Does this sound familiar to you? Back in the mid-1980s, I was hired to help a growing personal computer company -- which shall remain nameless -- develop a marketing plan. I worked with a group of bright young people, most of them under 30, most of them holders of prestigious MBA degrees from major U.S. universities.

The strategy sessions were exciting. We would go off-site to one of the nearby beach resorts for days of "team building" (read: fun and games) in the mornings and evenings, with strategy sessions from late morning to late afternoon. And we were brilliant! Ideas flew like confetti. We drew matrices and conjured frameworks. We developed masterful marketing strategies.

Then we'd go back to the office, back into the daily routines, out of strategy mode and into day-to-day work, and the spark of inspiration faded. Brilliant strategies became routine marketing and sales activities. Budgets were allocated by any number of competing criteria, including business necessities. Some distributors got more attention because they sold more, or because they sold less, or because they were good on the phone. Some strategies got more attention in the budget because they were easier to explain to the financial managers. Some market segments got more attention than others because of unrelated factors like personalities, politics, and preferences.

Think about the last marketing plan you were involved with. Sure, it was great strategy, but I'll bet it didn't work. How about the last six marketing plans you worked with? Forget about how great the strategy was, and think about results. I'd be willing to bet that they fell far short of expectations. From what I've seen in 20+ years of consulting, most marketing plans are brilliant, but few meet the goals set for them. Why?

A House Built of Straw
Borrowing from the familiar fable of the three pigs, most marketing plans are built of straw instead of bricks. All too often, their successful execution depends on everyone doing the work assigned to them, in the approved manner, with no nasty shocks or surprises along the way. The marketing plan equivalent of a big bad wolf is the real world: the meetings, the telephone, the personnel problems, and all the other factors that can blow apart plans with such flimsy foundations.

MTOOL Figure 1

If you want your plan to survive the pressure of daily firefighting and the weight of routine, then you have to build it with the equivalent of bricks: ownership, milestones, measurement, and alignment (figure 1). The bricks give a plan structural strength with concrete specifics that can be checked, followed up, measured, and implemented. Ownership means accountability. Plans fail more often because of "who" problems than for lack of "what." Who is in charge of what? Who is going to make sure that it gets done? Who should feel bad if it doesn't? A good marketing plan assigns specific responsibilities for specific tasks. Who is in charge of developing advertising copy? Who is in charge of the direct-mail campaign to targeted users? Whatever parts of a plan aren't cleanly and clearly owned are not likely to be implemented.

As vital as ownership is, it isn't automatic. You don't get ownership just by putting names onto lists. You have to put real people into the programs and give those real people a real stake in the plan. Nobody really owns a task until they accept it, live with it, and even defend its importance. There are ways to develop ownership in a plan. For example, consider the potential power of group meeting in which specific budgeted activities are listed on a room-size LCD display. Each program depends on a champion to defend it. Managers who have to defend their programs in front of their peers are going to take ownership. If nobody defends a program, cut it. Consider publishing detailed assignments as part of a plan, listing each program along with its owner, for all other managers to share. Think about the results in your own management experience: after you defend a program, do you care about it? Do you take ownership?

Milestones are dates and schedules. As you plan for marketing activities, be sure to include starting dates, completion dates, and milestone dates along the way. Every activity in the plan should be assigned specific times for specific points along the way. Unless you have a date for a milestone, you can't follow up on it, and you can't tell when it is behind schedule.

Measurement starts with ownership and milestones, so you can measure tasks by dates of completion. That alone is not enough, however. Generally, whatever you can't measure won't be implemented. Replace vague objectives like being "the best" or "the most" with specifics like "a 10% increase in market share, as measured by a specific published source." If you want sales to increase, state how much and how quickly you expect them to rise. Include projected yields on mailings and inquiries on display advertising. Include projected participants in a sweepstakes. Include specific sources for measuring image and awareness.

Strategic alignment is the match between strategies, tactics, and specific programs. Do they work together? For example, if a computer store's strategy emphasizes reliability and customer satisfaction, do its tactics include training and installation? Does its budget include white coats for service personnel and mailings for upgrade offers? When the coffeehouse strategy goes for the high-end customer, do its programs include low-end tactics like discount offers and coupons?

MTOOL Figure 2

Use the strategy pyramid motif shown in figure 2 to visually check for the logical relationships in a plan. Is each main point of strategy based on specific tactics that make it real? Are the tactics based on specific programs (for example, display advertising, sales literature, direct mail) that make them real?