Don’t try this alone – Why integrated communications planning deserves an outside perspective

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This e-book is about integrated communications planning, but it is not a self-help book. In fact, it is the opposite of a self-help book. This e-book makes the case for why it is smarter for most companies to consider working with an outside planning resource.

Why plan at all?

There are so many reasons to formally plan a communications program that every page of this e-book could be devoted to this topic alone. We’ll spare you and cover it all in one:

  1. Planning brings rationality
    Planning involves determination of clear and specific objectives. The courses of action to be taken to accomplish the plan are easier to determine when they must all logically relate back to objectives.
  2. Planning minimizes uncertainty
    The future cannot be predicted with 100% accuracy but planning helps anticipate it — and prepare for contingencies.
  3. Planning facilitates coordination
    Planning helps avoid duplication of efforts. If everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing, they can work toward common goals with minimal redundancy.
  4. Planning improves morale
    Whether it be your own staff, your agency or other vendors you work with, planning creates an atmosphere of order and discipline that all can appreciate.
  5. Planning achieves economies
    Not only does planning avoid wastage of resources, documentation of what is in development can improve the opportunity to repurpose, and thus improve efficiency.
  6. Planning leads to accountability
    “That which cannot be measured cannot be managed,” the old saying goes. Planning provides predetermined goals against which actual performance is compared.
  7. Planning can provide a competitive edge
    If your competitors don’t plan (or don’t plan effectively), your organization will be stronger in the marketplace if your company has an effective plan in place.
  8. Planning encourages new thinking
    Planning is essentially a decision-making methodology that necessarily involves creative thinking and asking “what if” questions that can inspire innovation.

If you’ve read this far, odds are you don’t need to be sold any more on the need for communications planning. You may, however, need to be sold on how you should plan.

So here goes…

Why (and where) to go outside for planning

Communications planning with an outside partner — especially an integrated communications agency — has a number of benefits.

Let’s look at why a firm of this type is so well suited to the task:

  1. Avoiding tunnel vision
    Agencies can apply experience from working with many different clients to your planning. What has worked in one industry may very well work in another — yours.
  2. Cross-functional thinking
    Agencies can offer a cross-functional perspective that is hard for most companies to match. This is very important in today’s omni-channel marketing world. We’ll get into this further when we talk about T-planning.
  3. Fresh thinking
    Unlike companies, agencies are objective (at least theoretically). There are no “sacred cows” when they plan, and they are not beholden to legacy thinking (i.e.,“Sales says we must attend this trade show because we always have,” etc.).
  4. Ideally positioned
    Agencies are uniquely positioned in a very strategic spot in the new marketing value chain. We’ll cover this idea later, but for now, please understand that leveraging this position should lead to a better plan.
  5. Scalable and nimble
    Corporate America has been eliminating marketing and communications jobs for some time in a push for increased efficiencies. This can present a serious challenge to marketing departments. As a result, communications planning has become an obvious target for outsourcing.
  6. Seamless hand-off
    If your agency is responsible for your planning, odds are many of the people (creative, media, etc.) who would be in charge of executing it were involved in its development. This means they are already intimate with its details and ready to get started on its deliverables.

Certainly you could hire another type of firm for planning (e.g., management consultants are entering the fray), but the integrated communications agency concept inherently provides added benefits beyond the planning function too. Namely, a synchronized brand voice, experience and cost efficiencies generated through creativity and production.

In light of all these benefits, including an outside partner in your planning just makes sense.

The role of planning in the new marketing value chain

Seismic shifts in both technology and customer behavior have given marketers access to previously inaccessible data. This has changed marketing forever, and as a natural result, has also changed the value integrated communications firms can offer.

In Movéo’s white paper, The New Marketing Value Chain, we contend that the true value of such firms today comes from the application of data-driven insight to form strategy and inform execution. If this is true, the role of planning (where strategy is born) is a defining one. It straddles the discovery and analysis of relevant information and the downstream development and deployment of communications. With such a pivotal position in this new “marketing value chain,” planning needs to be a dedicated function. There are three reasons for this:

  1. Specialization
    Today, many agencies still have account executives do their planning, and as capable as these folks may be, they also tend to be very stretched with other duties (sales, program management, etc.). Dedicated planners have the expertise and bandwidth needed to do the job.
  2. Experience
    Dedicated planners have been through the process many times, so they have learned how to better manage plan development. This improves process efficiency.
  3. Communication
    When shared ownership of responsibility and communication exists, confusion can result while trying to develop the plan. More effective decisions can made using a single point of responsibility — a planning lead.

At Movéo, we made a decision to have a dedicated planning function several years ago when we structured our entire agency around the new marketing value chain. This investment certainly took time and energy, but it was an investment that has paid off in benefits — both direct and indirect — for our clients.

If you haven’t read the white paper referred to on this page, the third box in the diagram above may require explanation. “Application of Rules & Tools,” refers to the know-how the planning function needs to tap into at the agency when developing tactics for a modern communications plan.

More on that next.

Who said there’s no “T” in “planning”?

T-planning is another good reason to go outside for your planning, but there’s one more yet.

There are typically two types of planning challenges — strategic and tactical. Because it is an important (and somewhat rare) skill, strategic thinking gets the lion’s share of attention when people talk about planning.

Yet, tactical thinking — specifically the thinking around the appropriate marketing communications mix — is of equal importance. In fact, this type of challenge is becoming increasingly difficult for clients to master on their own.

This is because the number of channels and vehicles available to marketers have exponentially increased. Without a wide breadth of tactical knowledge, it is virtually impossible to achieve cost efficiency, maximize message impact and effectively coordinate all the moving pieces needed to effectively launch a brand and/or product. But the width of the marketing mix is only half of it. Today “T-shaped” planning is needed that demands both width and depth of knowledge. Accessing this type of knowledge requires the talents of a multi-disciplinary team in the planning process.

The graphic on the right shows just how deep a single functional discipline — search engine optimization — can go. Add that to the long list of disciplines now part of marketing and you can quickly see how the need for knowledge compounds.

It is only cost effective for the largest of companies to hire such a diverse team, but an integrated communications agency can do so economically because it can spread staff overhead across multiple clients (and multiple planning assignments).

The rise of active planning

“A good plan, executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.” When General George S. Patton spoke these words, he could have been talking about communications planning instead of warfare.

Yet much has changed on the planning front over the years.

Traditional integrated communications planning, a mainstay of the marketing world for decades, is now what is under assault. The routine of analyzing existing market situations, predicting an optimal outcome, and then constructing an annual plan to capture that outcome is increasingly ineffective in a dynamic environment — like the one we’re in.

To be successful, planners must now plan using principles of agile marketing — speedy action, learning through failure and a premeditated bias to experimentation that creates feedback. This is because marketers now have an unprecedented ability to fine tune their allocation decisions while making course corrections, sometimes in real time.

To be clear, planning has in no way lost its value, however, the longer its cycle the less its relevance. What is required today is a more active type of integrated communications planning. This may be a shock to those raised on classical planning, yet the traditional way of doing things can lead to too much planning, too soon. The result can be a huge waste of resources. Movéo now plans in shorter time increments — sprints — that allow for testing and learning — after which programs scale accordingly.

In short, active planning puts more emphasis on learning than it does on the team’s ability to steadfastly follow a drawn out plan. The expectation is that once it gets started, executing the plan is more than likely to change based on what the team has learned.

While integrated communications agencies do not have a monopoly on active planning, it is an approach that lends itself to mastery with experience. For example, knowing what to test and when, and how to analyze the results.

After all, poorly executed active planning is no better than planning of any other kind.

What we’ve learned from clients

Part of being the right outside partner for planning is understanding what companies want in a plan — and what they don’t.

You do that by listening, and here is what we have heard:

  1. Keep it concise
    Marketers don’t want a plan to become a science project. Unnecessary meetings and overly long decks are not the way to a client’s heart (or their head). Plans should cover what they need to cover — and no more.
  2. Help them sell it
    Many plans, especially plans that involve big budgets, need to be sold up the corporate ladder. Marketers appreciate collaborating with a third party partner to develop the tools to do so. This may involve the agency providing a modified plan tailored for the C-suite.
  3. Collaborate
    Marketers are the recipient of plans, but that does not mean they should be uninvolved in their development. In fact, their participation is absolutely essential at key stages.
  4. Follow through
    If a company approves a plan, they expect it to be executed. Providing a timeline that isn’t kept or coming up with creative executions that ignore the plan’s agreed upon strategy and tactics are just two ways agencies can torpedo confidence — and perhaps even weaken the value of planning in the eyes of your client.
  5. Prove value
    Marketers have worked hard to earn their seat at the boardroom table, but that seat has a price — accountability. A measurement framework for ROI is not a nice-to-have in a plan, it is a must-have.

So much for advice for outside planners, now we have some for the companies that work with them.

Helping your planning partner

Planning should not occur in a vacuum. There are a number of ways a company can help their outside partner during the planning process.

  1. Be transparent
    One of the biggest influencers on strategic thinking is the budget, yet many companies do not like giving their agency budget figures because they fear doing so will inflate the spend. Aside from eroding trust, this is just not an efficient way to partner. While agencies might have an idea for what an effective budget should be, they can’t provide good counsel if they don’t know the real numbers. Only then can they determine how far from reality the expected investment is to achieve expectations.
  2. Be generous with information
    Great plans are built on facts, so the more of these your agency is operating from, the better the plan will be. Sometimes it may require a significant effort to get the information your planning partner might ask for, but believe us — it’s worth it. Too much information is always preferable to too little. Please understand that providing such information to your agency does not mean that it should not also be doing its own digging — it should.
  3. Be an active participant
    As mentioned previously, you have an important role to play in the planning process. For example, Movéo involves its clients at three crucial steps — at the beginning (so that everybody understands what will be delivered, when and how), in the middle, so that communication objectives and strategies can be vetted, and at the end where tactics, timing, measurement and budget allocation can be agreed upon.When a plan is phased in such a way, companies collaborate in the plan’s development while letting their planning consultant take the lead at the points they can provide the most value. This approach also makes sure there is complete alignment as the team moves toward implementation.
  4. Don’t cut corners
    Plans are very valuable deliverables and the time and resources required to produce them are considerable. That being said, some companies still think their agencies should somehow make it up on the back end (for example in communications or media fees) and provide planning at a discounted rate. Resist the temptation to do this and you will likely be rewarded with a better plan — your agency won’t be tempted to involve fewer people or spend less time in the planning process to keep within budget.

Provide these four things and the ball’s in your partner’s court.

Choosing an agency goes beyond just planning considerations — there are other criteria such as creativity and digital savvy (not to mention chemistry) that are also important. But the stakes are too high today for strong planning capabilities to not be on your agency selection short-list, if not at the very top. Have you found our arguments for using an outside partner to do your integrated communications planning compelling?

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