5 Key Takeaways on Marketing Planning from “Plan, Pivot, & Repeat” Part 1

Shannon Fitzgerald-Lussier
November 11, 2022

Marketing planning has changed dramatically in the last few years. It’s more evident than ever that a nimble, agile approach is the only way to keep up with the pace of change. 

It’s a phenomenon affecting all marketing leaders and one that we wanted to address head on. 

Sometimes plans have to change, and we wanted to hear from our peers about their experiences improving the planning process at their organizations. To that end, we invited six marketing leaders to tell us how they approach planning.

What follows is a list of five takeaways from the first panel discussion of our “Plan, Pivot, & Repeat” webinar series. Our guest speakers were Avnita Gulati, senior director of global marketing at Visa; Thomas Gunter, director of growth marketing planning and operations at Cisco; and Ron Myers, performance marketing and operations at NSF

 Watch the discussion here, or keep scrolling to read the five key takeaways. 

1. There’s an education gap for finance in how marketing spends budget

When marketing needs budget approval from the finance department, it’s not uncommon for marketers to get pushback about expenses. The solution is to educate finance as to the goals and marketing’s vision in advance of each planning cycle. 

For marketing, planning really starts six to eight months before the start of the fiscal year. Anything less than that, and you can find yourself in a reactive mode.

Start having conversations with key stakeholders, including the C-Suite and finance leadership, assessing historical data about spending and results in the past. The truth is, none of these functions truly understand how marketing budget is spent. It’s hard for them to understand why a marketing event in March 2022, is being paid for in September 2021.

Helping leadership and finance understand the big picture will remove friction down the line. One way to act on this advice is to create an education series for finance team. Show them where the investments are done, for what purpose, and how they align with the business goals.

With that background and the ability to tie those activities and investments back to specific products and outcomes, finance is more aware of the bigger picture and marketing won’t have to be so defensive about their budget needs. The last place any marketer wants to be is defending their spend.

2. Strategic alignment may be top-down but executives are not the only voice in planning 

When asked about where new ideas come from in their organizations, guests from both NSF and Cisco indicated that their marketing planning takes a top-down approach. As Ron Myers from NSF noted, planning also has to incorporate bottom-up feedback.

“A lot of the marketing planning we do is harmonization,” says Ron. “Part of that is done through results and leveraging those results to help drive your plan for the next period. I think it’s important that the frontline has just as much voice in that process. If we know there are things that are not resonating or not working at our touch points, we’ve got to be able to communicate that.”

“Strategic alignment at the top, is really, really important, because you want to make sure that what you’re doing is relevant,” says Ron. “The last thing you want to do is do a bunch of great activities that are driving results, but not the results you were looking for as a company.” 

3. Plans come from the top-down, pivots come from the bottom-up

All three panelists were in agreement that leadership drives the planning process from the top down, but that feedback from the field was imperative. As Thomas Gunter, director of growth marketing planning and operations at Cisco pointed out, it takes time to gather that feedback and put it in context. 

“The leadership team of Cisco understand the needs of the business forming an opinion that’s directional from the top. Then, working down into those global functions, into the regions to then understand any nuances and what’s actually happening in their markets—how are their buyers responding and how do we tweak those plans?” 

“We’re building this planning process with enough time to allow for that blend of top-down and bottom-up. We can understand how a direction from the top may give us perspective, but as we understand what’s in the market, we may have a slightly different perspective.”

As Thomas explains about how Cisco and its brands take a collaborative approach to planning, our CMO Jim Williams makes an observation about the top-down and bottom-up thread that seems to connect the entire session. 

“You have to build up a bit of a negotiation mentality to this,” says Jim. “It’s not rigid from the top-down. Everything is a conversation that can be informed and you do a little bit of back and forth as part of this process.”

“It has to be a dialogue,” adds Ron. “It can’t be a one-way conversation.”

4. Quarterly plan reviews are often not frequent enough

All three panelists were in alignment again to agree that the pace of change is fast, constant, there are often pivots. All of them work from a model to iterate on the marketing plan every quarter. 

However, leaving reviews at only a quarterly rate is not frequent enough. By all means you can continue to believe that annual planning at enterprise organizations is enough, but do so at your own peril. The current reality is that one requires the ability to shift quickly. Any given month can be marked by several events and learnings that require small or large pivots as the realities of marketing execution come to bear. 

Although they all serve different industries, one commonality between the panelists is the size of their organizations. Checking in once a quarter, leaves too much space for missed opportunities or plans drifting when the organizations are that large. This is why the in-depth quarterly reviews, which involve executives and cross-functional peers, are augmented by lighter, monthly plan reviews based on the learnings from the previous month. 

5. No marketing plan survives its first activity

After prompting from Jim, Ron drops what might be the best quotable moment of the session, riffing off the famous military strategy quote: “No marketing plan survives its first activity.” But NSF’s battle story is not one of defeat. As Ron explains, NSF’s 2020 plan involved being heavily invested in events and the pandemic. 

“That was a key part of our plan and we had to shift and pivot in a way that was really quantifiable,” says Ron. “The fact that we do these things virtually now, and we do them effectively, actually has a net-positive effect, and it’s also much more measurable. If you are too dogmatic in your approach, you’re gonna be left behind.” 

Don’t miss the second webinar in the “Plan, Pivot, & Repeat” series as we sit down to talk with marketing leaders from ON24, Hyland, and WEKA

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