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Smart Thinking blog

Insights and expert advice on the key issues facing today’s pharma marketer

Are your objectives driving you nowhere?

They are the essentials to marketing but familiarity breeds complacency. Is it time to road-test your SMART-objective-setting skills?

When asked to write an account of SMART objectives, my first thought was, 'surely everyone reading this knows what SMART objectives are?' It's like learning to drive a car, once you've passed your test, it's something you end up doing without even thinking about it. But then I began to realise that, hand on heart, I don't always work to SMART objectives, neither do my clients and neither, I suspect, do quite a few of the readers here.

The reality is that experience leads to the rather bad habit of relying too much on your own instinct. It's all too easy to fall into the trap of failing to make it clear to those around you what needs to happen next. Just like the 75-year-old driver who insists, 'you should have known I was going to turn left', perhaps SMART objective setting is something we learn to do when we're young and then spend the rest of our lives forgetting it.

So, for those of you who think this might apply to you I have devised this little 'refresher test' which highlights some of the things that can and do go wrong and how these might have been prevented if the objectives had been a bit SMARTer.

First, the theory
SMART objectives have been around since at least the 1950s and although much has changed about the way we do business, nobody has been able to come up with a better system. It's also easy to see from the scenarios presented in this feature, how applying this technique correctly can have a hugely positive financial impact on both clients and agencies.

The most common interpretation of the acronym 'SMART' is shown in Figure 1. It works like this. First the 'S' stage – you write your objectives (not to be confused with goals, which are generally more aspirational and vague). If initially these objectives are too broad, keep breaking them down until you reach an objective that is truly 'specific' and deals with just one thing. It's unlikely that a campaign or product launch can be delivered with just one objective, even if they appear at first sight to be achieving the same end.

Figure 1

First, write an objective that is


Clearly state exactly what you're going to do including the:

  • Who
  • Why
  • What
  • When
  • Where

Use action words to describe what's going to be done, who's going to do it and state what the outcome is going to be

Then test that your objective is


Can it be done? You must aim high but no amount of effort or resource can achieve the impossible



Can you do it with the resources you have and in the light of any other constraints or problems you face?


How are you going to know if you've achieved the objective? What will be the proof?


When will you achieve your objective? Is that a reasonable time frame?


Then use the 'MART' stages to check your objectives – you should be able to answer "yes" to each of them with certainty. For example, you might find that your objective is achievable (eg, because it's been done before by a competitor), but unrealistic (because you don't have sufficient marketing budget).

Usually you will need to keep going back and changing your objectives until you're satisfied with them. This may take time, but if done properly will save considerable stress and wasted resource further down the line.

The practical bit
Now you need to test how effectively you are applying SMART objectives in your working life. Answer these questions honestly to see if you have found yourself facing any of these scenarios in recent years. If you answer "yes" to more than four of the following, then maybe you need to brush up on your SMART objective setting skills.

The goal posts kept changing. This is when the objective setter for the overall business is so far ahead of his or her team that they are thinking and working on a different time frame. Since the last meeting they've moved on in their 'big thinking' and bounced in with a different challenge for what needs to be done.

SMART advice. Although our instinct is to respond to these 'low balls' by switching our focus, you will be forever on the back foot with often nothing to show for what you've achieved so far.

Ultimately, those in power are results-driven and just want to know that things are being done. SMART objectives work well here. Ask the decision-maker to agree the objectives, re-issue them regularly with updates and keep the timeframes as short as possible so you can soon start delivering results.

The results didn't match the objectives. This is often a sign that you've done it backwards, ie, you've run a campaign, got some great results and then been asked to report what you achieved. Even though the campaign may have been hugely successful from the point of view of, enquiries or press coverage, if the objective was to increase referrals then your campaign could be said to have failed. Don't get into the lazy habit of 'setting retrospective objectives'. 

SMART advice. At some stage you will be caught out. And not just among your in-house peers. For example, if a submission for the Pharmaceutical Marketing Effectiveness Awards (PMEA) shows that the results don't match the objectives or you have manipulated them retrospectively, you won't get far with the judges.

Nobody seemed to grasp the initiative. This may be a case of 'failure to indicate' which, as I explained in the introduction, is the classic failure of a seasoned manager. If people don't know what to do, they either do nothing or will try to 'write their own brief' in an attempt to flush out what it is you want. This may end up wasting time as well as money.

SMART advice. Make sure your objectives are not vague and 'goal-like'. Be specific, which means being absolutely clear from the outset what you all need to achieve and how each person or team is going to contribute, however obvious it may seem.

Chinese whispers. This is where everyone interprets things slightly differently; they brief it on to their team, who then brief it to their department or agency, they add their ideas and spin, etc, etc, until eventually it looks like a different campaign. I have even known key messages and straplines to change during a campaign.  

SMART advice. If you are briefing third parties, make sure the original objectives are clearly stated and integral to their brief. Also, keep the time frames short, people come and go, and teams change, so make sure newcomers are fully inducted.
There were too many cooks. Integrated campaigns involving several agencies are notoriously difficult to manage and too often result in confusion, competition and duplication of effort.

SMART advice. Making this work has so much to do with the client being able to define SMART objectives that work for each of the agencies. This means having objectives that have a common purpose but can be adapted to the capabilities, skill sets and media channels of each agency on board.

Hereby lies the importance of the 'who, what, where and when' of objective-setting. Given the many vested interests, passions and egos involved, the individual who can pen the objectives that gets the best out of every agency in the room is gold dust to any company that employs them or indeed any agency that is lucky enough to have them as a client.

The chairman's wife syndrome. Unfortunately in the real world there is sometimes another agenda at play. This may not be logical or rationale, but there is no point in ignoring it. You need to manage this from the outset.

SMART advice. Unless everyone buys into the objectives and the measurable success criteria it is unlikely that you will get any thanks for your effort as there are no prizes for achieving the wrong objective.
The band aid. Your campaign was great but your systems let you down. 

SMART advice. Meeting a business objective almost always involves people and processes that are beyond the control of the agency. Sometimes agencies over-promise. Spend time before getting into the activity and take a reality check – are your objectives unachievable?
You stalled. In other words you've been working on this for so long that you've lost the plot.

SMART advice. Keep your timescales short. A good solution is the 100-day management technique for setting and achieving objectives. Just over three months is long enough to get our teeth into something and make a difference, but a short enough amount of time for it still to feel fresh and inspiring.

You didn't go on green. Lots of meetings, lots of positive feedback, lots of good intentions, but still no progress. The MD of my last agency used to describe these individuals as the ones who just 'enjoy the journey'.

SMART advice. Make sure there are plenty of action words in your objectives or you will never get past go. 

You invested in the BIG IDEA… but it didn't deliver. Staking everything on a 'big idea' is a bold move as you have no idea if it is achievable or measurable. Most agencies understand that in pushing the boundaries they can't always guarantee a result.

The problem is that clients may love the big idea, but fail to truly take on board (and share with their superiors) the risks. This may be because they place too much faith in their agency to deliver every time, but also because the agency hasn't made it clear that there are no guarantees.

The important message is that SMART objectives are the failsafe and it's okay to bend the rules sometimes but everyone has to sign up to it. 

SMART advice. Don't get carried away with the excitement; evaluate the risk, use your SMART-objective tools to demonstrate why your idea might be unrealistic, and then manage the expectations of your colleagues, managers and clients.

The world's most successful businesses have become so because they embraced the element of risk, but only go ahead if you can afford for it to fail. Of course if the big idea flies, the results can way exceed your expectations... 

Article by
Lyn Wallace

managing director of Wallace HCL.
She can be contacted at or on 020 8995 5354

14th September 2011


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