If you are old enough to have seriously considered a pair of Spanx, you are probably experienced enough to remember when marketing plans were documents instead of hockey cards.
These were things of beauty, often. Dozens of pages long, sometimes more than a hundred, they had sentences, punctuation, legible tables, pretty charts. They told a story about where the brand has been, where it’s going, who it thinks it is.
It was a convention driven by nature itself. As the frost was forming on the pumpkins, and the squirrels were digging up the last of next year’s tulip bulbs, marketers began to assemble the bits and pieces they would need to craft The Plan. Forecasts from sales, insights from research, roadmaps from product management, dire warnings from the Hand-Wringers. These were the raw materials the marketer would forge over six or eight weeks into The Plan that would lead the boats to the beaches.
All through the darkening days of the yuletide, children’s noses went unwiped as version after version of The Plan was written, reviewed, revised, tweaked and gently brought forth as a sculpture from the marble.
And only as the final executive signature was drying on version 65.8 did anyone begin to think about the presentation. Ah, yes, the presentation. The succinct, beautiful distillation of The Plan. Stripped to its elemental components, The Plan becomes an elegant, soaring presentation rich with the imagery and sense of occasion that brings a crowd to its feet and sends the competition to therapy. Was it worth the sleepless nights, the arguments, the anxiety, the liquor? Hell yes.
So the what the heck happened? When did we replace careful, thoughtful strategic documents with slides that look like Ikea instructions? Did sales get stupid? Did our Corporate Overlords forget how to read? Did we forget how to write? I’m fairly certain none of this is the case, so I’m thinking that we all got was incredibly lazy.
I’m not suggesting that marketers should not seek every opportunity to do as little work as possible, nor am I interested in banning PowerPoint as the US Navy has done(and before you Macheads throw another log on the smugness fire, this applies to Keynote also). But I’m wondering if our excitement about making things succinct, visual and brief is also making us sloppy thinkers who waste time and obscure our own ideas.
I like PowerPoint. I think it’s a marvelous bit of software with tons of tools that make it easy to create and show a presentation. A presentation. Let me say it again: A PRESENTATION. PowerPoint is an excellent presentation tool, but it quite sucks as a document creation tool and as a drawing or design tool. How many hours have you wasted in the past year trying to get a paragraph to line up properly? Messing around with bullets? Indents? How frustrating is it to paste a table or a chart from Excel and then spend half an hour reformatting it? How many times have you caught yourself using 12 point type (or smaller) on a page and remembered that anything less than 30 is considered bad form in a presentation? How much time do you spend fighting with the lame clipart? Building layer upon layer of auto shapes just to create the hour-glass graphic that illustrates some aspect of Austrian toner consumption?
You could argue that Microsoft should improve PowerPoint’s shortcomings as a document creation tool in light of its new application, and probably they will. But I would challenge you to spend as much time thinking about your strategy as you do screwing around with the pie chart on slide 77. I suggest that marketers are spending way more time on formatting, templates, palettes, and unzipping files than they used to. And I believe that time is what we previously invested in thinking about what to do and not in how to make it pretty.
Just because your Corporate Overlords need a connect-the-dots puzzle to understand the marketing plan, doesn’t absolve marketers of the responsibility to have a thoroughly considered bunch of ideas of what to do. This is where the tedium of cranking through a Word document paid off. Smart marketers realized that if they had trouble explaining the idea in a sentence or two, then it probably wasn’t distilled enough. If the footnote reference about a market assumption could not be found, then the marketer needed to consider whether or not the assumption was valid. When the themes introduced in the Introduction had caught a taxi out of Section Four, you knew you were in trouble in Section Five. But when all you’re really doing is puking random ideas onto a set of slides and making up a narrative to support it, you’re not really planning; you’re making a comic book.
Most plans look like crap. This is the other reality that we just aren’t facing. More than ninety percent of the marketing plans I look at in PowerPoint are awful. They are difficult to read, far too busy, over-illustrated and under-designed. I recently sat through a lengthy strategy presentation with almost eighty slides. From my position about 15 feet away from the screen, I couldn’t read much of what was on the slides. Good thing we all had copies weighing about ten pounds each. But even on the printed copy, the nine-point type reversed out of the chartreuse icon meant to represent market share was illegible. Partly this was due to the inevitable difference between what you see on your screen and what the printer feels like putting on the paper, but mostly it was just a page that someone had spewed things onto and then fussed with for weeks on end as other people added more meaningless elements. In the course of this presentation we had five apologies for “eyecharts”.
Really? You want someone to give you millions of dollars to spend on this strategy and you can’t be bothered to produce a graphic they understand?
Let’s talk about understanding for a minute. Even if your slides don’t look like crap, I’ll bet they take some explaining. In another meeting I was being “walked through a deck” (translation: bored to tears by someone’s inability to focus their thoughts and write them down). And we came across a rather lovely graphic. It had bunches of colours and at least three axes (more than one axis, not a battle implement) and all kinds of fancy gradients showing how something was increasing over time as something else decreased and a third thing stood by looking a bit embarrassed. It was basically complete twaddle and impossible to understand without a guided tour. That tour took twenty minutes, at the end of which someone looked at the presenter and said, “…so basically revenue increases at this rate while cost of acquisition levels out at this point and the Toronto Maple Leafs will disappoint their fans yet again?” Yup. So explain how a graphic that took hours to make and a third of an hour to explain is better than a couple of sentences?
Which brings me to the final point of my little rant: you can’t read the bloody thing on the train. It seems to me that the point of all this is to end up with a plan of record that the Corporate Overlords can live with, the Hand-Wringers can obsess about, sales can hate and marketers can execute. Now I hate to be a downer but what if said marketer were to go away. Perhaps they win the lottery, perhaps they go to another company, perhaps they forget how to get to work. The point is, people move on but the mission stays the same. Can your company afford to use the cave painting that passes for a marketing plan to get a new team or executive up-to-speed? Could you give them the plan to take home on their first day so they could come in ready to do stuff on the second? I don’t think so.
So let’s make a resolution for this year: let’s all dust off our cardigans and spend the fourth quarter thinking and writing and thinking some more and writing again until we have a plan so good we’re terrified to have someone outside the company get their hands on it. It’s compelling, detailed and ready to turn into some lovely slides.
Then, of course, we’ll need to throw it out, but that’s another discussion.