Agency business plans. You either love them or hate them. I hate them. Why? Because they serve no practical purpose in helping an agency’s management do what they are paid to do, ie, manage the business.

Right. Now that I’ve set myself up for a fall, let me expand on why I hate them and what we prefer to use at Selbey Anderson.

Most business plans are exercises in vanity. What they lack in detail they make up for in verbosity. Confused? You will be after reading them. Frankly, my biggest gripe is the confusion between objectives and strategy. Or ‘strategic objectives’ as most authors insist on writing. No!

The difference between an objective and a strategy

At the risk of sounding condescending, if you can put the word ‘to’ at the start of the sentence, it’s probably an objective. If you can use the word ’by’, it’s probably a strategy. As in, ‘to be the best agency in the world’ (an objective) ‘by offering our clients a superlative level of service’ (a strategy).

With two former Army officers alongside me on the board, we’re also pretty hot on knowing the difference between an objective and an aspiration. As a group – and as you can imagine – we like the former, but are wary of the latter because, well, they’re a bit up in the clouds.

We like objectives that are tangible, achievable and ideally short term. SMART ones in fact. We also like strategies that translate into tactical plans. Our strategies are the means by which we’ll achieve our objectives (or the ‘how to’ part of the plan) so we’d rather they were pretty detailed or we’ll suspect you don’t know ‘how to’ which will worry us rather.

Finally, we see innumerable plans that are strangely missing the most important part, the section on measurement. Or the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). You know, the bit of the plan that tells you that you have achieved what you have set out to achieve.

How do you know you’re succeeding?

A business plan without KPIs is like a car without an engine. It won’t work. The hoary old saying; ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’ is so hoary [definition: trite, hackneyed, clichéd, banal, platitudinous, overused, stale, worn out, etc] because it’s true.  Without KPIs you have no chance of knowing if you’re succeeding or the means to do anything if you’ve realised you’re not.

OK. Enough of what I don’t like. Now what do I like? Well, I like the simple things in life. Like pillar plans.

We like pillar plans

4 columns courtesy of Bartek Misklewicz via Creative Commons

Pillars keep up structures (building and bridges mainly) and they do the same job in keeping an agency up too. Our four pillars include the following:

  • Clients: broken down into current clients and future clients so covering both client development plan and new business goals
  • Services: again, further broken down into existing services and potential new ones, so ensuring we don’t go stale
  • People: further broken down into current staff and future staff, so covering off recruitment. But don’t forget past staff too. Former employees make great sources of new business. Just ask Goldman Sachs about the value of their alumni network.
  • Operations: OK, the boring bits, but if this part of your plan is less strong than the other three, then like a wonky table with one leg shorter than the others, things slide off.

I like each pillar to have a maximum of three objectives and a strategy supporting each objective.

So, I have a maximum of twelve objectives and strategies to monitor. That’s manageable, especially if I then have a tactical plan sitting behind each strategy with names, (as in personal responsibilities) dates and budgets included.

Finally, I like KPIs (maximum of three) linked to each objective. Those KPIs should be easy to capture on a regular basis.

Pillar plans drive operations not aspirations

Put together, what that looks like is an agency operating plan that can be shared with all the staff. It can be read from the top down or the bottom up. Either way actually, because it all fits together. As it only fills one side of A4, it can be displayed in common areas and regularly reviewed. In fact, it can be updated on a quarterly basis to show what progress is being made against each objective.

Finally, all the KPIs can be consolidated into one view similar to a management dashboard with traffic lights attached to each. Green means we’re on track, amber is a warning light and red means we’re in trouble. If all the monitoring system work as they should, we should never see red.

Keep it simple stupid

Does this sound overly simplistic? Perhaps, but it works as a result. Everybody likes structure in their lives and you can’t get a more apt structure than a pillar. Everybody likes direction and a robust pillar plan can provide that. And, everyone likes success. So, a dashboard covered in green that shows we’re on track to succeed can be quite, well, inspirational. Formal business plans? Waste of time. Give me a pillar plan any day of the week.


Simon Quarendon
Simon Quarendon

Simon has over 30 years track record in agency including; founding, building, buying and selling. He has run global accounts for top-tier multi-national agencies and advised clients drawn from all areas: from national governments and Blue Chips to SMEs and NGOs.

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