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How do you solve a problem like... year-ahead planning?

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By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

December 14, 2021 | 11 min read

Each week, we ask agency experts for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners. This week, we look at how agencies balance ambition and resilience in their year-ahead plans.

Ahead of the new year, businesses of all stripes engage in deep strategic discussions about the challenges, opportunities and plans for the coming 12 months. Key to the success of a good plan, though, is knowing your limits and understanding which of your lofty ambitions are and are not achievable. Get it wrong, and you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and your team for burnout – but set your aim too low, and opportunities for profit and prestige may be missed. How do you balance the need to push yourselves with the risk of biting off more than you can chew?

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How should agency busineses balance commercial ambitions with the need to be flexible?

How do you solve a problem like... year-ahead planning?

Ailsa Buckley, deputy managing director, Havas Media Group

The last couple of years have shown us that even the most realistic of business plans can be scuppered by circumstances beyond our control. So, I think when it comes to year-ahead planning, we need to be ready to adapt and flex our approach. The idea that you’ll be able to stick to an ambitious, optimistic plan without changing tack throughout the year is probably wishful thinking. Quarterly planning is more likely to feature, along with a few reforecasts along the way. And, dare I say it, it’s probably good to have a ‘Plan B’...

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Christine Capone, president, MKG

When balancing growth with new opportunities, we have to be measured. No agency can ‘win them all.’ We review opportunities through a set of guiding principles. We believe in brands taking action, and prioritize brands that come to us with problems we can solve together to create positive change. We keep our client set and agency offerings diverse to mitigate risk. The health of our people must be considered alongside the financial health of the agency. Finally, it is never worth risking a current client relationship. Conflicts are approached with transparency to maintain trust. We do not seek the largest client roster, but a strategic and meaningful one.

Patrick Lafferty, chief operating officer, Acceleration Community of Companies

Year-ahead planning should start with a review of the ‘year-behind.’ Predicting the future will be more accurate if you’re informed by the past. As you start to think about what’s next, benchmark against the imperatives – the people, the culture and the communities you’re building relationships with. Start with a clear, differentiated offering that provides a reason to choose you from the masses. Focus less on fads and you’re more likely to land on effective strategies for the path forward. Companies can do this anytime. Sure, there’s always a focus on planning at the end of the calendar year, but you should do this throughout the year, always adding the next quarter or two to your current plan. This way, you’re never starting from scratch and rushing or short-changing the process.

Eric Jacks, chief strategy officer, Collab

When it comes to planning the year ahead, at Collab we use the popular framework of objectives and key results (OKRs) to make sure that the goals of individuals and teams align with the goals of the organization. It sounds simple, but it’s easy to overlook putting something like OKRs in place when moving at such a fast pace. This approach ensures that our team members can see how their individual actions ladder up to our overarching mission. We also re-evaluate this plan quarterly, so we can see if the goalposts have changed for the organization.

Ian Farnfield, partner, Tonic Creative Business Partners

The one-year planning cycle is a trap. It’s the wrong concept, and it fuels bad habits.

Smart businesses have a three-year plan that guides them toward their agreed ambition. This only then needs to be refined each year, not rebuilt. And each year is just part of the journey – not a stark success or failure. Connect your planning with everyday business and avoid being dominated by financial data. Set out simply what (and how) you hope to achieve with your clients, your culture and your ways of working – and your plans can inspire commitment and guide the best decisions.

Matt Steward, chief client officer, Wunderman Thompson

It’s planning time. That annual festival of PowerPoint, peer review and passion to inspire your people, parade lofty ambitions and plan for growth. But any plan is only as good as its execution, so here’s the briefest bluffer’s guide to making plans that persevere.

Punchy. Practical. Set the audacious goal, but identify the wins on the roadmap – the journey is as important than the goal. Human first. Keep it simple, keep it actionable, keep it passionate. Repeat. Revisit and replay the plan regularly with your people. Repetition is the mother of learning and the father of action – apparently. Celebrate successes. The small and the big. Publicly, frequently.

Challenge everything. Build it up, tear it down, rebuild better. Why should your people care, your clients buy and your competitors twitch?

Alex Sturtevant, director of brand, Stink Studios

An agency always needs to push itself – in terms of the quality and bravery of work. We need to recognize that we’re in a service business, and none of this can be done in a vacuum. It's not just ‘what do we want to do?‘ but ‘what can we do to help our clients meet their goals?‘ That‘s why planning 2022 for Stink Studios starts with talking to our client partners. How can we play a role in helping them achieve their goals? The key to sustainable growth is to chase results, not fads or buzzwords.

Cathy Butler, chief executive officer, Organic

Growth for growth’s sake is a disaster. At Organic, we think about growth in three ways: what’s needed to improve our employee experience, what’s needed to innovate within in our offering, and what’s needed to deliver on our long-term ambition. Risk levels vary in each area so that we can manage where we invest. Ultimately, our growth is inherently tied to our client’s growth trajectories so we are focused on what commerce opportunities exist for them. There is certainly no one-size-fits-all answer to predicting and planning for growth, but managing where and why is key for us.

Kai Weidie, senior vice-president, head of diversity and inclusion, Dentsu Media Americas

The work of DE&I professionals needs to have stakeholders in every corner. Your talent, leaders, HR/recruiting team and industry all want to see you succeed.

A smart DE&I plan considers all of these parties and where your organization is starting from. For example, maybe you leaned hard into two things the previous year and established some great new policies. What new opportunities exist for achievement and inclusive innovation in the New Year? Prioritizing is paramount because saying and not doing in DE&I is no longer tolerated. It leaves your people disappointed and your org in a fight for its reputation.

Shari Reichenberg, managing director of New York, Rapp

If we’ve learned anything over the past two years, it’s that no one can realistically predict how unexpected social, economic, public health or environmental forces will suddenly and dramatically shift everything from how or where we work to why we work. The only thing we do know is that our business success fundamentally relies on our talent – and as such, our talent’s health and wellness, engagement and motivation, skills and capabilities, and overall sense of belonging will always be top priority.

That reality has centered our planning this year. When we truly put our talent first, other elements of our business plan actually start to prioritize themselves – such as which new capabilities to invest in, what types of client work to lean into, or which internal operations need to be improved. I’m excited by our ‘inside-out’ approach and ready to pressure test it in the new year.

Ana Dixon, chief financial officer and chief operating officer, Argonaut

Like all businesses, agencies can easily fall into the trap of a short-term outlook, with the bulk of planning myopically focused on the year ahead. The trick to achieving balance lies in thinking beyond the coming year and setting three- to five-year goals. With that approach, we can inspire our teams with big ambitions while still being realistic about what’s achievable in the near future. Winning in the short term and celebrating progress toward larger objectives creates a sense of momentum, which helps every goal, big or small, to be more within reach.

Stephen Corlett, chief operating officer, 180 Amsterdam

If we’re going to make the planning process successful and realistic, planning as a leadership group rather than in isolation is essential. First, it allows for a sense of objectivity, ownership and collective responsibility to gather around the strategic plan, to be ‘in it together.’ Second, often underestimated, is that good collective planning can lead to a thorough exploration of likely scenarios, possible setbacks and how we might ‘live’ through them. How will we react? What will we say? It means the group is prepared for at least most eventualities, something that’s at the heart of all high-performing teams.

Tanya Brookfield, chief executive officer, Elvis

Amid the uncertainty of 2021, we took a slightly more measured approach than usual to our business planning, doubling down on talent to ensure our people were happy and to strengthen and maintain our client relationships. Looking ahead to 2022, we’re buoyed by a great 12 months, with a strong team in place, amazing clients and a run of new business, so our plan is more ambitious, in line with previous years. Ultimately, our industry doesn’t stand still for anyone, and if we’re advising our clients to be bold and innovative, we should apply the same thinking to our own businesses.

If you’d like to join in the conversation in the New Year, email me: sam.bradley@thedrum.com.

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