CMO Strategy Series: Shifting Paradigms: The Future of Marketing Planning

Written by Kathleen Schaub, former IDC Analyst

Innovation adoption in marketing happens in a predictable pattern. In my years as an IDC analyst I saw that strong early indicators appear when a trend is likely to become more widely adopted. 

Today, those indicators point to a significant paradigm shift in marketing management. This shift has been accelerated by the COVID pandemic.

Many traditional marketing processes are based on manufacturing paradigms that originated in the 20th century industrial age. The pace of business was slower at that time. Customers had less power and there was less information available. Wherever you find a linear stage-gate or waterfall business process you are witnessing a hold-over from that manufacturing paradigm. But we’re not in the industrial age anymore. 

In the digital age, more effective marketing management paradigms are emerging from technology, especially software, and from nature. These innovations are affecting the future of marketing planning.

How Marketing Trends Become Evident

While it’s difficult to predict the timing and pace of trend adoption, the markers of a potential trend are easier to see. I first notice new things in the practices of marketing innovators.

Marketing innovators tend to be very smart people who have wide networks and even wider interests. Innovators keep their eyes open for where the “heat” is and usually have a relatively large budget that accommodates experiments. Digital marketing trends often start in B2C where firms have a lot of customers and a lot of data. Then trends migrate to B2B.

Once marketing innovators adopt something new, I watch how forward-looking, larger companies work with the new practice. This phase is important. For a trend to stick, it must become practical, cost effective, and scalable. Trends change significantly during this phase.

How Technology Manages Marketing Planning Complexity

One important marketing planning trend is the application of technology to the perennial aspiration of making planning easier.

Marketing outcomes are inherently uncertain, which makes planning extremely difficult. The larger the enterprise, the more complex the planning challenge. Larger companies deal with more alignment issues, conflicting priorities, and multiple product lines and regions. Digital has been a catch-22 for marketers: both increasing the complexity of marketing planning and providing technology that makes it easier to see the whole picture, track what’s happening, and support collaboration.

Technology is also a critical support for a second trend – adopting planning methods that are better suited for complex, uncertain, business environments.

Is Agile the New Planning Paradigm?

I’m extremely bullish on Agile marketing. It’s purpose-built for change. As companies adopt Agile marketing, how marketers plan and think about planning must change to accommodate this shift.

Software developers have been working on Agile methods for twenty-plus years – there is much wisdom we can gain from them. But at the same time, marketers can’t take software methodologies and adopt them wholesale. Marketing is different, and I think Agile marketing isn’t finished evolving.

I see a lot of marketers putting toes in the water and adopting a practice or two. However, a real shift to agility is a systemic, multi-year, cultural change that goes beyond marketing. Companies that make small do-it-yourself changes without considering the system of practices needed, will end up re-writing their playbook only to face the same old problems again. Because of this deeper requirement I think Agile marketing is less mature than some adoption numbers would indicate.

I advise learning about Agile formally – a couple training days or some good books are helpful. Then, figure out the pieces you can adopt now. I first experienced practices similar to Scrum, Kanban, and Lean early in my career when I was trained in just-in-time supply-chain processes. I successfully adopted some of these as a CMO. 

Pace layering is another new practice, although even marketers who do this may not recognize the label. It was first observed in nature and then applied to IT architecture. Pace layering in planning can work like this: the monolithic, linear, annual plan gets broken down into pieces (layers) that can travel (be paced) at varying intervals.

The lowest level is the company’s five-year plan which changes at a slowest pace. It informs and guides the typically annual fiscal year plan which includes the budget and revenue plan. This informs the marketing plan which is revised every six months. The marketing plan shapes campaigns which are run in quarterly or even quicker intervals. Pace layering allows for the overall marketing budget to be annual and in sync with the financial plan, but campaigns and resources can be planned and adjusted more frequently.

COVID-19’s Role as a Trend Accelerator 

The shelter-in-place and health aspects of the COVID-19 crisis are unique in our time. COVID abruptly rearranged every-day life. The accompanying fear caused a cascade of immediate failures and needs. Although the pandemic and the related economic crisis affects industries and specific companies differently, there are some commonalities for marketing. The current context demands attention to enduring customer relationships, digital commerce, healthcare, supply-chains, and workforce issues.

Uncertainty, opportunity, and innovation are characteristic of all crises. We’ve already seen remarkable adaptations. I don’t see COVID-19 reversing the trends in marketing planning that we already discussed. If anything, it accelerates them by shining a light on the value of technology and adaptable processes. 

Adoption of marketing technology in some sectors may slow due to the financial challenges caused by the pandemic. However, the landscape for marketing technology makes it easier for innovation to happen and flourish. The current market has already evolved to a platform-based architecture with an ecosystem of thousands of apps. Some app companies go away, however many new ones will emerge as companies morph their lives and business processes to fit the next normal.

Adoption of adaptive marketing processes was boosted by the pandemic’s shock. Everyone was ill-prepared. Everyone wishes they could be nimbler and more resilient. Unfortunately, you’re only as fast as your slowest part. The expectation for both teams and executives should be that things will change in the direction of adaptivity. But not overnight. 

My advice for marketers planning in 2020 is to understand your mission and foundational priorities. Then be prepared to be flexible on almost everything else. 

Kathleen Schaub has nearly 40 years of experience in marketing including roles as a CMO and analyst. Most recently, she was Vice President, CMO Advisory and Customer Experience Practice at IDC. She’s currently writing a book on the transformation of marketing management. Kathleen’s website is KathleenSchaub.com

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