Ad Technology

In Defense of Annual Planning

It’s that time of year – marketers are allocating 2018 dollars to their various marketing efforts and trying to answer the question: “What will the brand do next year?”

Whether you work for a brand marketer or support one, the implications are very real. You might be spending late nights at the office, marrying strategies to tactical plans and prioritizing investments across a broad array of potential marketing strategies. And then someone brings up an interesting point: If tactics are evolving continuously, isn’t the very idea of annual planning outdated?

After all, the tactical landscape of potential drivers for a brand’s business experiences seismic shifts from time to time, and those shifts don’t adhere to any kind of annual planning cycle. So why do we continue to plan annually?

I’ve always looked at annual planning to review brand strategy and establish ways of determining whether the brand’s broad strategic approach is the most effective and efficient way of achieving objectives. Executive management might be on board with a broad strategy of investing in consumer paid media or trade marketing or retail promotion, and prior performance weighs heavily in determining where those investments would yield the best return.

But annual planning is also a great time for setting a brand up for success by building in pilot programs to test new channels, to see if they can perform better – more efficiently or more effectively – to see if the brand should depart from the tried and true to conquer new territory.

While it’s true that new channels can emerge quickly, and that even the tried and true can erode at the drop of a hat, annual planning gives brands the opportunity to test hypotheses about new target audiences, new ways of selling and new markets. And even the most conservative brands that take few risks should be looking to innovate the way they do business, trying new strategic and tactical approaches at a small scale before ramping up positive results.

Annual planning is a great time to provide the roadmaps to those new successes, get all stakeholders on board, and set expectations for pilot programs that will provide new opportunities.

For example, I’ve worked with several brands considered past their prime – practically ignored in the context of a larger portfolio strategy – that had no innovative approaches to look forward to.  Essentially, they were relegated to the brand graveyard after the tried and true investments (usually, TV advertising) failed to move the needle in a profitable direction. Once their marketing budgets couldn’t support television anymore, those brands tended to wander in limbo, unsure about whether other channels could turn them in a more profitable direction or not.

In many cases, small pilot programs showed there was indeed life still in those brands, and that there were more effective ways to promote them in channels other than television advertising. In many cases, we’ve been able to revive them and give them direction for the future – and the process all starts with annual planning.

In those scenarios, we’ve illuminated new market opportunities – sometimes with younger people, sometimes with more focused targets than the brand was used to, and introduced more efficient ways to address those targets at scale. This might mean investing in a pilot program in social or digital video and measuring the results closely.

Without an annual planning process, there’s precious little opportunity to step back to a 10,000-foot view and introduce new targets and channels, backed by research, that can breathe new life into a brand. With stagnant brands, you need an opportunity to be able to make a case across the organization that continuing to invest with the same strategy used repeatedly will simply deliver diminishing returns year-over-year, and that reserving a bit of the marketing budget for pilots and tests will find new markets that will allow for new growth.

In this way, annual planning plays a role that is much different than the day-to-day chasing of the latest and greatest tactics. It’s an opportunity to review how a brand has been doing business, it’s trajectory, and what can be done to do it better.