This may come as a shock to many: The amount of time, effort, and money spent developing marketing strategies and plans is colossal—and much of it is a complete waste!
Another shocker: This is true for all forms of planning, including launches, three-year plans, annual plans, and tactical plans. Now, don’t get me wrong, strategic and tactical planning are absolutely critical. The problem is that in many companies much of that effort goes to waste by the time tactics get planned and implemented.
In essence, there is a break in the “line of sight” from planning to execution and what actually gets done and sees the light of day quite often bears no resemblance to the data collected, the insights developed, or the strategies chosen and articulated. One bad outcome is that, all too often, the ultimate customer engagement does not address what all that research told us about market needs and wants. Additionally, it does not resemble key strategic decisions that were made along the way, such as: Relevant audiences, positioning, behavioral objectives, messaging, and so on, with tactical plans and their implementation taking lives of their own.
I thought these were only my own observations, but Prof. Brian D. Smith confirmed them in a recent excellent and rigorous paper: “Between saying and doing is the ocean: An empirical exploration of the gap between strategic marketing plans and their implementation in the life sciences industry.”1
Professor Smith took this very complex subject and developed an empirical model to assess not only the extent of the gap between strategy and implementation, but also to look into some of the root causes for this gap—hint, they are often motivational and organizational. Even if Prof. Smith’s analysis has some limitations, it underscores the gravity of this syndrome, contributes to our understanding of it, and can help us fix it or prevent it.
In looking for practical and operational solutions for closing this gap, below is some food for thought to help us assess this issue in our own organizations; I also offer some tips to help close the gap.
Looking in the mirror. Do you recognize any of these?
- How confident are you that the data collected and the insights generated in May of one year are relevant and used in tactics implemented in January (or for that matter September) of the following year?
- Do all the stages in your planning processes seem like stand-alone exercises with no connectivity between them? Does one stage consistently and faithfully flows into and informs the next?
- Do you rely on different internal teams, external consultants, methodologies, and frameworks for each stage without overall oversight and an overarching architecture?
- Do all those strategic plans and the underlying work sit on a shelf (or get buried in a laptop) once approved, only to never be looked at again?
- Do you ever go back and check whether what gets implemented addresses the original insights and strategies? And if not, do you understand why not?
- Does your implementation, in terms of relative efforts and investments, reflect the relative priorities and allocations in your approved plans?
- Does it ever happen that “on the fly” decisions by senior leaders completely undo work and decisions made over months of effort by many across the organization? Do they (you) realize what this does to strategy? What about morale?
- Can your organization “walk and chew gum” at the same time? (i.e., be just as comfortable and competent at managing strategy as planning execution?)
- How does implementation by HQ teams (e.g., digital), agencies, and field employees align with the strategies that had been decided? How much freedom and flexibility exists? Are there guardrails and guidance or is it a free-for-all in terms of targeting and messaging?
- Are Marketing and Sales fully connected and aligned in terms of strategy and execution? How do you know?
- Are your measurements and feedback mechanisms reporting on what you identified in the strategy as important in the first place?
After many years of hands-on brand planning and after studying more than 50 academic and practical strategic planning frameworks, I have landed on these six general stages. Each stage is critical by itself, but the magic happens when they are strung together and have a “line of sight” all the way through. Any interruption or break in this flow renders a lot of what happened earlier less than useful and possibly a waste—with impacts not only on brand performance, but also on operational costs and morale.
- Ensure you have a single framework or architecture informing the overall end-to-end process, and ensure everyone in the organization uses it as guidance.
- Own the process. Once you decide on your framework and architecture, don’t let every new project (or vendor) bring new tools unless they are consistent with or consciously additive to your framework.
- Ensure each step in the process is linked to the one before and is informed by it.
- Ensure each step in the process informs the next one.
- Have the courage to challenge teams (and management) when key decisions made in earlier stages are ignored. Decisions can be revisited, of course, but changed only for good reason. Once decisions get made, they should not be second-guessed.
- Enhance efforts to ensure rich communications, feedback, alignment, and integration among functions.
- Take the time to go back, during implementation planning, to check against earlier key insights and strategic choices. If there are significant inconsistencies, make sure you understand why.
- Brian D. Smith (2017): “Between saying and doing is the ocean: an empirical exploration of the gap between strategic marketing plans and their implementation in the life sciences industry,” Journal of Strategic Marketing, DOI: 10.1080/0965254X.2017.1384041