The End of the Marketing Plan


I’ve read a couple of books in the last year both with something to say on the subject of marketing plans. Well, I’ve read one and given up on the other. The one I finished was:

Lean Enterprise by Jez Humble, Barry O’Reilly and Joanne Molesky

And the one I barely got started on was:

Marketing Plans by Malcolm McDonald and Hugh Wilson

This makes this a bit of an unfair comparison review of the two books, as I haven’t made it through the latter, but in a way that’s the point I’m trying to make.

The latter book comes in at a whopping 592 pages – and that’s for the 7th edition of the tome. And the content is dense – every page is packed with data, information, tables, planning tips and tricks, processes and so on.

In contrast, the Jez Humble book is being released through an Agile Publishing methodology (release early drafts to customers, gather feedback, rinse-and-repeat), where the first draft came in at a digestible 78 pages. And it’s very readable.

But again, that’s not really the point – there’s nothing wrong with a long, intense study of a subject. The most interesting difference between the two books is the approach taken to marketing activity. To illustrate the difference, the following is a key diagram from  Jez Humble’s book:

LeanEnterpriseThis diagram isn’t directly applied to marketing, but instead is making a point about how most companies develop products end-to-end. The authors describe this as “water-scrum-fall” – a process whereby yes, your development teams are writing and testing the code for a new product following Agile practices, and may have been doing so for years, but the rest of the organisation still works in a heavily waterfall based, linear way, with all of the standard problems of waterfall development – bottlenecks, blocks, wasted effort, wrong products to customers, late delivery and so on. By the way, HiPPO stands for “Highest Paid Person’s Opinion” ;-). NB: I won’t go in to the details of “Agile vs. Waterfall” as development methodologies – Wikipedia as ever has a good description.

My contention is that I would add marketing and marketing planning in to this diagram as a part of the process of developing and releasing a product to market – and that we as marketers still, generally work in a heavily planned, non-iterative, and essentially out-dated approach to developing marketing campaigns.

The Malcolm McDonald book provides quite incredibly detailed tables for the reader to fill in, allowing you to plan out your whole year of marketing in detail – which segments you’re going after (and everything about those segments), when you’re running campaigns, how many leads you will get from  each activity, forecast revenue generated and a thousand other things. In theory, all laudable activities. And for the last three years I’ve followed this approach (more or less – I could never quite stomach the level of detail required by the book). Every November/December I’ve spent weeks constructing a plan of, essentially, what was going to happen the next year in marketing, down to leads and revenue generated for the next 12 months.

As everyone knows, these plans never come to pass. But, the argument goes – “It’s the planning that’s useful, and what you learn, not the actual plan”.

Yes – to an extent, because a plan forces you to think about your goals and objectives, and that can’t be bad. But a key practice in Agile development is the concept of a backlog of work – you have a long list of activity that you want to undertake for a product, but the level of detail for those items is different depending on how soon you plan to do the work. If you’re starting something next week (at the top of the backlog), you’d better have a pretty good understanding and description of the story you’re tackling. However, if you’ve got something you “Hope to do  in about 6 months”, you can leave these items at a very high level, something like “Add in that cool Facebook sharing feature” will do perfectly well.

Why is this a good idea? Because right now, you fundamentally don’t know what the future holds. Today in February 2014, I have an idea for what marketing we as a team want to be doing in 2014H2, based on the products we have, the customer segments we’re reaching (or not reaching of course!) and so on. But I’m also pretty sure that I’m wrong. That whatever we do in 2014H2 will be only barely related to my current thinking. Right now we’re planning a mass market activity, based on some of the traditional marketing approaches we’ve used before. But what if, in April this year, we suddenly start gaining some real traction with larger accounts in a specific segment? Then I might need to pivot and re-think plans to make the best of this opportunity. Any detailed plans that I had would be thrown out of the window.

And the point made in the Lean Enterprise book, is why not apply the Agile development approach to other areas of the business too, such as marketing? Release early, gather feedback, iterate-and-repeat. The key benefit is that you’re getting early feedback on what’s working, then you build on that, continuously improving what you’re doing so that by the end of the year you have activities that you know are working – because you’ve been testing them for the previous 11 months and getting benefits (e.g. leads) all along the way.

This is what we’ll be doing this year. I haven’t made a marketing plan for 2014 at all – and I’m feeling very comfortable with that situation.

PS the image at the top of this post is the character Destiny from the amazing graphic fantasy novels – The Sandman by Neil Gaiman (I can’t recommend these books highly enough – I’m now on my 4th read). Destiny holds a book (the “Book of Destiny”) that contains the past, present and future of every living being. As I said, the novels are fantasy.



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