If there’s anything we’ve learned from the last few years, it’s that even the best-laid plans can become completely irrelevant in the blink of an eye. How many trips, conferences, campaigns and launches were delayed or canceled altogether as people waited out wave after wave of COVID? And who’s lost track of how many times we set and subsequently had to bump our planned “return-to-office” dates?
As we move toward something that resembles life before COVID, we’re starting to hear more clients declare, “Ok. Let’s get back to our annual planning.”
While we all can appreciate the enthusiasm of wanting a return to places and things familiar, the idea of trying to nail down where the world is headed and how you and your clients fit into it over the next 12 months—or the next six months, for that matter—seems like misspent energy.
Has the annual plan reached the end of its useful life?
Bobbing and weaving
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of a good plan and all the smart thinking that goes into building one. There’s never a wrong time to take a step back, survey the landscape and think about how to get from where you are now to where you want to be. Even better, envision the steps and milestones, how you’re going to measure progress and plot it all against a timeline.
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But in today’s era of change that comes at us faster than the produce in a game of Fruit Ninja, is the tried-and-true annual plan the best approach?
As I think about the discipline of developing plans and where it’s headed in the future, ironically, it’s a decades-old quote that sums it up well. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was a five-star general for the Army during World War II, said, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
The battle of COVID proved that so many of our plans did, in fact, become useless. At the same time, planning proved to be invaluable as we all chased constantly moving milestones, bobbing and weaving along the way.
From plans to planning
To be clear, I’m not specifically talking about “account planning” as an agency function or department—although the kind of work account planners do is invaluable to the process. Rather, I’m talking about planning as an action, or even a philosophy—a commitment to continually assess, adjust and move forward.
We’ve seen some of our most conservative clients shifting away from traditional planning cycles and toward approaches such as quarterly plans and rolling planning cycles. In fact, just recently one of our largest clients instructed its global communications team to resist producing an annual plan and focus instead on the first quarter, with a loose framework—without tactics—laid out for the remainder of the year.
Sure, most everyone is still beholden to the annual budgeting process, where communications departments are given a budget and are expected to show leadership how they will spend it for the year.
We’ve worked to help clients shift the expectations of leadership toward a different planning model—one where we focus more energy on the near-term while demonstrating that the work and plans are nestled into a longer-term vision that is regularly reviewed and revised.
Even as we consider how we run our own agency’s business, we’ve learned to be much lighter on our feet. While we ask our sector and practice groups for their best forecasts around where we’ll land for revenues and budgets for the year, we’ve taken the focus off of asking them to assemble 12 months-worth of staffing, marketing and business development plans. Instead, we’ve been taking more of a quarter-by-quarter approach—with weekly and monthly measurements and check-ins built into the process—making sure our hopes and dreams match the realities of whatever is happening at the moment.
As we all move toward a more agile way of working, it certainly hasn’t come without some growing pains. But I think we can all agree that we’ve come through this in a better place, where we can all be less entrenched in what’s supposed to happen, and more focused on finding ways to squeeze the most out of the now, while we navigate toward what’s next.
Tina Charpentier is Executive Vice President, Client Experience, at Padilla.