another function or a specialist facilitator to do it. Someone who understands the need for 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 focuses on actions. (though there are challenges when it comes to selling with Amazon).
We’re also fans of the Business Model Canvas. It helps 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).
Another new interesting approach which can make marketing planning easier is using agile methodology. This is where you break teams into smaller empowered groups that 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 your goal. (See our marketing innovation guide for more on agile methodology).
Reviews are for steering the ship ...
This 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 talking about the quarterly or half-yearly reviews where all the senior team get together to have a ‘serious’ check-in on progress.
... 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 longer time.
Something will happen that 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 marketing 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 return to our paper towel analogy, we’re still waiting for the equivalent of the Hand Dryer. This means we’ll all still be getting our hands dirty with marketing planning for the foreseeable future.