Marketing ops’ role in strategy execution

Dr. Ralf Strauss
November 21, 2022

This blog was adapted from BrandMaker’s: “Marketing Ops Now” podcast. Each installment discusses valuable ideas for both management and marketing executives. You can listen to this 20-minute podcast here.

Strategy versus reality

“Everybody has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth,” Mike Tyson once said. The same happens to many marketing leaders. There is no marketing leader on the planet without a strategy plan, yet there are many leaders facing poor execution. Once reality kicks in, they find out execution is not working according to the strategy. What is exactly the problem?

As head of marketing at SAP Ralf Strauss found out that the marketing plan was pretty much broken, even before executing. Whatever the effort spent on executing the agreed activities, it did not work. One of the problems was the ever-growing number of marketing activities and tactics throughout the strategy. We’ll touch upon that later. Another problem was that it was unclear how those activities contributed to specific KPIs. Continuing the execution was pointless and would probably risk some possible burnouts in the team.

The first instinct to fix this broken process is to throw (more) technology at it. Countless times CMOs said: “I want one button to push so I can know exactly what everybody is doing.” “No, you don’t!”, was our standard answer. “What you want is called micromanagement. You don’t have time for that”. Instead CMOs should be concerned with their strategy.

What CMOs ask for and what they hope to achieve are two different things. Their request for that one button merely expresses a basic concern: “are my people working on the right things and are we on track?”. Totally justifiable, since they are ultimately accountable for delivering the agreed-to marketing results.

Unfortunately, the technology will not bring the desired answers to the managers “automagically”. Certainly not when that micromanagement approach is being translated into the software. That will frustrate the team in daily operations. Once a marketing campaign manager exclaimed: “if we follow the planning steps as implemented in the software tool, I will miss my deadlines”. It doesn’t get more ironic than that.

But the lack of insights (due to or in spite of software) is actually often the point where strategy execution starts falling apart. It is like driving on the highway without a working dashboard. It is the point where the lack of KPIs prevents us from optimizing results. As we go blind we’ll just elaborate on activities that work along the way, without updating the strategic plans and goals. There is no learning curve or proper activity steering. As a result, in many companies the purpose of the yearly marketing strategy plan exercise has been reduced to nothing more than a way to secure a budget for the coming year. It is disconnected from execution.

Is there a solution? Here is an example. A bank in America faced a humongous workload. Realizing the number of marketing activities will not come down by itself, they wanted to understand the root cause.. As an exercise, the marketing team mapped out the strategic, tactical and operational goals against their activities. What they found left them stunned. 20% to 40% of the activities were not related to the strategy. Stopping those activities would immediately reduce the teams’ workload. Achieve more and do less.

Like this bank, SAP went back to the drawing board and started planning all over again. And with success. What exercise did they do? This exercise is arguably what marketing ops could facilitate internally. Marketing ops could operate as a linchpin , a kind of middle layer, between strategy plans and execution of activities, and content creation.

Cascade your strategy execution

To make sure that the strategy execution is done well using cascading models could really help. Different cascading models have been developed based on real-life experiences. Based on 35 to 40 workshops and projects over the last couple of years, the model below has been developed. Another model is called the Six Layer Model. It integrates strategic (goals), tactical (campaigns) and operational (content) levels and has been co-created with CMOs over the years.

The notion of cascading marketing planning is pretty old. In essence, there are two streams. One stream cascades down from strategy down to operations. The other stream cascades up again to strategy. Along these cascading lines, teams need to be cognisant of constantly defining and updating targets, KPIs, activities, results, insights, and improvements.

It is a circular process at many levels. This allows for a team to understand: “What plans worked or where do we need to change things. It is the mindset of: “how does this relate back to the goal next level up?”. It cascades from a macroscopic level to a microscopic level and circles the results back in order to understand lessons learned at any level. It is close to organizational learning principles.

Are cascading models actually ‘agile’?

These models look to some as extended waterfalls, but looks are deceiving. The models facilitate something that we would call ‘Permanent Planning’. Market conditions keep changing slightly or even significantly. So a discussion should take place to adjust course and KPIs.

The models help guide the internal conversions around the planning. What planning conversation are we in? Are we in the allocation or result side of the cycle? On what level are we making changes, strategic, tactical or operational? Along those lines, marketing teams should continuously ask themselves the agile (daily standup) questions, what to:

  1. Do more
  2. Do less
  3. Start doing
  4. Stop doing.

It took a company like Beiersdorf seven years to implement a well-oiled, flexible, or permanent planning process. At the beginning of the year marketing teams were given a couple of €100,000 for a set of KPIs and corresponding activities. Continuously the management checked if the performance was above expectations, or subpar. Based on the performance activities the budgets were right-sized, or cut all together. Now the CMO knew that the team was always working on the right things.

Throughout the year there was also a possibility to submit new activity plans or campaigns. Against predefined criteria and updated market conditions, these requests were validated. This is how both managers (looking for control and tracking progress) and teams (executing the work on a daily basis) could stay aligned. This approach allowed them to allocate a percentage of the budget and campaigns to growth hacking and experimenting.

Briefings as the strategic glue

How can we cement this permanent planning approach into our daily operations? Especially once the strategic goals are translated into tactical campaigns, the whole thing explodes into thousands of different tasks on an operational level. On this level the value propositions are being translated into specific channels e.g. Pinterest, Facebook, or print media, or TV.

This is where briefings come in. Briefings are often taken too lightly, leading to breaking strategy and execution apart. And the bigger the organization is (read more organizational layers), the more this happens. The idea of briefings is to inform and align different parties like agencies, fulfillment companies, trade marketing, marketing communication, marketing operations, etc.

In line with the six layer model another concept was developed: the One Briefing Document. Every single activity should be part of a briefing, or else it should not be executed at all. Each briefing always includes all three levels: Strategy (Plans), Tactic (Program, Charter) and Operations (Campaign, Project). Having all the three layers together in one place keeps all levels aligned at all times. It also allows the department to backtrace every activity to the level of content.

Briefings embedded into software

Briefings are, although brilliant, often poorly executed. Some briefings have well over sixty pages including every single detail, except what we precisely are trying to achieve. A good test is to ask five people to come to the table and learn if they have the same perspective. Probably not.

“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” — Blaise Pascal, mathematician and physicist.

As one CMO from a global bank in South Africa once stated: “if you have a long briefing you haven’t thought it through. Say more with less words”.

This is where a software tool comes in handy. Having the one briefing principle in place, supported by approval mechanisms, serves basically as a functional design for the configuration of the marketing operations software. Not only does it limit the amount of information, it also links the three levels in the organization together in one view. In such briefing templates there are cascading goals, targets for each level as well as a single-minded proposition for each activity, audience, and required budgets. Parts of these briefings can then be disclosed to external suppliers or agencies so that they are also executing against the company strategy.

Please join us

BrandMaker’s “Marketing Ops Now” podcast series has officially started. In each podcast industry luminaries and deep thinkers share valuable marketing ops ideas for both management and marketing executives (some worth stealing).

For every podcast in the series we’ll do a blog post to share the highlights with you. You can listen to this 20-minute podcast here.

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