29 February 2024

The secret to effective marketing? A proper business plan

Chris Starkey
Written by Chris Starkey

Chris joined The Marketing Centre in October 2022 as Managing Director, bringing 25 years of leadership experience in both product and service industries, including roles at Bayer, Accenture, Vistage, and THG Ingenuity. With a focus on client excellence, he emphasises a people-centric approach to team growth and performance.

Our research has found that a whopping 54% of UK businesses don’t have a business plan and a further 67% don’t have a marketing plan. 

To fail to plan is to plan to fail, as the saying goes. We caught up with two of our Marketing Directors, Robert Stead and Pete Jakob, to discuss why effective marketing needs a proper business plan and how to make a great one. 

Pete Jakob1

Hubspot Robert Stead-1

Pete Jakob                                                 Robert Stead           

Why is it so important to have a business plan?

“Fundamentally, your plan is how you decide where you want to get to and what you need to do to get there,” Robert says. “It connects the day-to-day with the end goal. Without this, the day-to-day activity is often more or less random and provides a poor return on investment.”

That said, a business plan isn’t just a strategic tool, it’s also a communication device. 

“This research is based on over 2,000 business leaders,” Pete says. “And I’m sure that if you interviewed those business leaders they’d say there is a plan, they just haven’t written it down yet. But that’s not enough. It’s no good having a plan if no one knows what it is.”

Robert agrees. “It's amazing how many business leaders assume that their employees know what they want them to focus on. But unless you tell them, they really won’t.”

How does having a proper business plan improve your marketing?

A business plan helps you prioritise marketing activities and measure whether they’re working. Without a plan, it’s impossible to say whether something is worth doing or whether it’s worked.

“It's a way of establishing clarity and points of focus,” Robert says. “It forces you to make decisions about what matters and what doesn’t. Without a plan, it’s easy to try and do a bit of everything or make everyone happy. A plan forces you to pick specific things at the expense of others.”

It also helps to align your team and tackle differences of opinion or intention.

“Something I often see is that leaders avoid making a plan because that would force them to align three or four very different agendas within the business and they don’t want to upset anyone,” Pete says. “A plan forces everyone to commit to one direction. But it also surfaces and resolves disagreements beneath the surface which you weren’t aware of.”

How should people approach planning?

While there are plenty of templates out there to use, the specific format or content is often less important than the underlying thought process.

“The thought process ought to be, first off, what you want to achieve, and then what you need to do to get there,” Robert says. “A lot of plans are just a list of activities, but that’s not a plan at all. A plan starts with what you want to achieve in one, three or five years’ time then lists out the activities that are required to do that.”

“In my corporate career you’d see these 100-page business plans beautifully printed and bound,” Pete says. “And yet, most of the time they were utterly, utterly useless. Really it ought to be as brief as possible to get the job done. I think you should aim for one page.”

Keeping things short and focused forces you to think hard about what’s there and gives sloppy thinking fewer places to hide.

“A great starting point is to list out three specific and measurable things you want to achieve in a year’s time,” Robert says. “And then you need to have a conversation with your team about how to make it happen. But you, as the business leader, need to define the vision upfront. Planning is a top-down process.”

Planning typically involves people across your business, but it needs to start with you. This is much more effective than a bottom-up approach.

“I'm in the middle of working through this with a business,” Robert says. “And their starting point was to ask each department lead to produce a departmental plan. And what came back was six documents listing all the things they wanted or thought others should do for them, without any reference to what the business was trying to achieve. That’s what happens if you don’t do it top-down.”

“It’s actually very energising for the team to have that top-down clarity,” Pete agrees. “To know exactly why they’re coming into work and what it’s all for. When you give your entire company a single vision and focus, it’s much easier to get everyone working together.”

What’s the best way to get started?

Planning doesn’t have to be an expensive, long-winded or complex process. In fact, the best way to get started is to start small and soon.

“The best time to plant a tree is yesterday, as the saying goes. If you don’t have a plan, start now.”

Pete agrees. “A good first step is to review where you are right now. Our Marketing 360 is a great way to do that. Whenever I start working with a business I get the whole leadership team to do it. It’s usually pretty apparent that there are some alignment issues and differing views, which can be a bit of an eye-opener. But it’s a crucial step towards agreeing on the two or three things the business must achieve.”

These can be revenue or profit targets. Or they can be less financial, such as relocating to a larger facility or reducing your sales cycle. Once you’ve outlined what you want to achieve, you’re then ready to get into the detail and ask what you need to do to make those things happen. You should end up with a nice clear list of goals with corresponding actions.

How do you make sure people actually follow the plan?

Having a plan will put you in a better position than most, but you also need to stick to it. So how can you make sure your plan gets followed through?

“There are a few ways,” says Robert. “The first is to involve people in the process. Yes, you need to set the top-down vision at the beginning. But once this is done you need to invite input. It’s easier to get their buy-in during the planning process rather than after. And the more bought-in people are, the more likely they are to follow through.”

It’s also important to make sure that specific people are responsible for delivering different aspects of the plan. “The final step is to assign ownership for the key metrics and milestones to members of your team,” Pete says. “Once you’ve done this, treat it as a living document that’s regularly reviewed and measured against.”

Robert agrees. “If you don’t assign responsibility for things to people they won’t happen. This is basic management, but your actions ought to be SMART goals and they need to be owned by specific people.”

To fail to plan is to plan to fail

Every business needs a plan, no matter what size it is. If you don’t ask yourself where you want to get to, you’re likely to end up exactly where you are right now.And if you’re looking for a good place to start, as Pete said, our Marketing 360 assessment is ideal for understanding your current state and where you ought to focus.


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