Unplanning and Agility: The New Approach to Marketing Plans

Shannon Fitzgerald-Lussier
November 21, 2022

How do you measure the success of a marketing plan? Many marketers (and definitely financial analysts) would say it all comes down to three letters: ROI.

Return on intent.

You read that right. Intent, not investment. At least, that’s ROI according to Sean Hiss, vice president of global GTM operations at WEKA, the data platform for AI. WEKA solves the storage challenges posed by today’s enterprise AI workloads and other high-performance applications. Prior to WEKA, Sean has over 25 years of marketing, sales, and operational experience and held senior roles in strategy and planning at large enterprises such as Hitachi Vantara and Cisco.

We caught up with Sean to talk more about measuring the success of marketing plans, why you should never start planning based on your budget, and why he thinks marketers should actually leave some of their quarter unplanned.

How did you learn to plan?

How I learned to plan was much more old school; you want to do an activity, so what’s the ROI? But I always thought that was only half of the picture. I’ve done sales and marketing roles and have always wanted to understand how what I was asked to do or deliver laddered up to a bigger goal.

I spent a big part of my career working at Cisco, which is a very operationally mature company. It was there that I started getting more curious about the “why” behind marketing plans. Why am I doing this program or this activity to drive revenue instead of something else? How does that tactic align to marketing strategy or company strategy and our North Star?

Depending on the goal, such as growing our customer base or moving into a new market, I would start to think about different tactics and expect different results based on those tactics. A marketing plan that worked well for one segment or in one region isn’t guaranteed to perform as well in another.

One of the lessons I learned accidentally is that if I can demonstrate I have a strategic marketing plan, I get the results and I can show I’m a trusted steward of budget, then we would start getting more budget.

What does “planning” mean to you?

Planning is understanding the business outcome the company is after, and then determining the best execution path to get there.

My early curiosity to understand the “why” behind marketing plans and more strategic outcomes created a bug for me to get deeper into operational planning. I felt that there was a missing layer between my actions as an individual contributor or team leader to company goals. Knowing the success criteria and what the company goals are doesn’t automatically create a clear path from high-level company strategy down to marketing plan execution.

Bigger companies tend to do a good job at defining North Stars. They’re usually big, broad strokes such as delighting our customers, hitting revenue targets, or developing our people. You might see results based on those at all-hands meetings.

With smaller companies, it’s often more of a manifesto that’s a 20- to 30-page document outlining what they stand for and what they want to achieve. But that can be hard to operationalize. Originally, that’s what led me to Allocadia as a customer.

Our CEO would say one thing, our CMO said another, and the sales leader would add another perspective. How does a field marketing person on the other side of the world connect all those pieces? How do we move past good marketing activities and have that person understand how their work connects into sales objectives, marketing objectives, and business objectives to create something great?”

For us, Allocadia wasn’t just budget software. It’s how I could get 200+ global marketers to understand the plan cross-functionally and align to sales and the business. We could look at marketing plans and our strategy holistically and know if we were over-investing or under-investing in areas.

What is your process for building marketing plans?

What you hear often is “tell me how much budget I have, and I’ll tell you what I’ll do with it,” which is a spending plan that usually has a list of tactics associated with it, but that is not a go-to-market plan. I wanted to break functional silos and give visibility to planning and marketing strategy.

Marketing plans are living documents; they require care and feeding through active engagement. If you’re accountable for the outcome of the plan, then you’re involved in the process. So that extends from leadership to business operations and finance, over to the people and teams who are executing.

I always ask a lot of questions up front. The phrase is a cliché at this point, but I really do think when it comes to successful marketing plans, you need to go slow to go fast.

My role in the process is to get people to care about planning, to understand the value of a cross-functional plan, and to think about planning holistically. I need to demonstrate the value of investing time up front and how that will enable our team to be successful. I want to empower my team so they don’t feel like their marketing tactics are random—or worse, start doing random marketing tactics.

Before COVID, we would plan annually. Now, we still think about annual marketing plans, but there are quarterly sprint “replans.”

That old aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats” does happen in marketing, and it starts with your planning process. I like to ask my team what they would do if the budget wasn’t an issue. Then we put the best of those ideas together, build out the costs, and look at what we can or cannot afford. Your strategy comes to life when you start with the plans and then work back to adjust according to your available resources, which could be time, people, or budget.

After we build a framework for the marketing plan, I want to check in often. We start every weekly staff meeting with our status against plan. Monthly functional business reviews always start with pertinent sections of the plan, and then we take a cross-functional look on a quarterly basis to prep for our board meetings.

How do you ensure you can be agile and change plans mid-way?

With all of the talk I just did about being planful I’m now going to make the statement that marketers have to get comfortable with being unplanned. Before COVID, I was so focused on being a planning machine and planning to the nth degree. I still believe in planning, but now I strongly believe in planning for the unplanned.

We purposely only plan to 80% of our capacity going into the quarter so that we can act with agility. There’s a wish list of projects or ideas that we build as new things to try. When the leadership team looks at marketing plans each month, we pull out that wish list.

Then we’ll vet out the strongest ideas and spend the extra time and resources on the best ones. This gives us the flexibility to jump on opportunities as they come up instead of already being overloaded and trying to do more but failing. And we want to be ready to execute fast as we hit “go” on new projects.

I think most planners are okay at being agile, but it’s getting the organization to wrap their head around being 20% purposefully unplanned and actively communicating results up, across and down the organization to build trust that provides a comfort level for change. But you have to be clear that the budget will be spent and it will be spent wisely. We haven’t forgotten about that extra 20% of resources.

Is effective planning an urgent problem for marketing leaders today? What’s stopping them from being more effective?

I do think it’s urgent, but I don’t know if everybody recognizes the urgency. People used to think of planning as an annual exercise and frankly I think a lot of marketers still see it as just a checkbox. For many, marketing planning remains a budgeting exercise and not a strategic exercise. I firmly believe in having a strong relationship with the finance team. But they don’t come to my planning meetings; those aren’t the same thing.

Once you stop thinking about planning as a chore and start thinking about it as something strategic, it all changes. You really do have to go slow to go fast. If we take our time in planning to make sure we’re aligned, we’re agreed on outcomes, and we’re prioritizing in the way we think we should, then we’re able to go fast into the market.

In B2B tech, the problems we solve are very complicated. Then you layer in COVID and how fast our markets are changing, and there’s a very strong sense of urgency. But that urgency doesn’t negate the need to think and act strategically.

How do you look at performance with planning, and how has that changed during COVID?

If I walk into a meeting and the CFO asks what was the one marketing program with the best ROI, I ask them, “well, what was the goal?” Was the goal booking meetings? Building qualified pipeline? Increased brand awareness? ROI on what?

If it’s the CFO, they usually mean revenue. It’s a fair question, but I also think it’s flawed. It’s a terrible place to be in when marketing has to defend their spend.

For me, the “I” in ROI is not investment; it’s intent. If our core objective was X and our go-to-market machine did Y, were those plans aligned to that intent? What is our capacity across marketing departments, and were those utilized right? Are we indexed in such a way from our plan that we believe we will achieve the business outcomes? I think that’s a really big first step.

For an enterprise company, there’s no single marketing tactic to hook a buyer. I will hold individuals accountable to ROI for individual tactics, and we should hold ourselves accountable for continued improvement for best-in-breed programs.

Rarely have I been in a place where the executive team asks sales where every hour of their time or every dollar of their budget was spent. They’re asking if sales hit their targets. If you hit targets, people don’t really care about the deep dive.

But for some reason, as an industry, we ask marketers for data on top of data on top of data… and to what end?

We evolved so far from “arts and crafts” marketing to now being able to measure so much. That’s why I’m so big on aligning on intent. From there, we then can let people go and be experts in the areas in which we hired them and hold them accountable at the right level. I will ask people what pipeline they think they will build from that activity. But I don’t want to see another slide saying we had 250 people show up for an event or a 100-page QBR on marketing activities. Instead, tell me how the outcome translates to hitting our goals.

What is the hardest performance question for marketers to answer today?

I think it goes back to attribution. People always want to focus on the single thing that was the most successful. But marketing is never about one tactic; it’s about a string of tactics that satisfy the buyers journey.

So how do I define the value of the string of marketing tactics? It’s more than just funnel attribution. It’s asking how you quantify marketing.

And that’s where I’ve been reframing the question to ask how well do we self-define our business outcomes, how aligned we are to business strategy, and how well indexed are we to both?

Do you have any advice about planning that you’ve had to learn along the way?

My first piece of advice is to encourage marketing to think more down the funnel. Your job doesn’t stop with an MQL. How are your marketing plans contributing to bookings and revenue for the company?

The second piece of advice is to take chances. As marketers, we can get used to playing it safe and doing whatever tactics or programs are tried and tested. But I want people to be innovative and feel empowered trying something new. I like to dedicate 10% of our resources to planned innovation.

We’re still going to plan toward our marketing strategy and certain business outcomes, but we’re taking calculated risks. As leaders, we need to create a healthy environment where it’s ok to swing and miss, knowing we are also going to hit some home runs along the way.

Want to hear more of the latest successful marketing planning strategies? 

Check out other blogs in this series from marketing leaders. And stay tuned for more Q&As with innovative marketing leaders. 

Share on
Uptempo-FacebookFace Book Uptempo-LinkedinLinkedin Uptempo-TwitterTwitter

You may also like:

Marketing Business Acceleration Series: ROI... but First, Taxonomies
Helena Lewis NI marketing business acceleration
Marketing Business Acceleration Series: ROI... but First, Taxonomies
Lead with Confidence: Just Go for It
Abby Koble
Lead with Confidence: Just Go for It