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Back in the day, which seems like a lifetime ago, I had my first taste of the annual marketing planning process at a professional services firm. It wasn’t a pretty process, to say the least. In fact, we affectionately called it “the Beast.”

The journey began with a slick PowerPoint template – all flash, minimal substance. It had enough space for verbose, jargon-laden descriptions of market dynamics, threats, opportunities, planned initiatives, and goals. As for numbers, they were more elusive than a unicorn, except for the previous year’s expenses on programs and salaries.

This template made its rounds among the 20 or so stakeholders who were entrusted with crafting practice group, office or industry marketing plans for the upcoming year. Each stakeholder filled out their version and sent it back to an overworked analyst, who played the role of a data wrangler, merging all these divergent plans into one gigantic master deck.

The master deck was the pièce de résistance, presented to the CFO as the holy grail of budgeting. A few months down the road, we received our marketing budget allocation – typically a case of déjà vu, either a carbon copy of the previous year or a haircut of 2-5%.

But here’s the kicker: the master deck and the grand plans within it? They might as well have been ghosts. In reality, we, the marketing crew, crafted our marketing activities on the fly. Mostly, our programs amounted a rerun of the previous year’s show, spiced up just enough to keep it within budget. When the year-end rolled around, it was almost comical to see how little of the original plan saw the light of day.

In hindsight, it was a broken system. After years of trial, error, and a little bit of insanity to whip the planning process into shape, transforming it into something that was useful and actionable. Here’s a glimpse of the guerrilla tactics we adopted to tame the marketing planning Beast:

  1. Action over Analysis: No more delving into endless market and competitor analyses. We boiled it down to three war cries: Make More Money, Forge Stronger Relationships, and Build a Shiny Reputation. We demanded concrete programs and campaigns to wage that war.
  2. Zero Base Showdown: Instead of playing Groundhog Day with last year’s plan, we summoned everyone to defend their legacy events, sponsorships, ads, and all against our three battle cries. That’s how we vanquished some pet projects and redirected our forces towards fresher ideas.
  3. The Full Monty on Costs: We quickly realized every program had a shadow budget – not just the dollars spent but also the departmental time consumed. Hiring was a far-fetched dream, so we became skilled estimators of how much time each mission required.
  4. Begin with the Report in Mind: We wanted our marketing reports to shine. Our plans were tailored to pump out the data required to create those reports. Simplicity became our mantra.
  5. Measure Up: Armed with our KPIs, we went into battle. Creating those KPIs was a marathon (which is a whole other story for another time). We ran them by key stakeholders and business leaders, then used them to craft a scorecard that tracked our progress over time.
  6. Tools of the Trade: Say goodbye to hefty slide decks. We embraced a single, communal spreadsheet that was our North Star. It got us to our master plan faster and gave us a treasure chest of data we could monitor and update month after month.
  7. Justify or Bust: If we wanted new recruits or fancy tech, we had to make a case. The planning process became our courtroom, and we laid out how these investments would supercharge our capabilities and efficiency.
  8. Hobnob with the Heavyweights: We built strong alliances with the CFO and CIO, ensuring that our planning templates delivered the goods. That meant stepping up our financial game, so we could talk the talk of business when seeking support from the big shots.

Today, marketing planning has transformed into a well-oiled machine across industries. There’s a burgeoning trend where senior Marketing Operations generals take the helm – their data mastery, deep understanding of departmental intricacies, and knack for process making them the natural leaders.

A robust marketing planning process isn’t just about budgets; it’s about ensuring your organization has the right troops, tactics, and weaponry to seize the day. It’s a battle plan that questions the status quo and aligns marketing’s objectives with the larger mission. So, make this the year you make your mark on the planning process, and let it be known – you tamed the Beast.

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If you are interested in learning more about how Calibrate can help optimize your firm’s marketing operations, let’s connect! We’d love to partner with you.