Marketing planning – You pick it up

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Snapshot : Marketing planning is a challenging subject in most businesses. We share some experiences of where it all goes wrong with marketing planning. We then cover some key learnings (again from experience) to improve marketing planning. And finally, we’ll share some advice on marketing planning action plans and reviews.

To paraphrase a colourful former colleague, the marketing planning process and the marketing plan in most business 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 pick those up”. Or “someone needs to fix that’. Then those same people carry on with their daily life expecting some other poor sucker to eventually do the job. But what happens when it’s your business? Or your boss turns around and says YOU need to pick it up?

The challenges in creating great marketing plans are well-recognised. They’ve been out there for a long time. We recently came across an old work notebook (the paper variety) where we had some research notes on ways to improve our marketing planning. 

These notes come from a book called Definitive Guide to Marketing Planning, The by Angela Hatton (2000-09-20)The Definitive Guide to Marketing Planning by Angela Hatton. Yes, a book. One of those old-fashioned paper things that existed before Kindle’s were even a glint in Jeff Besos’s eye. 

It was published in 2000 (we did say it was an old work notebook). You can still buy it on Amazon. In fact, if you do want to buy it, you can click on the link above and we’d earn commission on the sale as we are 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.

Where it all goes wrong with marketing planning

To save your $149, our notes from the book amounted to the following six headlines. And with each one we read some almost twenty years after they were written, we felt a little bit like Meg Ryan in that restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally.

  1. The strategic planning process is normally top down – it’s never owned by those who must implement the plans. Yes. 
  2. Driven by the priorities of the business / products rather than the customers (resources may be used efficiently, but rarely effectively). Yes.
  3. Focussed on the production of a document rather than an action plan which will direct operational activities for the next year. Oh my god yes.
  4. The plan is inflexible – once written, it cannot be modified even if events / 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. YESSSSSS!!!!!



Yes - drawn in the sand


We have led and worked on multiple marketing plans in different categories and countries since. If you look at those six points now, we believe most marketers would recognise all of them. So why do so many marketing plans and the marketing planning process still fall into these obvious traps? 

Here’s a couple of thoughts. Business leaders and especially those in marketing like the ‘why’ question. We’ve all been forced to sit through that Simon Sinek video and feel all meaningful and wise about being clear on our ‘why’. We get it.

But ‘why’ on its own doesn’t really get shit done. No offence, mate. But it’s the ‘How’ (and it’s lesser acknowledged anagrammatical side-kick ‘who’) that connects the ‘why’ to the ‘what’. So here’s some ‘how’ recommendations we’ve seen work to help make your marketing planning process and marketing plan work better.

Separate the marketing planning process and the plan itself

In many businesses the process and the plan are run by the same person. These are HARD yards to carry. We believe if you can, separating the role of process owner and plan owner can make the world of difference. Often, the most senior marketing person feels responsible for the marketing plan delivery. But we see their role as owners of the outcome and initiation of the process. They are not the right people to lead the process. 

Ideally, the process leader is someone who has no real stake in the outcome of the plan itself. Who is independent of the outcomes. So they can focus on managing the process itself. Making sure that the mechanics of the process work. Taking notes and writing actions. Making sure timings and agendas are followed. Ensuring everyone participates and is given a fair hearing. And that ideas and choices are captured so the marketing plan owner gets a set of clear recommendations at the end.

Getting away from a biased process leader

We’ve seen marketing directors, heads of insights 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. 

The marketing director is keeping one eye out to make sure they have budget and resources for next year and don’t lose them to some other function. The insights leader is looking out for their team and budgets and making sure they have enough projects to fill out the next year. And agency people, 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. No. 

Whoever you choose to accept this process facilitation role needs to be clear up front that they have no actual say in the problem definition or decision outcome. They have to work hard to avoid injecting bias into the process through throwing in ideas and knowledge. The ideas and knowledge come from the subject matter experts in the room. It could be someone from inside your business from another function or a specialist facilitator you bring in. But just make sure it’s someone who has the skills to own the process. 

Making 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, plug adaptors and a frantic call to a PA and someone from IT who usually gets it set up in 30 seconds. And then you look at the bottom of the screen and see that Slide 1 of 127 in Powerpoint. Urgh.

We’re not averse to using Powerpoint to document and write up detailed plans. They can be a useful document for the person or team who puts them together. But those types of plans should be read and not presented. They are a reference document, not a way of really running an action plan.

New approaches to action plans

The Amazon approach of writing a six page memo that everyone reads in advance before opening up a discussion is an interesting take on the process. They are clearly a business that focussed on actions. 

We have also seen the use of the Business Model Canvas work well as a way of capturing and documenting an overall plan into an actionable document. We cover the use of the Canvas model in our section on Analysis so won’t go into more detail with this post.

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. Breaking teams into smaller empowered groups with focus on a series of short-term goals is a great way to create momentum and focus on outcomes and deliverables. 

The challenge with agile (apart from the eye-rolling it tends to generate from those more comfortable with traditional ways of working) is the short-term focus and 2 week sprints make it easy to lose track of the longer-term goal. You do need regular reviews to make sure all those short sprints are getting you towards your end goal. 

Business Model Canvas Template

Reviews are for steering the ship …

Which brings us to our final and most challenging thought on marketing planning. Most bigger businesses will have some sort of formal review process to check in on the progress against the plan. We’re not talking about the daily, weekly or monthly dashboard meetings whose frequency depends on the amount of data your business uses. We’re talking the quarterly or half yearly reviews where all the senior team get together to have a ‘serious’ check-in on progress. 

That might mean the Marketing Manger, the Brand Manager, the agency or the insight team presenting. it usually means lots of charts in Powerpoint. And it is usually all the things that go wrong when putting the marketing plan together in the first place, being repeated in a much higher 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 will be 100% correct over a long period of time. Something will happen which the business couldn’t control. And this is where it gets tough. Where it’s hard not to look for answers. An unexpected competitor action or a disagreement with a trade buyer or a consumer rejection of an advertising campaign. All common things that come up in reviews. 

It’s a real cultural challenge in any business to not make this session feel like the Spanish inquisition. It’s when finger pointing starts. Why didn’t you see that coming? And automatically, the poor soul sharing the ‘bad news’ goes into justify mode. Blame mode. It’s only human to feel under pressure when you are delivering bad news. So the focus for the owner of the plan has to be on making sure the most time is spent on what the future plan is than picking apart the plan that’s just gone. To create a constructive and positive review process.

You can’t go back anyway. And as long as the learnings what didn’t work are built into the future direction, then you actually end up having marketing plan that adapts over time to the market context. To what consumers actually want. Which let’s face it, can change day to day, never mind quarter to quarter.  

The marketing planning way forward (aka the ‘hand dryer’ solution)

Given how much technology has impacted on marketing in the last 20 years, it is ironic that most marketing plans are still written out on post-its and flip-charts still. 

We’ve talked with a few companies over the years who’ve claimed they can bring automation into the marketing process. Some interesting ideas but 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 common-place. 

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 all still be getting our hands dirty picking up the towels for the foreseeable future. 

Photo credits

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

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

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