Marketing Leadership’s Newfound (Well Founded) Emphasis on Activation

This is the first of 4-part blog series Consumed with 2018 Planning? Activation Needs Equal Attention. The blog series aims to support the timely issues marketing leaders will face in activating their 2018 plans.

Since 2012 marketing leaders have shifted emphasis from cross functional planning, to content and automation, to analytics, to integration and to the customer experience. Today companies are better at planning and much of the mystery around their technology stack lessens every day. They are rallying behind customer journeys and experiences delivered, in large part, by the marketing department. And they are granting marketing a more central role in planning.

By 2018, marketing plans will aim to drive revenue with heightened requirements for highly personalized and timely customer interactions. To achieve these specific aims, the shift will continue with even more emphasis on improving activation of the marketing plan with better agility and scalability.

What is Marketing Activation?

We define marketing activation to be an evolution of marketing execution. Execution is linear, and has a discrete beginning and end. Activation is ongoing, and has adjustments may be made along the way. We no longer “distribute” and “deploy” campaigns, we activate them by releasing and adjusting them based on results.

Marketing activation is transforming all facets of how marketing gets done. We avoid long planning cycles for a season or product launch; rather, we create tools, frameworks and platforms to guide teams that create tools and content. We no longer fill out a creative brief and pass it down the line (or receive it, depending on where you sit) and wait months to see the final piece and reporting from your in-house creative and production teams or outside agency. And, Lean and Agile concepts are becoming mainstream for all types of marketing work.

Why Activation Demands Attention Now

Unfortunately for many firms today, activation is an exercise is navigating corporate bureaucracy, juggling multiple disconnected teams, and succumbing to budget and talent constraints. Those accountable for the success of marketing programming will need to focus on overcoming complications presented by the soup of internal and external resources distributed around the world, gaps in talent, old processes, and ambiguous fencing with adjacent functions.

A recent CMO Council study illustrates some of the complexity, finding that only 13 percent of marketers have a single agency partner. The teams of today include multiple creative partners and contractors, according to 45 percent of respondents. Global business makes this even more complex as 28 percent of respondents are working with multiple creative teams across multiple regions, and 20 percent have turned over creative adaptation to local teams.

For a marketing manager who’s just formulated her 2018 plan, and now wants to lay the groundwork to successfully activate her plan, how does she begin to think about spreading the dozens or 100s of initiatives across the many activation teams? In the US? Outside the US? How does she know which resources are best suited for different types of work? How will resources work in concert, when needed? How does she know who has capacity to complete work on time and on budget? How will her peer marketing managers confront the same challenges?

Conversely, those standing in the shoes of an activation team leader — that is, in roles such as in-house agency manager, vendor manager, scrum manager, or marketing operations manager — face challenges that are just as stifling:

  • “Demand” for activation is difficult to quantify across the many marketing managers and business units. Ostensibly unlimited capacity across activation teams inhibits a competent manager’s ability to manage costs, as unplanned contractors, unexpected overtime, and rush charges will be surely needed, but impossible to accurately predict. Further, in regulated industries, unanticipated regulatory requirements can crash the entire system and budget.
  • Operational tasks — such as workflow management, project management, tech management — remain ambiguous, and are scattered across the firm. Tasks that span applications (integrations, reporting, taxonomies, etc.) are often ungoverned, resulting in islands and otherwise avoidable inefficiencies.
  • Rather than building teams for muscle for specific work types, activation teams are staffing to perform all types of work: simple and complex, new and repeatable, print and digital. Further, use of contingent workers prevents the company from doing what needs to be done to achieve sustained digital capability.
  • Lack of end-to-end accountability for work touched by multiple activation teams keeps marketing objectives from being met, or delays their achievement
  • Activation teams are often not included in upstream planning and therefore lack much needed understanding of intent and strategy. Worse yet, many activation teams are too far from customer touchpoints, with too many layers of management to be successful.

According to the same CMO Council study, only 50% of the respondents said they had conducted a formal assessment of their creative capabilities, illustrating that many marketers have not given the activation the needed analysis.

Root Issue: Outdated Process-Thinking

In the past marketing managers would plan programs and campaigns in PPT decks and briefs, then the waterfall would have creative and production teams execute. In the digitally transformed landscape, the line between planning and execution is blurred, muddying the waters for how work is activated across internal and external teams.

Thus, to improve marketing activation, we should better understand that the nature of planning has changed, and develop a firm grasp of where planning leaves off and activation begins.

To meet most marketing organizations where they’re at today, we can identify inflection points to help set the stage for better activation (these inflection points will be further discussed in future blogs in this series) in 2018. They include:

  • Annual planning. As strategic planning moves into tactical planning, marketers should limit their planning effort, focusing only on proper alignment of activation resources. This level of planning should yield: objectives, campaign types, capacity requirements, and technology availability.
  • Alignment frameworks and guideposts. With organizations unifying around customer journey and experience concepts, teams across the company now have shared frameworks (such as messaging platforms, segmentations, personas, briefs) for sales, ops, marketing, and other functions to contextualize upcoming activities. These frameworks allow for planning to be elevated and directional (themes, goals, and capacity) and less about individual campaigns and segment strategies. Front-line activation teams can use the shared frameworks as guideposts to rapidly generate new ideas and release new campaigns. In 2018, activation will require you to push much of the thinking to the front line teams.
  • Agile. For companies adopting Agile, the blurred line between planning and activation is easier to focus. Planning should yield increasing levels of specificity for visions, themes and epics; and stories and tasks continually iterate within those guideposts.

Net, Net for 2018

Heightened personalization and responsiveness expectations in a very complex operating environment is far from an ideal setting to achieve agility and scalability. But for 2018, we believe that most firms are ready to shift their focus to establishing activation norms via new operating models. In part 2 of this blog series, learn how marketing can think about the big picture of marketing’s operating model to activate 2018 plans in this complex environment.

To see part 2 of this blog series, click here.