Conventional wisdom is that we should plan everything: our business strategy, our cash flow, what to buy on our next trip to the supermarket.
We are obsessed with knowing where we want to be and how we are going to to get there.
The evidence that detailed planning produces better results, though, is slim and very few businesses in my experience have a strategic marketing plan that they are following. Some of the highest performing businesses have what would best be described by marketing academics as poor or non-existent plans.
So what is it then that makes these businesses successful? Answer: it’s their dynamic response to opportunities and their environment. Their marketing is based on repeatedly taking comprehensive, decisive and rapid action, ideally with innovation and surprise. Once the response is clear, they do it and they do it there and then.
As I read somewhere “strategy is what they discovered they were doing after they were successful”!
A plan gives us a sense of control - a feeling that, as human beings, we crave. Plans are loved and demanded by investors, finance directors, bank managers and accountants as a means of rationalising a decision - and who can blame them? Being at least one step removed from the front line of the business, they have nothing else to go on.
The ICAEW describes control as “contributing to all the essentials of good management”, which says it all. Create a plan, monitor the plan and make sure heads roll if actual performance is at variance with the forecast!
The truth, though, is that it is not marketing planning which is the issue, but the bad plans that come out of it.
A plan is often only a means to secure a budget and quickly becomes more concerned with winning favour with the holder of the purse strings than with what marketing actually needs to do. The plan becomes a tactical, bottom-up exercise, showing whatever is necessary to achieve the bottom line or match the allocated budget, with little regard for what the business needs or the market can support. Worse still it takes last year’s plan and juggles the numbers a bit to meet this year’s objectives (hands up, I’ve done it).
A business that operates as a single business unit (I can make an exception for a member of a complex group) should have short enough spans of control and enough sense of what is going on around it to be able to rely on instinct and short-term marketing “sprints”. Insistence on a detailed strategy document can act like a straight-jacket on innovation and agility.
While I am doubtful about the benefits of a corporate style marketing plan, I am all for continuous review and learning.
There is a Japanese saying “when learning stops, death will surely follow” and that is certainly true in business.
Planning should be dynamic: it needs to learn from the past, anticipate the future, spot and prioritise relevant opportunities, develop winning strategies, quickly allocate resources and provide a blueprint for excellent implementation.
By organising planning as a continuous process, we constantly stretch our imaginations and create discussion and debate. We can share thoughts on assumptions and market forecasts and look at what has worked and what hasn’t, but more important than celebrating success or criticising failure, we can seek to understand why things did and didn’t work and repeat and adapt as necessary.
For the avoidance of doubt, I am not advocating a short-term mentality towards marketing. We know that marketing needs persistent, long-term application to deliver its best returns. Turning marketing on and off as a knee-jerk reaction to early results is not the same as moving fluidly from one campaign to another.
When we look at the successful businesses, we see their marketing effort is constant. Of course, not everything will have worked, but these businesses have had the courage and commitment to learn from their failures and move on.
As marketers, despite our own belief in our super-powers, we don’t create trends or markets. The best we can do is position ourselves to take advantage of what will largely happen anyway. Our job is to spot trends, secure first mover advantage where we can, and be effective and persistent in our implementation.
We need only two things to remain constant: the desired brand positioning and a clear and shared vision of the business’ future, we can work out the rest as we go along.