Marketing Planning for the Year Ahead – Taming the Beast

Some marketing planning war stories – and a few suggestions and best practices for making the process less painful and more relevant.

Many, many years ago I had my first experience with the annual marketing planning process at a services firm.  It wasn’t pretty.  In fact, we used to call it “the Beast.”

The process started with a PowerPoint template.  A nice looking one, with lots of room for wordy descriptions of market issues, threats and opportunities, planned initiatives, goals and objectives.  And very little in the way of numbers, beyond the amounts spent last year on programs and salaries.

The template was circulated to the 20 or so stakeholders who were tasked with developing marketing plans for the coming year.  Each stakeholder filled out her own version and sent it back to an analyst, who spent a lot of time consolidating all the plans into a huge master deck. 

The deck was presented to the CFO as support for the budgeting process.  A few months later Marketing was told what its budget would be – generally either flat to the previous year or reduced by 2-5%.

The master deck and the plans that went into it?  They were basically ignored.  In reality, the marketing team figured out the next year’s marketing program as we went along – mostly repeating the previous year’s activities, with some tweaks to ensure we stayed within budget.  Looking back at the end of the year, most activities that were in the plan had not been completed.

Looking back, this was the definition of a broken process.  Over time, with a lot of trial and error, we were able to improve the planning process so that it produced useful, actionable information. Here are some of the simple changes we put in place.

  1.  Focus on Action, not Analysis. We stopped asking people to include deep market and competitive analysis in their plans each year.  We asked them to focus the plan on a few common goals – Build Revenue, Grow Relationships, Improve Reputation.   We asked for specific programs and campaigns aimed at achieving those goals. 
  2. Zero Base the Program.  Rather than re-playing the previous year’s plan, we challenged everyone to justify legacy events, sponsorships, advertisements and other elements against the common goals.  This helped us justify eliminating some pet projects that had not been delivering results, and directing the budget and effort to innovative new ideas. 
  3. Get Complete Numbers.  We quickly realized that every program in the plan attracted both hard costs (dollars spent) and soft costs (department time associated with executing the program).  We knew that getting additional headcount would be difficult, so we were careful to plan activities around the capacity of our existing department complement.  This required us to build realistic estimates of how much time each activity would require. 
  4. Start with the End in Mind:  We wanted to be able to report against our plans over time.  Therefore we thought hard about what we wanted our marketing reports to look like.  We then reduced the planning “ask” to a few simple data points that would help us produce those reports. 
  5. Think About Measurement.  Because we created our plans to generate reports, we decided on the metrics and Key Performance Indicators we would use to judge the success of our plans.  Creating these KPIs was an arduous process (and will be the subject of a future article).  We tested the KPIs with leaders of the business.  Then we used them to create a scorecard showing progress over time. 
  6. Use the Right Tools for the Job.  We ditched the 20-page slide decks and created a single networked spreadsheet that everyone used to enter their planning data.  This got us to a consolidated plan much faster, and gave us a set of data about planned programs and campaigns that we could track and refresh on a monthly basis,
  7. Justify Investments.  We recognized that asks for new headcount and technology had to be cost-justified.  As part of the planning process, we were careful to demonstrate how new investments would bring additional capability and/or contribute to the team’s efficiency. 
  8. Collaborate with the Right Players.  We built close relationships with the firm’s CFO and CIO, and ensured that our planning templates produced reliable information that was meaningful to them.  This required us to increase our proficiency and comfort level with financial information, so we could speak the language of business when seeking support from the other executives.

Today, marketing planning has evolved into a disciplined, highly functional process in many industries.  There are now at least 10 marketing technology vendors that support marketing planning as part of their core offerings.  A growing trend is for the planning process to be led by the senior Marketing Operations person – because of their facility with data, deep knowledge of the department’s activities, and understanding of the value of process.  This makes a lot of sense – but only where the Marketing Operations person has the credibility and senior-level alliances to pull off the task.

A comprehensive marketing planning process will help ensure you have the right talent, programs and tools to help your firm achieve its objectives.  It will also challenge you to ensure those objectives align with your ultimate business goals and not rely on precedent alone. For your own sake, the sake of your colleagues and your firm’s bottom line, it pays to think about how you can personally make the planning process more relevant and responsive this year. Then do something about it