Is It Time to Drop the 'Annual' From Annual Agency Planning?

A Yearly Budget Overview Is Necessary, but Too Much Changes Too Quickly to Lock in Your Business Plan

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Darryl Ohrt
Darryl Ohrt
Annual planning. It's a part of agency life for agencies big and small. This is the time of year that CFOs are busy projecting and CEOs are busy thinking about business development, market positioning and their agencies' long term future in the industry.

But much has changed over the last few years, and the way that we used to plan for our businesses isn't as relevant as it used to be.

Open means involving everyone.
One of the more significant developments in the workplace over the last decade is the creation of true, transparent organizations. We have an open-management philosophy at our firm. We always have. That's true of the way we plan for our business, too.

If you've got a team of people exploding with knowledge and experience, why not put that to work in the big picture, too? What if there's one nugget of knowledge that could increase your business by 20%? Or a suggestion that could decrease operating expenditures by 15%?

Ideas and thinking from our employees that have gotten us to where we are today, and it's for that reason that we involve them in all of our planning, too. Even better, employees that are involved in the process have a better understanding of agency goals, challenges and motivations. The agency gets the benefit of a diverse think tank, and employees grow and learn about business in the process. Planning for everyone with everyone works.

Planning is more than numbers.
Plenty of agencies put together their budgets, forecasts and financial plans for the coming year, but too many companies stop at just the numbers. One of the things that we've found outrageously helpful is an annual company reinvention.

Each year we examine every aspect of our agency, and question what's right, what's wrong, and what we could be doing better. We look at our client list and talk about who belongs there, and who doesn't. We take apart procedures that might otherwise go on unchallenged, and ask how they could be improved. This has created rapid change and agency evolution that's allowed us to keep up with a business climate that's also evolving at internet speed. Nothing is sacred at these meetings, and we've made significant changes to our company each and every year. (Just wait to see what we have in store for 2011.)

Something else happens when you re-evaluate everything. In many companies, it's the little annoying things that pile up to the point of becoming client issues, morale killers and real problems. When you're willing to reinvent everything, everything is in constant reinvention. In the creative business, that's almost a necessity. Business isn't standing still, so neither should we.

Location matters.
Up until 2009, we created an annual planning weekend and turned planning into a bonding activity as well. We've held planning meetings in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Las Vegas and plenty of other fun places. And when we've held meetings in faraway places, we don't spend our meeting time in the hotel. Hotel meeting rooms are pretty much exactly like your agency conference room, only less cool, because your employees know that there's fun right outside the door.

It's astounding how 13 hours of meetings don't feel so strenuous when they're held by the pool, at the beach, or in a car on the way to Mayan pyramids. You can make even the most boring financial meetings fun when you don't have 100 employees to organize. This is another area where small agencies can do what larger firms can't. Big agencies have no choice but to either limit the size of their planning groups, or to plan in venues that can accommodate large groups (like hotel ballrooms).

While the beach is awesome, it's not a necessity for great planning. We've also conducted outstanding sessions in coffee shops, restaurants and other places that weren't corporate conference rooms. Regardless of your locale, there's one thing you absolutely must have: time. We typically devote 10 to 15 hours of meetings to annual planning. Investing the right amount of time lets you not only identify problems and challenges, but solve them. Nothing is more inspiring than walking away from a meeting knowing that you've just implemented a change that will impact your near future.

Is annual still even relevant?
One of the biggest things we've seen evolving over the last few years is the acceleration of change. New tools and trends are introduced into our workplace and marketplace that impact everything that we do. Derek Correia, CEO of our parent company, Source Marketing, says that "the three-year plan has been replaced by the three month plan." They've even adopted the agency's operations to accommodate for this reality for clients, and have created a "right-now marketing" mantra.

At our firm, we've always attempted to put together annual financial projections, annual business development plans and a social media strategy. But because annual doesn't make sense anymore, we're making constant and continual adjustments.

Facebook email didn't exist a couple of weeks ago. If you've already put together a neat and tidy plan for 2011, how will this potential game changer impact your marketing, your clients' marketing and your new business? Or will it at all? What about the tools that will be launching in early 2011 that we don't yet know about?

So, what's the plan?
This year, we've put together the typical financial plans and bird's eye view of where we need to be for 2011. We've also solved some problems, and put some fantastic new programs on deck for activation throughout next year. And in the spirit of "right now," we're adding monthly reality-check meetings as an important addition to the annual plan. What's changed this month that we need to make adjustments for? What's happening in the marketplace that we weren't aware of last month? How's our productivity, profitability and outlook for the next 30 days? We've found that there are some things that are still worthy of an annual look, while others need more constant attention.

The best agency annual plan may just be a continual plan, that's evolving, growing and changing with the agency and world around it. And it absolutely involves all of the people you've surrounded yourself with. So what are you doing next year?

Darryl Ohrt is a former punk rocker and chief contributor to the greatest blog in all of the land, BrandFlakesForBreakfast. While his official title is president, his business card says he's "Prime Minister of Awesome" at Humongo, a Source Marketing company. Darryl knows just enough to be dangerous. He's on the internet right now, playing, investigating and exploring. Watch out.
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