Five questions marketers should ask themselves before talking budgets with the C-suite

To avoid missing out on opportunities as a result of not getting the required investment, our marketer on the inside recommends stress testing the plan before going into the boardroom with the aid of five key questions.

Secret Marketer

You enter the room, and you can cut the tension with a knife. The air is unseasonably cool. Across the outsized board table, among all the mahogany, glass and chrome, sits a small collective. Diminutive and restless. Basilisk eyes staring from slightly reddened faces. Executives full of wealth and indigestion. This is the budget meeting from hell.

Of course, today, the format is different. It’s a multiscreen affair. You can’t feel the spittle on your face from a raging CEO, or the spreadsheet shuffle of emotion of the CFO from across the table, just some puffed up fuming, voices raised or, sometimes low, rasping like unused banknotes. All of which is rather comical when the volume is muted. Zoom can be such a great leveller.

Courage is pretty vital as a marketing director. Especially when the organisation and leadership team is out of touch with its customers, inwardly focused and very keen to de-risk everything. In the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Tempest, the ship thrown wildly by the raging storm, the brave boatswain orders the Royal party below decks. It’s a fascinating study not only of the impact nature can have on society and hierarchy, but also how quickly power can shift from the established to the lowly expert.

If your marketing plan isn’t simple and clear, if it can’t describe how it is going to increase short- and long-term revenues or profits, it’s not a marketing plan.

I have only felt intimidated a few times in my career. No, that’s not right. Not intimidated, brow beaten into submission is a better description. Every time that’s happened over a budget discussion – when I have put sense and principle aside, to secure something, anything, to work with – we have never achieved our goals. It has been a salutary learning.

So how did we get here? How did we get to a confrontation on investment, where expectations have not been managed and everyone is left underwhelmed and frustrated? Opportunity missed as the required budget is not given. For me, the answer lies in asking a few questions of myself. Every time I go through a planning round, I like to put myself in the CEO and CFO’s well heeled shoes, and see if I can create my own dramatic storm, to stress test the plan:

  1. Is this marketing plan aligned to the corporate strategy, and supporting the growth target in the one- and three-year plans? (Does anyone have proper five-year business plans anymore, or even three-year ones?)
  2. Does the marketing plan prioritise the most effective levers to achieve growth, before spending money on advertising, sponsorship and promotions? (Can product enhancement, pricing or channel expansion do a more effective and efficient job?)
  3. If I am going to invest in advertising and brand building, can I draw a straight line between that activity and future performance benefits? (Changes in price elasticity, increases in awareness and consideration, stronger conversion rates or increased order and lifetime value)?
  4. Can I demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach, and track a credible basket of KPIs that show we are delivering our commercial, revenue and sales promises? (Ensure I always have an answer for “Wouldn’t they buy the products anyway?”)
  5. If I am asking for more money than the previous year, have I eradicated all ‘BAU’ or non-essential spend areas, to show we are focused and not profligate?

Complicating all of this is the nonsense nomenclature often used in organisations and consultancies that finds its way into most marketing plans. The patois of engagement, content, digital, organic media, impressions, etc, that so often loses one’s audience. It is a language that makes investing in marketing activity so much harder. Wouldn’t it be great if Microsoft could develop a button in PowerPoint that de-bullshits presentations and removes euphemisms?

  • Engagement: A vanity metric to show you are doing something (no correlation to sales or value creation)
  • Content: Information masquerading as effective advertising, often done in-house to a formula, with little impact or memorability.
  • Organic posts: Talking to 2% of your followers who probably buy your products already. Deployed so executives only see your work in their feeds and assume ‘free’ media is the way forward to reach prospects.
  • Impressions: Spurious and unauditable measure of ‘eyeballs’ that might see your content, or part of it, for a fraction of a second, that is, if it isn’t a bot or fraudulent.
  • Digital: Panacea descriptor for senior executives to make the business feel modern and investible but largely meaningless in application.

Imagine taking all of that language out of your plan and instead sticking to the first principles of target audience, insight, proposition development, investing in famous creative and great media plans to cut through. All of which serve to solve an identifiable problem, be that lack of awareness or poor conversion from consideration to sale.

If your marketing plan isn’t simple and clear, if it can’t describe how it is going to increase short- and long-term revenues or profits, it’s not a marketing plan, it is, as the Bard might say, “such stuff as dreams are made on”.

Our anonymous marketer has spent years working for big brands in large organisations. They have seen what you have seen, been left scratching their head at the decisions (or indecision) of others, had the same fights. They have also seen the possibility and opportunity of marketing. In this regular series, our marketer on the inside will unpick the failings, articulate the frustrations and speak up for marketers everywhere.