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Breaking free

Circular processes will liberate your brand planning

A hole being made in a brick wallPlanning should be a circular process. We must regularly challenge, refresh and refine our view of the world in which we compete to ensure that our planning is as robust as possible. A circular planning approach can help marketers be more proactive, more innovative and have greater foresight in ensuring that their plans work in the real world, focusing on a few of the key elements that could help make the process a success.

Circular not linear
As senior managers and marketers, we all understand the value of planning, whether strategic or tactical. At its most basic, planning is about understanding where we are, where we want to be and how we will get there. But plans cannot be written in stone: they need to live and breathe, they need to be implemented, challenged and revised.

We do not live in a static world; markets are dynamic by nature. They change and they evolve. Planning, in order to be effective, should therefore aspire to be more 'circular' than 'linear'. These plans can then be iterative; as we discover how our actions influence the market, the customer and the competition, we are able to adapt our plans accordingly. However, there is a notable discrepancy between what planning should be and what planning actually is.

Internal pressures and constraints often mean that planning timelines are not ideal. Processes and templates can override the thinking they are supposed to stimulate, which distracts from the real purpose of planning: to deliver something robust, competitive and sustainable for our organisation or brand.

Developing a more circular approach to planning is vital when bringing together the wider cross-functional team. Plans with life in them engage teams better and ensure a willingness to learn and adapt the plan based on new and relevant understanding.

As a consultancy we at MSI have a unique opportunity to work with many of the top pharmaceutical companies (from embedding planning processes to pressure-testing brand plans). Having been on the 'client' side we also understand the challenges and frustrations that come with organisational planning. From these experiences we are able to offer some practical observations about what appears to work and what appears to get in the way of a circular approach to planning. Often only simple tweaks in approach are required to make something dead and outdated live and breathe.

Increasingly the desire for consistency means that companies demand a comprehensive deck of PowerPoint slides to represent the 'plan', which can often run to more than 100 slides of 'information'. These processes (and the templates) can end up driving the plan, rather than letting the plan be driven by the thinking behind the processes. The quality of thinking suffers, creativity is stifled and the wider brand team becomes disengaged and disillusioned, seeing planning as nothing more than a 'template filling' exercise.

On the whole marketers' motivations are, as they should be, to deliver the best for their brands. But to move towards a more engaging and iterative approach to planning — where as the year unfolds we are flexible and are able to adapt our strategy and subsequent activities — we need to re-think our approach to the phrase 'planning cycle'.

What can we do better?
Based on our observations there are things that can be done to encourage good circular planning.

Clearly we need to be less driven by templates. Rather than focusing on the quantity of information we should concentrate on the quality of thinking. If senior management requires you to fill in a comprehensive slide deck, then develop a working document for the core team — a more manageable, slimmed-down version focused on the critical insights and the key strategic thrusts.

Do not allow team members to become disillusioned, causing planning fatigue and ultimately lack of ownership. Instead, reprioritise the organisational importance of planning. Set out to engage the full brand team throughout the development of the plan, its ongoing review and adaptation. Organise exciting and creative workshops, giving people work to prepare and actions to take away. Try to focus on the critical business issues, find consensus and force prioritisation. That allows you to build on what has been done previously, develop the best plan (based on current knowledge) and ensure the whole team sets out on a journey of constant, circular planning.

It is vital to ensure that the same level of emphasis is applied at all stages of plan development, so that teams do not spend all their time and energy on situational analysis and then get fatigued before the tactical planning stage.

Accountability within planning is also critical. Help the team members clearly to understand their role throughout the year, the skills they bring and their individual responsibility for identifying, anticipating and meeting customers' needs.

Cause and effect
Many of our clients assume that they are working through the planning process in isolation. That may seem strange at first, given that companies go through extensive situational analysis as part of their annual planning, reviewing customers, competition and market dynamics. However truly to move beyond working in isolation we need to remember that everything we do has an impact on our customers, competitors and the market itself.

Equally planning must be a continual and fluid process. We need to put regular opportunities in place for challenging our thinking, learning from the future, developing contingencies and adapting our plan as the year progresses. There are many tools that help us do this: the simplest is to make sure that the plan is not simply a yearly tick box exercise but a 'living and breathing' practice.

This is as simple as scheduling monthly reviews for people to bring new learnings to the table, discussing as a team the impact these have on the plan. When we initially develop a plan, we should build something which is as robust as possible at that point in time. But to stay ahead of the game, we need constantly to learn, adapt and be flexible.

Iterative planning
Allocate time on a monthly basis constantly to check, challenge and refine your plan, strategy and activities. This could be as simple as holding one-hour sessions, individually or with the team. You need to ask what is working, what isn't, what lessons you are learning and where the gaps are. Learning from the future requires the whole team, a natural route for further engagement.

Develop 'indicators of the future.' Identify the competitive and market indicators that you need to track, research and measure. This will help you understand what is changing versus your core assumptions. Track the activities that you have put in place and ascertain the impact that they have had on the dynamics of the market. Recognise that each activity will impact your marketplace: don't just measure ROI, measure market reaction.

Consider using workshop-based processes such as scenario learning and competitor rooms to pressure-test your thinking and consider competitive response. These can be run every six months and are great catalysts for engaging the team in the thinking, allowing you to ensure a more future-proof strategy.

If marketing is a 'customer focused philosophy, not a system or organised structure' and if it is 'founded on the belief that profitable sales can only be achieved by identifying and anticipating customers' needs and desires' then it is everyone's job, as part of the wider brand team, to 'market' our brands. Therefore, not only do we need to engage people in the vision and strategy for the brand (or organisation) but we must also invest in helping them understand the marketing tools and processes used to develop creative thinking, generate insight and build robust plans.

The most cohesive and engaging brand plans are built in companies where the wider team has a good commercial marketing mindset, where everyone understands the value of marketing, and where everyone sees planning as fundamental in getting close to our customers and making a difference with the medicines we are selling.

Investing in people's commercial capabilities has an additional benefit in aiding overall engagement across the team. This means that plans tend to be challenged and thought through more effectively, planning workshops are energising, proactive and creative, and the final plan is more valuable, more believable and, ultimately, implementable.

We have seen small changes have a great impact; for example, setting up training interventions (such as 'marketing for non-marketers'), focusing individuals' and departments' skills appropriately throughout the planning cycle, and providing clear accountability for aspects of the plan and its iterations (by, for example, tracking competitors or KOL opinion). A simple but effective approach is to start every planning workshop or update meeting with a piece of marketing training, introducing new tools or demonstrating best practice approaches.

The best chance of success
The critical question is do we believe planning should be circular in nature rather than linear, static and annual? Should planning help us feed in new information and help us modify the plan itself?

In observing many companies and in working with numerous brand teams my recommendation would be to create a more iterative approach. This involves more creativity in terms of attitude and style, more pragmatism around process (you may still need to complete the 100 slides required corporately) and more focused (monthly) strategy reviews. But essentially it means that as a team you genuinely have a living and breathing plan, which is flexible to the dynamics of your market.

Teams that get it right also appear to have fun along the way. They come up with interesting and creative ideas and are more than willing to stop doing things which are ineffective. They also have the confidence to know that, even though no-one can precisely predict the future, a circular approach provides the best chance of delivering a robust, competitive and sustainable plan, which ultimately has the best chance of success.


Top tips to a more circular approach to planning

• Make your plan genuinely 'live and breathe' – it should not be set in stone. Feel free to learn and adapt as you take on board new learning
• Set up monthly workshops to review new learning
• Engage everyone in the development and evaluation of the plan
• Let the plan be led by your collective thinking, not the templates
• Pressure test the plan regularly using scenarios of the future
• Regularly consider your competitors' response and build appropriate contingencies
• Remain focused − don't let the templates distract you from the core issues you need to deal with and need to be good at
• Set up trackers to help you understand the impact of your activities – what works and doesn't work and how the market reacts.


The Author
Jon Bircher
is head of bespoke consulting at The MSI Consultancy Limited

To comment on this article, email

29th November 2010


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