It’s that time of year when marketers start to think again about what’s next. Yet even as many are diving in, many others are asking if it’s time to abandon the idea of marketing plans altogether.
Why bother with plans, it is sometimes asked, in an era of disruptive startups, fast-moving cultural change, and a relentless, short-term focus on quarterly results? Why not just experiment instead, using new ways of doing things like design thinking, test-and-learn iterations, lean startups, and agile business practices?
A test-and learn approach has much to offer, but does that mean marketers should plan to have no plan?
Apple announces new and updated products every September, and it plans much of its year around this highly anticipated global launch event. Nike rolls out thousands of new SKUs each year, which requires a carefully managed and meticulously organized planning process. And this year’s biggest movie hit, “Avengers: Endgame,” did not come from a lean start-up experiment. Instead, it is part of the highly orchestrated Marvel Cinematic Universe, a shared complex of characters and adventures carefully woven together in a franchise of blockbuster movies that are all part of a long-term, multi-year vision that is planned to continue well into the late 2020s.
In short, planning is alive and well. What’s passé is not planning, but the one-and-done plan that is created, vetted, and approved annually. Fast feedback enables marketers to figure out quickly and continuously which activities are working and which are not. So it is not about throwing out planning but figuring out how to plan inside an environment of constant learning and unrelenting change.
Specifically, marketers must move from an annual cycle to a rolling cycle within a long-term strategic vision. There must be recognition of the importance of both speed of action and clarity of strategy. Marketers need a mindset focused on planning within change, anticipating shifts not reacting to blips. This means that being clear on which data points are most important before reacting as well as building organisational systems that enable teams to be ready to act and reallocate resources rapidly. All of this adds up to thinking differently about planning cycles — three things in particular.
- Hack the planning process. Having been in the industry for more than 20 years, I have seen many different ways of planning. The worst involve weeks of preparing mountains of PowerPoint charts awash in oceans of data that are presented in hierarchical, interrogation-style presentations. Inevitably, this results in plans that jump straight from objectives to tactics, barely acknowledging consumers. I have seen this approach suck up enormous amounts of time with a result that looks very much like last year’s plan, adjusted for this year’s new product launches.The better approach is to hack the process by locking cross-functional stakeholders in a room for a couple of days, with space to kick around culture, consumers, and competitors in order to identify trends and shifts that can drive growth. Emphasis is on passion not ego, which facilitates a genuine discussion about issues and opportunities. We have used this approach successfully with groups as large as 100, in which multiple teams work simultaneously through the same thought-process. At the end of these sessions, senior stakeholders are always able to align around the broad pillars of the plan. No PowerPoint, no hierarchy — just collaborative discussion and shared ownership of the output.
- Establish action-oriented benchmarks. It is critical for marketers to pivot with clarity. This starts with rich datasets that report what consumers are actually doing. Flexible planning is not about reacting to all available information, only to data points that are early warning signals of success or failure. Marketers need to create KPIs that offer a clear line of sight on business and brand objectives. These include pre-specified benchmarks that gauge consumer responses to marketing activities throughout the customer decision journey that will deliver the business and brand objectives. By fixing these benchmarks during the planning process, marketers can optimise on the fly, changing thoughtfully with facts in hand.
- Borrow from disciplines that move fast. Flexibility should be pre-planned. To ensure that planning is fluid, not one-and-done, marketers should integrate a variety of practices from multiple disciplines. Risk-and-scenario planning builds what-ifs into shorter-term planning cycles, allowing teams to pre-plan what to do when change occurs. The discipline required by real-time marketing forces teams to think carefully about what they need in place in order to move comfortably and efficiently under pressure. This includes thinking through if-then decision trees and anticipating resource needs and approval processes, thereby creating an “everyday-fast” way of working. Additionally, different teams working in tandem across countries, brands, or specialisations can be coordinated and aligned through the Scaled Agile Framework, or SAFe. This approach is centered around large Program Increment meetings that take place every 90 days or so. These face-to-face sessions bring all teams together to go through a set agenda that is structured to spotlight dependencies, calibrate progress, and reset priorities in real time.
Marketing should apply these ideas to hack marketing planning into cross-functional meetings on a 90-day cycle to review progress against objectives, evaluate activities against benchmarks, and revisit key scenarios against available resources — all in real-time. The focus should be on information-gathering and collaborative decision-making so that teams can get back to work. Think of them as Marketing Organisation Realignment Meetings, or MORMs. But whatever they’re called, hacking planning in this way will make marketing more effective.