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Does your business know what it really wants?

By Dave Stevens

I was lucky enough to meet with Professor Malcolm McDonald this week at a gathering of sales and marketing leads arranged by PA Consulting Group.  McDonald proved to be the draw for many of the attendees.  He is something of a legend in marketing circles alongside the likes of Kotler and Levitt.  McDonald is the author of over 40 books, including the best seller Marketing Plans: How to prepare them, how to use them.

That book was a big influence on me as I learned the ropes about how to become a marketer.  It explains how marketers should put together a marketing plan starting with an audit, then setting marketing objectives and strategies, then defining the tactics for each aspect of the marketing mix, and finally building an implementation plan around the same.  It then goes on to outline how to operate the plan that has emerged, how to monitor and control it.  It is a remarkably effective methodology that I’ve employed with success throughout my marketing career.

However, it depends upon businesses first knowing what they want to achieve.  And frequently they do not.

A fair portion of businesses have no such thing as a business plan.  In a 1998 study conducted by Leslie Rue of Georgia State University, 40% of the 300 or so businesses who answered his survey admitted they had no written business plans at all.  A more recent survey of small businesses in the US found that less than a third had a plan.  A lack of a business plan can make it hard to develop a marketing plan.

And even when there is a business plan, it may not be one that has been communicated to the business.  There is something about the concept of a strategy document that appears to demand the header private and confidential.  What is agreed is not communicated outside of the board room.  And frequently the marketing department is perceived as being outside of the need to know group.

And even when there is a business plan, it may not address the questions that the marketing department need answers to; namely what is the desired level of profitability over what time period, which products or services are to be deployed in which markets, what production and distribution facilities, personnel, and finance are available, what is the approach to CSR and to the City…

There has been a significant amount of discussion in the marketing press about the challenges of researching the customer when the customer does not know what they want.  But the same is frequently true of the business selling products and services to that customer.  Businesses frequently don’t know what they want.

However that does not mean that marketers should abandon the concept of a marketing plan altogether.  We simply need to be more flexible about how we achieve it.

1.  Be persistent about asking for the plan.  If your business leads haven’t shared the business plans with the marketers, marketers need to ask them why not.  It may be that the marketing department was simply not considered as an audience for the plan and that you need to explain the importance of your having that visibility.  Or it may be that there are sensitive parts of the plan that need to be excised first or that marketers need to sign up to the confidentiality obligations of others.  But be clear you can’t write a marketing plan without a business plan.

2.  Be clear about the questions you need answering.  If there is no business plan, marketers need to ask the business leaders what they are looking for strategically and then commit these business objectives to writing and share them with the business.  This may mean helping the business leaders to develop their plan yourself.

3.  Infer the answers to the answers to your questions.  If the business leaders can’t answer your questions, then you need to infer the answers.  It may be that you can do this from observing the way that the business behaves and then inferring the cause and then putting that into writing.  This may mean that you need to refresh the resulting marketing plan more frequently – but that in itself is no bad thing.

So be persistent.  Ask the questions.  Observe behaviour.  And write the marketing plan.  I guarantee it will be worthwhile.

Categories: b2b marketing marketing

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Dave is an experienced global B2B Chief Marketing Officer / Marketing Director with an established reputation for delivering commercial results in start-up, mid-tier, and blue-chip businesses across technology, and business services and professional services sectors.

Dave has worked for major brands such as Telefonica O2, EY, and Barclays and held posts from Chief Marketing Officer to Director of Online, has run his own business, and managed a P&L for a major corporate. He is chair and co-founder of the Business Marketing Club ( - a network of B2B marketers. In 2019, he was named one of the top 100 B2B European marketing leaders ( He is a graduate of Cambridge University, a Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) Chartered Marketer and holds a MBA with Imperial College, London. Dave is a keen cyclist and adventure traveller, is married, and lives in Buckinghamshire. You can read his blogs at

1 reply

  1. Hi Dave, about time I checked out your blog again…;) One question: is there a book you would recommend for anyone who’s considering a career in marketing right now? Would it still be “Marketing plans:…” (or the updated version)? Or would you choose a different book – or perhaps even a blog?


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