A lot of stuff and nonsense is written about the whys and wherefores of marketing plans.
We sometimes think people make them sound very complicated so that they can charge a fortune as consultants helping people to write them.
First things first: is a marketing plan unique, or is it like a business plan?
A great question to be asking. Because marketing really should be leading the rest of the business into growth, and if it’s leading the business then it needs to take into account its effect on the business, as a whole. Marketing doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
So yes, in a sense, a marketing plan is a business plan, and vice versa.
The only real difference is that a business plan may more explicitly cover off more areas than marketing – say, HR, investment in manufacturing, distribution and so on – but as marketing really should be integrally enmeshed with those areas too, then the differences are really in their focus.
A case history that proves the point:
For example: Sony originally planned to sell 10 million Playstation 2 units worldwide within the first year of introduction. The marketing plan called for an aggressive pre-sale hype to build demand and overshadow competitive systems from Nintendo and other rivals. The initial launch was in Japan, which resulted in a buying frenzy and the sale of 1 million units in the first 3 days. Great news, except then unexpected components shortages (a risk that hadn’t been factored in) meant that the Sony production line ground to a halt, forcing the delay of the European launch, and reducing the numbers shipped to Europe and the USA. This delay, in turn, prevented Sony reaching its corporate sales and profit objectives for the year. Defeat was thus snatched from the jaws of success.
Or as MOP often intone solemnly to our clients, “For a ha’porth of tar, the ship was lost.”
So see your marketing and business planning as one and the same, with different nuances, or strap in for choppy waters ahead, in due course.
Is your marketing plan ‘holy writ’?
Another great question. No, it isn’t. Or rather, it shouldn’t be.
Whether 5 or 50 pages long, a markeeting plan is always a best guess of the necessary plans to take the organisation into the future. But just as the future changes, often for reasons beyond our control, so we must be ready to adjust or even junk our marketing plan if our playing field changes and renders it out of date.
Planning is only useful if it is alert and flexible. As General Eisenhower once remarked, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensible.” His war colleague, Winston Churchill, also pithily remarked that “The art of being a decision maker is making a decision based on insufficient evidence, because there never can be sufficient evidence.”
So if it’s impossible to plan with utter certainty, what can one do?
The answer is, set a general direction, and be prepared to drop off tactical actions if they prove unhelpful in getting you where you want to go, but don’t lose sight of your overall direction. This necessitates two things:
- Be sure what your general direction needs to be, and stick to it with courage.
- Be prepared for individual actions to fail, and to truncate them without regret as necessary. Accepting the possibility for failure, especially in the mostly unscientific world of advertising and marketing, is a pre-requisite for long-term success.
Accepting that a tactic has failed is often the key to making the strategy a success, as you drop off poorer performing tasks in favour of concentrating on more promising ground.
Do you understand your market?
One of the things that regularly astonishes advertising professionals is the number of times a client prescribes a desired direction for their business based on “feel”, or their “personal experience”, or a “bright idea”, or what others in their company or distribution network tell them”, but without ever taking the next logical step and testing their understanding of the market with professional research.
Marketing managers wield budgets running into millions of dollars, which are frequently invested against target markets on whom the last meaningful formal (that is to say, professionally conducted) research was done two, five or ten years before, or maybe never.
As a very minimum, you need to conduct a regular SWOT analysis (at least every six months is a minimum in today’s fast-moving world) and invite others outside the immediate discipline of marketing to populate that analysis. From that insight should grow a research project to see whether the internal analysis is correct in all the ways that matter, or if it’s missing something.
Just as one example, MOP worked with a client who had masses of data – oodles of data, mounds of it, cut every which way imaginable – that told them everything they could possibly need to know about their customers. Quite sensibly the salesforce were regularly polled to pass in their understanding of buyer behavior, with wads of stats on the sales process. Yet despite endless finessing of said process, sales growth was painfully slow.
In desperation, they conducted some market research, costing a fraction of their overall marketing budget, and BINGO! There it was! Although they knew everything they could possibly know about the sales process from the moment their clients contacted them right through to the end of the sale, they didn’t know that most customers took up to eighteen months of looking around before they even engaged in the sales process. So the customer adjusted their marketing plan to talk much more frequently to their possible future clients over a much longer timescale, and in different ways, and sure as God makes little apples and it don’t raise in Indianapolis in the summer time, sales duly trended sharply upward.
You can never know enough. Try and know more.
The most important questions that most marketing managers don’t ask of their marketing plan.
Want to know why most marketing plans end up on the shelf in the marketing manager’s office, never read by anyone, including the marketing manager?
Well, here are the questions that any CEO or COO or Board should ask of the senior marketing professional in their midst before giving the go ahead on anything.
Is it simple?
Can someone – anyone – define the marketing direction of the business in a few short sentences. Never mind the detail, what is the big picture? Does everyone that matters agree with it? Is the content of the plan communicated simply, in plain English, with minimal use of jargon?
Is it specific?
Are the plan’s objectives concrete, easy to understand, and achievable within a known time frame? Does it list the specific actions and activities, with someone’s name against them, to make the plan “happen”? Has someone run the budgets and made them make sense? What’s the plan for growth and how will it be measured?
If the plan is actually nice sounding waffle, send it back until it’s a plan.
Is it realistic?
If a plan calls for a 35% sales increase in a market that has only yielded less than 1% movement in any direction for a generation, then it is probably wildly optimistic. Don’t be seduced by the unrealistic figure just because you desperately want it to be true.
Does the plan have milestone dates that every fibre in your being screams out are impossible? Then they probably are.
Has anyone with the requisite knowledge – scrub that: has everyone with the requisite knowledge – been across the plan before it has got to senior level for sign off. If not, send it back.
But be bold.
That all said, don’t be too cautious to back an executive with bold plans if he or she can demonstrate a reason why or are at least confident that they have considered all necessary factors. Ho Chi Minh once asked his most successful general how he always managed to beat the French, and the Americans, when he came up against them. What made his commands to his troops special?
The general looked up and simply said “I just say to my people, advance successfully on every front.” “And what else?” asked Ho Chi Minh? “That’s it”, replied the general with a smile.
General Patton, the most successful tank commander of the Second World War, only had one reply when asked where his troops were going next. Wherever they were, or whichever direction they were pointing in, his answer was always the same. “Berlin.”
General Macarthur, having been comprehensively kicked out of the South Pacific by the Japanese in WWII, would only ever give one answer when asked what his next move was. “Back.” he would reply. “I shall return.”
Such self-belief can turn an average marketing plan into a stroke of genius. Don’t forget to back a marketing manager with those types of cojones.
Last but not least, does the marketing plan send shivers down your spine?
William Lever, later Lord Leverhulme, he of Sunlight soap and the much quoted “I know half of my marketing works and I know half doesn’t, I just don’t know which half” also said:
“I want my advertising agency to make me nervous.”
Amen. The same should be true of your marketing manager.
A marketing manager is the pilot of your spacecraft. He or she is in the perfect position to trial new ideas, to innovate, to stretch people and systems, to boldly go where no-one has gone before. Only through such courageous risk-taking can any organisation expect any step-change in their success.
Yes, of course, bold ideas can go wrong, but that’s the whole point of having a plan. Build in Implementation Controls as a cut out if it looks like everything is going to the proverbial, and change course. But if you seriously seek growth, don’t hope against hope that an incremental little plan repeating past efforts with the mildest of changes here and there will do it for you.
Because they won’t.
Fortune favours the brave. And commercial fortune especially so.
Sadly, as businesses become bigger and bigger they also tend to become risk averse and gradualist, with Boards that are overly dominated by lawyers and accountants, and neither of those disciplines are by nature stuffed full of courageous risk takers.
But marketing is all about risk. At its core, marketing is managed risk.
Your marketing plan should be all about how to find a wave and ride it, not how to sit nervously on the sand, waggling your toes in the water.
If you think it’s about time you really surfed your market, call us on 03 9426 5400. Or email us in complete confidence on firstname.lastname@example.org.
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