Say, how’s your 2012 plan coming along? What’s that? You’re on version 357 and your Corporate Overlords haven’t even seen it yet? Your desk is awash in spreadsheets you’re too terrified to throw out? You spent most of last Wednesday trying to fit 7 point type into a Venn diagram and most of the next day taking it out again? I’ll bet you cry a lot.

Just as soon as that frost hits that pumpkin, life for many marketers shrinks to the size of a PowerPoint deck. A deck that should be about five slides long, but ends up at dozens or even hundreds of pages. Pages full of refugee spreadsheets from Excel, torn and distorted to the point of illegibility. Let’s not forget the meaningless metaphorical pillars and pyramids or, heaven help us, jigsaw pieces that pass for thematic links. No smirking; you know you’ve used them. Right now I will bet you’re working on something with arrows, targets, gradient colour schemes, clever animations and helpful colour-coded links to hidden slides. Can you believe this is your job?

But the worst is yet to come, and you know it. You know that after two months of squabbles with the Squirrels, the Keebler Elves and the product managers, some moron is going to look at the penultimate draft and say “well nobody’s going to read it anyway”. And you will be right to kill this person. Even though they have just stated the truth. Of course nobody’s going to read it: it’s too bloody long.

Here is what is wrong with most annual marketing plans:

  1. They smell of fear.
  2. They are in PowerPoint
  3. They are always too tactical
  4. If there is a process, it sucks
  5. They should be five pages long
  6. Nobody is going to read it, including you

Casinos smell like cigarettes and despair. But marketing plans smell of fear and SmartFood®. There is just no other explanation for the pages and pages and pages of numbers ripped out of the budget and stuffed into a space so small they are invisible. Same goes for lists of products, pricing matrices, and organization charts. Your Overlords know all this (or ought to). You don’t need to cover every conceivable question, objective or rear end in your PowerPoint. That’s what meetings are for.

PowerPoint makes us stupid. I don’t know why but this rather wonderful bit of software has the power to suck all the smart out of the room and leave otherwise productive, thoughtful people drooling over transition noises and trying to get a presentation tool to act like a document creation tool. Apple FanBoys, the same is true of Keynote, so stop gloating and go back to carving Steve’s image in your desk with a box cutter. We have a document creation tool. It’s called Word or Pages. If you want to create something that someone will read, try using one of these.

Marketers love to talk about strategy, as long as it’s tactical. We love our campaigns, pretty packages, opulent customer schmoozes, interactive web things and all that. We insist on loading up our annual plans with minutiae like lists of trade shows, intricate campaign calendars, media buys and menus. I’m guessing this is related to point 1 and we are just too afraid to look unprepared so we spread it on thick, secure that since nobody is reading this, nobody will know if we actually serve the beef satay or the lemon shrimp at our product launch. I will just bet that if you stripped out all that tactical stuff, you might just find a one-page strategy slide.

Here in the north, tomato plants look fabulous in late August. By December, not so much. By December, they look dead. Same with planning processes. It all seemed so straight-forward when the Finance guy explained it, but now that you’ve been waiting six weeks for accurate data, three weeks for the sales forecast and the product team just laughs when you ask for the roadmap, it’s not so nice.  I vote for being able to make up any critical information that is not provided on time. Include sock monkeys in the product timeline, forecast T-Rev in Belgian Francs and LTV in Canadian Tire money, segment the market by average precipitation. If it’s true nobody reads it, you will at least have amused yourself, and if it’s not true, the guilty will be exposed. Win-win. Let’s face facts; most planning processes fall apart because they were unrealistic to begin with and completely underestimated how long it really takes to get stuff done.

Here is what we need to know before the year begins: how much do we want to make next year? What’s the strategy to do that? What  big things need to happen so we can do that? What bad things can happen, and what can we do about them? What are some cool things we can do if all goes well? The rest is just the noisy business of answering these questions and it doesn’t belong on Overlord desks; it belongs on to do lists and budget detail sheets, and product roadmaps. If your plans are getting too long, try asking your people to text their content to you. I will bet you anything it becomes concise in a big hurry.

One final thing, let’s not delude ourselves about who actually reads the plan. Once you’ve stick handled it past the Overlords and Hand-Wringers, it’s going into a drawer forever to be replaced by the five-page summary you should have done in the first place.