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Marketing planning – You pick it up

Large sign on a white brick wall saying "Welcome to marketing"

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Why read this? : We look at ways to ease some of the pain of marketing planning. For example, learn why separating the process from the plan itself works so well. Plus, key tips on how to make the plan focus on actions. Read this for ideas on how to master marketing planning. 

To paraphrase a colourful ex-colleague, most business’s marketing plan 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?

Marketing cartoon - presenting the marketing plan - man pointing to a screen and saying "But I have a 2 x 2 grid AND a pyramid!"

The challenges of marketing planning

Most marketers recognise the challenge of creating a great marketing plan. There’s many barriers to get past. People who don’t understand or believe your ideas. Who think it costs too much, isn’t big enough, or there are other priorities

Sounds familiar, right?

On that theme, we recently found some old notes from research we did 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 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.

Just saying.

Woman standing up on train reading business books on Kindle

Where it all goes wrong with marketing planning

We noted 6 key lessons from that book. 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.

  1. The strategic planning process is normally top down – it’s never owned by those who must implement the plans. Yes. 
  2. It’s driven by the priorities of the business or products rather than the customers (resources may be used efficiently, but rarely effectively). Yes.
  3. 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.
  4. 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! 
  5. Often produced in isolation from the business plan and not communicated to those charged with implementation. YES!! 
  6. 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. 

So why do so many marketing plans and the marketing planning process still fall into these obvious traps? Why does so much terrible brand activation make it to market?

The word yes writing into sand

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’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.

Man and a woman wearing face masks. Man wearing a jumper that says "process". Woman wearing a jumper that says "plan" and has her hand out to socially distance from the man.

But they’re not the right people to then lead the marketing planning process. 

Ideally, the process owner is someone with 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 help everyone participate 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 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 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 owns the marketing planning process facilitation role should 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 another function in your business 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.

Coffee mug with the word begin sitting on a wooden table with blurred chairs in the background

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. 

Template for Business Model Canvas - sections are Key Partners, Key Activities, Key Resources, Value Propositions, Customer Relationships, Channels, Customer Segments, Cost structure, Revenue Streams

(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 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. (See our marketing innovation guide for more on agile methodology). 

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. 

Close up on a man's hand on the steering wheel of a ship

That usually means the Marketing Manger, the Brand Manager, the agency or the insight team presenting. It usually means lots of Powerpoint charts. 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.

Unexpected competitor actions. Disagreements with a trade buyer. Customers disliking your advertising, PR or innovation. All common events in reviews. 

Wooden scrabble tiles that spell the words Learn From Failure

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 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. 

Workshop post its generic contents

Check out our marketing plan guide for more on this.  Or drop us a line if you want to talk about how to overcome these marketing planning challenges. 

Photo credits

Welcome to Marketing (adapted) : Photo by Adam Jang on Unsplash

Woman reading Kindle : Photo by bady abbas on Unsplash

Distancing : Photo by Chris Greene on Unsplash

“Yes” in sand :  Photo by Drahomír Posteby-Mach on Unsplash

Coffee Cup : Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

Steer Ship : Photo by Nathan Lindahl on Unsplash

Learn from failure : Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

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