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Break the déjà vu of annual planning

24 Sep 2019  |  Steve Edwards 
Break the déjà vu of annual planning

Steve Edwards offers a guide to help you change your planning game

If 2020 planning is on your mind, and you have that sense of déjà vu that you are asking the same people the same questions (and you still haven’t tackled the structural issues from last year) how do you go about making sure that this time next year it won’t be the same?

Yes, you can re-boot the planning process, again, and you can recruit new teams and agencies but, that might just be asking new people the same challenges. To change the game, consider what enables fast and relevant transformation and reflect on three things before you embark on another planning process.

Strategic Independence

Unconscious bias is rightly being highlighted as the media industry tackles its significant diversity challenges – yet it exists in our strategic thinking as well as our perceptions of people. Our sub-conscious predispositions colour our views of the art of the possible, as well as the best approach to go beyond it.

Commercial leaders who spend their time battling challenging market conditions – or benefiting from growth waves - expect them to continue; technology leaders who have invested their energies in developing the solutions customers need will expect all of them to buy; and the challenge is particularly prevalent in the client – agency relationship  - ‘If you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail’ rings true for every specialist agency.

The issue isn’t a lack of talent in the room but the unintended consequence of creating individual delivery silos. So, create a strategically independent team who ensure:

Aligned incentives: Consider what motivates your extended teams, agencies, advisors and even investors. What is driving them and is your success aligned to how they are committing their time and creativity. Reward involvement directly linked to your business performance as much as you can and evaluate whether you are paying your resources enough directly for them not to need to engage other routes to make money.

Fresh thinking: If you really want to know you’ve got true independent thinking you need to de-couple the strategy from the implementation. Pay separately for the smart thinking and don’t get it rolled into the package with delivery. And if you can’t de-couple the strategy, get a second opinion from someone fresh and unconflicted by core income models.

The Whole Picture

Everyone loves the concept of “marginal gains” developed by Team Sky because it shows a way of stretching performance to deliver wins. It works precisely because each gain has one objective - the overall performance of the team.

So, resolving the same question, same answer challenge is a matter of framing or unframing the issue and removing the silos to focus on that one goal.  10 disciplines with 10 strategic heads all optimising their own little area doesn’t give the singular view of the consumer. It becomes an amalgam of lots of little strategies without a common purpose.

Take a step back and think of the consumer first. Borrow Zero Based Budgeting as a consumer centric way of looking at planning. Start with the customer journey. Work out where the opportunities and challenges are from acquisition through to ownership and retention and how you’ll make the most commercial gain. Then and only then work out what solutions you actually need. That works whether you’re advertiser,  agency, technology or media owner.

Having a clearly focused task doesn’t mean shrinking the team to fewer more homogenous members but the opposite. Different perspectives, disciplines, cultures, knowledge and understanding of the whole give the diversity of thought and opportunity that is key to new thinking.

Think Long, Act Short

Annual planning happens at a particularly challenging time of year – alongside the most important period for this year’s performance. This week’s number often seems to matter more than next year’s, let alone the number three years out. Data is driving more immediate effectiveness goals as the pace of change from technology accelerates. Yet this time, more than any, must be the time to look up and out and think about the future opportunities and challenges.

What will the impact of next year’s plan be on the following year? What is the legacy you’re creating? What are the unsolved tech challenges you have today and what will the impact of them be for next year? Yes, focus today but what are you excluding and what are the implications for the future. Will other issues need to be addressed in future or have you successfully shut them down now. It’s not about trying to tackle everything now but being aware of what lies ahead.

Advertisers, agencies, technology businesses and media owners alike are wrestling with innovator’s dilemmas today. They require different thinking and mindsets – pragmatic acceptance of challenges, yet ambitious and optimistic visions around the opportunities. As technology accelerates change its even more important not to put off forward thinking.

Welcome déjà vu and respond to it

As W&K and Honda beautifully expressed with their Grr campaign, if you hate something, change something and the hardest part of any change in approach is recognising the need and turning déjà vu into a trigger for transition. If you have that familiar feeling, before you start planning ahead, take 30 minutes to ask the blunt questions of what’s wrong and could be better.

Now is the time for a bit of self-reflection. See if you are aligned as a team for the same goal of business success and that you are taking a strategic, broad view and not a tactical look at disconnected elements to build aa plan for now and the future.


Steve Edwards, is co-founder of Hare and Tortoise Consulting with Tim Gentry. He is a media specialist, client and advisor, having started as a board director at MediaCom and then Client Services Director at MGOMD before founding the agency’s growth strategy unit, Beyond.

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