For agencies, the hardest part of marketing is getting stuff done.

Priorities change. Activity drops. Results slip.

But the problem isn’t distraction. The problem is the agency model itself.

For the most part, agencies must respond to new opportunities when they appear – which means dropping work on their own projects to put clients first. That’s good client service. But it also means that even best-laid marketing plans can be swept away by new demands – which means marketing doesn’t get done.

The most important thing for agency marketing plans, then, is flexibility.

That was the message when we interviewed leading UK agencies to find out how they plan their marketing activity, as part of our Good Agency Marketing study.

Here’s how our interviewers set their marketing plans (and stick to them.)

Holistic marketing planning

Effective planning takes time and perspective. That’s why London/Kent-based Yoyo approach their marketing planning on a 15-month cycle – spending 3–4 months reviewing their performance over the last year and setting plans for the next, then getting down to work.

Managing Director Jenny Kitchen explains: “We start at the top, at the beginning of the year, with an annual plan that’s very closely aligned to our business objectives. This works out well because our financial year ends on 31st August. At that point, we’ll do a couple of months’ work on business strategy – reflecting on the year that’s gone and the year ahead, organising budgets and things like that. That gives us a clear plan of what we want from the business in the next financial year.”

It’s a holistic approach to planning. “We review our data as a board, considering all of the different touch points and things – not only financial data, but also how we feel about different elements of the business. Did we enjoy doing that? Did we like those clients? How strong is our team?”

The resulting 12-month plan is part of a 3-year picture. “It’s not, like every year we start from ground zero,” says Jenny. “We’ve got a 3-year plan that’s always moving along, but then we will drill down and ask, for the year ahead, how much revenue do we want to do? How much profit? What does the team structure look like? Wage rises, incentives, benefits and things like that will all be identified.”

Setting aside time for planning also ensures Jenny has buy-in for her plans.

“These discussions flow more into the sales and marketing planning side. We don’t do the overall business strategy and then start sales and marketing; there’s an overlap in there and those kinds of discussions feed and loop into one another. On the board, we’ve got our commercial director and me, the marketing director. This way, we have those sales and marketing decisions being made throughout the business planning process.

“There are never any secrets. Everybody in the agency knows our overall business strategy but it means that, at that early point, they’re much more involved in those conversations and can help feed into that loop. Once that’s agreed, we can then plan our delivery tactics.”

Yoyo’s planning hasn’t always been so efficient, says Jenny. “We’ve done a lot of work over this past year around our data around the business, getting all of the financial data – such as revenue per client – in one place. Where this used to take months and months of analysis in the past, now it takes us a few hours.”

Entrepreneurial Operating System

Like Yoyo, most of the agencies we spoke to take a 12-month view of their marketing and use tried-and-tested frameworks to set goals and track their results. These include WordPress agency Pragmatic.

Commercial Director Simon Cooke explains: “For planning, the whole agency uses a framework called ‘EOS’ from Traction by Gino Wickman. It’s a detailed system that relies on setting ‘rocks’ – based on the proverb about rocks, pebbles and sad. This ensures we tackle the big stuff first.”

“Each year we have a big brainstorming get-together and talk about the long-term goals that the marketing department wants to achieve over the next 2 or 3 years. Off the back of that meeting, we ensure that we have our yearly ‘rocks’ set so that, as a department, we know what big things we want to achieve by the end of the year.

“Importantly, these rocks are set in line with the ARCI method, which is ‘Accountable’, ‘Responsible’, ‘Consulted’ and ‘Informed’. Let’s say in 2018 we set ourselves 10 ‘rocks’ for the marketing department. Updating the website might be one. One major event per quarter might be another. We make sure somebody is accountable for each one of those ‘rocks’.

“Next, we break these rocks down into quarters. ‘Q1’s ‘rock’ is, in the case of the events, hosting one event. If you think about how complex a website redesign might be, the ‘rock’ might be just to write the brief.

“Essentially, you start with your big tasks, cut them down into quarters, make people accountable for them and then execute. Each week your progress against each rock is measured. You’re either on or off-track, which means that every week we know whether we’re close to achieving our ‘rocks’ or not.  Ideally, we’re looking to hit an 80%, 90% achievement rate on those ‘rocks’ each quarter.”

The editorial approach

For some agencies, looking 12 months ahead is unrealistic and unnecessary. Take London-based Smoke Creatives, who’ve instead adopted a ‘rolling’ editorial calendar to keep themselves creatively inspired and active in marketing.

“We follow our own creative method of planning. We make it up as we go along, essentially!” says co-founder Katrin Owusu. “We do quarterly planning, and then any opportunities that come up will either go into our marketing mix or get discarded. We don’t set solid plans that we can’t change along the way.”

What guides Smoke’s marketing are the agency’s content ‘pillars’. “Our intern, Annabelle, is really good at working with these pillars,” says co-founder Susi Owusu.

“She’ll tell us when a relevant event is coming up, for example, and ask for our suggestions for content on it. We recently had the Oxfam sex scandal abroad and saw we that we needed to talk about the topic and our work in relation to that. Initially, we created a blog on the topic that was so long that we turned it into a series of different comments on things that international development agencies need to do differently. In summary: we’ve got firm content pillars that are planned against, but then, the content creation itself evolves fairly organically.”

Susi and Katrin’s marketing planning hasn’t always worked this way. “We’ve had several attempts at setting up marketing within the business,” says Katrin. “We’ve sat down and mapped out frameworks. We’ve gone through the whole process ourselves; which channels we think are going to be the most effective, what we’re going to say on Throwback Thursdays versus the amount of content that will be ‘proper’ business insight showcasing creativity and what we do. In doing so, there are quite a lot of documents we have that have not been operational purely because of manpower, because it’s the two of us delivering for our clients.

“The turning point was when we managed to get an intern in who was a journalistic marketing and creative graduate, who we could operationalise our plans with.”

We’ll hear more from Smoke and other agencies on the topic of teams and interns in our next Good Agency Marketing article. Sign up to receive this article to your inbox here.

Marketing accountability and flexibility

For all of the agencies we spoke to, better marketing planning meant learning from past frustrations and adapting their method. For Kent-based Reflect Digital, better planning meant shifting from a rigid theme-based approach to something more flexible and goals-focused.

“At the back end of 2017, we came up with a plan,” says founder and CEO Becky Simms. “We published a wall planner that went out in Kent magazine to 4,500 businesses that they could use for planning their own marketing. On that planner, we picked a campaign for each week of the year for ourselves, plus a subject for every day of that week and indicated whether we’d do a blog post or a video, or something else, each day.

“We’d set our plan at the end of the year before and were committed. But that meant we often found ourselves having to talk about one thing when actually we want to talk about this really cool thing over here. It was good for getting us in a pattern and a rhythm and it got the team really focused because we’d set it out and knew this was on businesses’ walls. Having some kind of commitment like that is a really good thing, but marketing is made harder if you’ve put your plan out there to the whole world because you have to stick to it.”

In the following year, the agency therefore adopted a looser theme-based approach. At the start of 2018, Becky mapped out which themes the agency would cover each month but left tactical planning until the start of each month. Becky’s team have since evolved their approach further – today putting goals, not themes, at the heart of their planning.

“Last year was great, but we’ve still grown up and learned a lot, because again we were tied into and focused on our topics, as opposed to asking ‘What’s the outcome, who are we really trying to target this at?’ We were more concerned about writing about Easter eggs and somehow making the theme work, instead of considering ‘We want more business in this month in this area, what content could we create to help make that happen?’

“Today, we have a skeleton annual plan. We know of anything big coming up – like events – and get those planned in. The detail is filled in per-quarter. For me, there’s no point doing the detail for 12 months in advance because things will change; our industry changes; our focus might change and we want our marketing to be in line with where we’re looking to win more work or where we’ve suddenly had an amazing case study that makes us want to win something different that we can’t predict. How can we plan for that?”

For the UK’s leading agencies, effective marketing means approaching planning with a light touch. Take your time; know your team; learn from past mistakes.

Most important of all: stay flexible. As an agency, that’s your job.

Image via Unsplash, https://unsplash.com/photos/FoKO4DpXamQ