What’s the Plan Then?

“The best laid schemes o’mice and men gang aft a-gley” said the famously wise Jewish Scottish poet Rabbi Burns. For the non Rabbinnic Caledonians it means shit happens or more politely, your best laid plans often go astray. And yet I bet most of you are knee deep in it – planning that is, not manure. For it is that season – the planning season. That time of year when earnest brand managers everywhere are busy finalizing their marketing plans, and supporting budget, for next year without even knowing exactly how this year will turn out. It can be like shepherding – dark and lonely work but someone has to do it. The business needs a plan, how else can it function as a well -integrated, coordinated team; how can the CFO make accurate predictions on shareholder returns; how can HR calculate the bonus pot; how can manufacturing plan their Capex?

Everyone knows it’s a thumb-suck, everyone knows that an annual plan is an arbitrary planning period geared to shareholders not the natural ebbs and flows of markets where short term can mean a few weeks and the long term should be thought of as several years. So we compensate with FUF, SUF and TUF – first updated forecast, second updated forecast etc – and the better businesses simultaneously update their rolling long term plans, typically 3 years.

Since most see themselves as marketing businesses, which amongst other things mean they try to make what they can sell not sell what they can make (profitably), the heart of the annual business plan is the marketing plan. It should be a market/consumer centric plan not a finance/manufacturing/distribution centric plan. In reality it is an iterative plan. It iterates between functions – “You might very well think that’s what you can sell laddie/lassie but this is what we can produce so go homewards to think again” (for some reason I am convinced all production people are Scottish). “Listen lad, we will not be committing ‘owt more t’city than a 6% increase in EPS so trim your bloody budget” (and all CFO’s are from Yorkshire). As the last point shows the annual plan also iterates from the top down, from the bottom up and then top down again. The boss/CFO gives an indication of what they would see as a good result for next year. Sales and Marketing work upwards from every piece of marketing data and distribution outlet to show what might be achievable, they haggle a bit and then the boss sets the target and the plans are constructed within this parameter. Or something like that.

The Annual Plan is then written up (many of you will be busy doing that right now so how come you have time to read this?). It is presented to the higher bodies (Global normally has a voice in a multi-national matrix organization). It is tweaked, plumped and trimmed until lastly it is signed off. And there it is until FUF, SUF or until manure happens. I say manure because manure can produce higher than expected growth or a worse than expected smell.
Beyond mere topicality – ‘tis the planning season – I highlight all this because I see the annual plan as potentially the enemy of good marketing. It really is an unhelpful time period for most businesses other than agriculture, which is indeed governed by the annual seasons. A year is neither short enough nor long enough to encourage the right marketing reflexes. A rigid budget can stifle innovation – ideas do not work to a timetable. It is fine to have a well thought through game plan, just as the good sports team do, but you have to have the flexibility to move swiftly to Plan B or C or even some totally new plan depending on what works and what doesn’t.

I’d love to see marketing plans that leave a third of the budget uncommitted – some real wriggle room with which to seize the initiative. But apparently finance won’t let you. As it happens, I’m not sure I believe that. I think the problem lies in the lack of predictability or measurability of marketing and I think it might change in the future. It already has in some areas of digital marketing. Pay Per Click campaigns are the best example where the budget is deployed on a “learn fast fail cheap” basis that allows for more budget to be generated for campaigns where the ROI proves to be best.
Something to ponder while you knock out the spread-sheets and power points for next year’s plan. See if you can find ways to exploit the fact the plan will surely go astray. Be bold, ask for some wriggle room, commit to some stretch targets that can justify the release of more budget. Think about how to integrate experimentation and ROI.

Come on – are you a man or a mouse?

Can You Empathize with Facebook?

I am sure by now you have all seen “that ad” – the Facebook Ad of course, the one done by Wieden & Kennedy, Facebook’s first ever ad. What is interesting is that I would bet most of you have seen it either as part of someone’s blog or on Youtube, in other words, virally and not in paid-for broadcast media. There’s progress for you, it might even be irony. What is even more interesting is that it has been received with the kind of interest normally reserved for a new iPhone and about as much warmth as the new iPhone 5, at least as far as ‘industry experts’ are concerned. Generally people seem to be a bit disappointed with the Facebook Ad.

I get the impression that everyone is piling in to share their point of view, mostly lukewarm or negative as I say, about the Ad. I even got an email from a client and friend (yes I still have them, clients and friends, not so many these days but still one or two) who shared some of the debate going on in his organization about the ad and asking my opinion.

Here is what I told him. Firstly I find it hard to judge an Ad when I don’t know the brief. How I can conclude it was successful if I do not know what they were trying to achieve? Actually that’s not true. None of us find it hard to criticize an ad if we don’t know the brief, we do it all the time, so maybe I should have said we shouldn’t judge until or unless we know what the brief was.

That said I have worked with W&K, have a huge respect for them but know that very often they write their own brief. They have in the past, politely or not so politely, told the client that they are wrong and spelled out what their brief should be. I know this because Dan Weiden told me as much and because I experienced it first hand, not once but twice. On the first occasion they were right and we were wrong. They then produced a campaign that was nothing short of brilliant to a brief they wrote themselves. The second time I told them, not so politely, that either they followed the brief or they could f*** off. They then came back with some work that was not so much on brief but took the brief to a level we had never imagined. Nothing short of brilliant again. The brands in question were Miller High Life and Miller Lite in 2003, you figure out which was which.

So anyway, I am going to assume that W&K wrote their own brief for Facebook and I am going to speculate that Dan was heavily involved (I could be wrong on both counts). I am further going to speculate that they concluded the following:-

1.    The Ad is aimed at the 6 billion people who do not use Facebook (those that do use it require it neither to be explained nor promoted)
2.    Against a background of the movie Social Network, IPO’s, share prices, world domination etc the key task is to make people see Facebook as a natural progression of how we as humans build, and live in, communities.
3.    Ergo the task is to position Facebook not as technology or a big business brand but just a natural, inclusive, everyday thing to use.
If I’m right – and I may not be – then the Ad does not seem so bad, but maybe not so great either. I interviewed Dan once for a film I was making and listened to him explain, wisely and convincingly, how he saw brands and advertising.

He made three big points:-

1.    People mostly want to get some idea about who is behind the brand, what they believe in, their values.
2.    Throughout history we have enjoyed sharing stories – brands should tell a story.
3.    But at the end of the day an Ad should stir the emotions. His precise words were “Just f***** move me Dude!”

So let me look at the Ad against Dan’s own criteria. It tells me something about the people behind Facebook and what they believe, not a whole lot but something. It tells a bit of a story although I am not sure people will entirely get it. But it didn’t much move me dude and I’m one of the 6 billion.
The big question is why did Facebook feel they needed an Ad? I think I might have done something different, I might have quite literally told a story about the development of community and the power of empathy based on communing. If you haven’t seen this then you are in for a treat, Jeremy Rifkin’s film about ‘The Empathetic Civilization’.

Or maybe the fundamental challenge for an intangible brand is to make it tangible. Maybe Facebook should have spent their money on doing real things with real communities to position themselves as a natural extension or facilitator? Who knows? What I do know is that Facebook, and W&K were on a hiding to nothing. Because in the marketing community we are better at criticizing than we are at empathizing.

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