CMOpinion: It’s 143 days until Christmas. How exciting! Or is it? 

With under five months to 25 December, Christmas campaigns might be the last thing on your mind. If you haven't started, you're late. And if you have, what if things change? In her regular Mumbrella column, 8-Star Energy CMO Diana Di Cecco talks about planning.

‘Twas five months before Christmas, when all through the marketing department,

Not a creature was stirring, in anticipation of festive bombardment.

Campaign ideas should be hung by the CMO’s office with care,

But the dream of being that organised is unlikely to happen this year.

Until you work in an industry where Christmas is a seasonal campaign, usually retail, you have no appreciation for its enduring development; it is one of (if not the biggest) campaigns of the year. Given the conversations I have had with peers of late, and the complex start to 2021, it’s time to talk about planning for the unknown.

At this point, Marketers fall into one of three categories:

  1. Super organised well-oiled machine who briefed Christmas in three months ago.
  2. Has thought about a Christmas campaign, knows timings and halfway through a creative and media brief.
  3. Christmas? I’ve got heaps of time. (If you’re here, you are in a state I call “planning denial”).

I won’t be dissecting Franklin’s timeworn “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail” quote. This is a candid dialogue about being systematic. I recently heard an analogy that likened the lead up to 2020 as technologically disruptive, that emerging markets were challenging traditional business models and that throwing a pandemic in the mix was making the future as predictable as a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors with multiple hands. It is true that the pandemic has made many aspects of business life more difficult, but could some chaos have been avoided if businesses were better poised to respond? Say, with a plan?

Just like an F1 team but different

When I look at a campaign calendar, I draw contrasts to Formula 1 racing. The marketing year is a race season, and each race is a campaign. As the CMO/marketing lead, you are the team principal. The drivers are your managers and the engineers, mechanics, communications crew etc, are the rest of your team, managing products, channels and numerous tasks – everyone has a role to play. On a F1 race weekend, a team’s focus is always on the race, but their ultimate goal is to win the Constructors’ Championship (decided at season’s end); it requires a longer-term view that is planned and organised, while retaining the ability to be responsive. Because as we know, and COVID has reminded us, things can change.

In the Netflix documentary, Drive to Survive, Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team, CEO and team principal, Toto Wolf, describes F1 racing as war planning: they set targets, develop power units, and then deploy in the field. It has striking similarities to Marketing: we set targets, develop campaigns and then execute in market. But an F1 Team never starts the year without having a plan for the entire season because they know that it’s the whole year, not just a race, that counts. Similarly, Marketers need a full year view as you too are going to war – with your competitors, for brand awareness, for market share and for the customer’s share of wallet. Why leave something so important to the last minute when your best result will come from a concerted effort that requires time. (To those saying “but I’m too busy” – make time).

No two years are the same

Regardless of media mix, creative and technological advancements, planning is like style – it never goes out of fashion. Unfortunately, when Marketers rush, they sometimes “skimp” on planning (I acknowledge this does not apply to all), but I have heard of Marketers who copy and paste the previous year’s plan and hit “repeat” (a very bad idea by the way – have any two years of your life ever been identical? Unlikely. So why would your campaigns be?)

There are always considerations to be made. For example, has buying behaviour changed and how has that impacted your products and/or how people shop? Are new trends emerging and how are you responding to them? Have new competitors entered the market and how are they impacting you? And in particular for Christmas, when do people start shopping? Power Retail’s 2020 report showed 89% of customers start Christmas shopping in October/early November (personally, I think this in nuts – I’m more of “all shopping done two days before Christmas in three hours” type of person. I digress…). So, to be in market for October, you should have started buying media by now, have creative complete and products selected and in stock. If you have not yet ordered stock, move to a plan B because there is next to zero chance anything will arrive from overseas in time. If you want your agencies to do their best work, provision them time – media planners need time to plan, creatives need time to think and production needs to complete the 67 drafts you will want. How can this plethora of people do their best work for you under time pressures?

It’s perplexing and concerning that planning is such a struggle in some businesses. Christmas is the same date each year so it is not a surprise and it deserves not to be rushed, needing your full attention and sufficient time.

Driving in the rain

As a consumer, I know it’s Christmas when I start hearing the dulcet tones of Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas is you” blaring from supermarket radio – it is my favourite Christmas song and you will find me lip syncing the words well after the song has ended. But as a Marketer, my concept of Christmas if very different – it “starts” much earlier and its planning is usually well underway by now. Obviously, this varies based on where you work – I, like many, have worked in organisations where planning is not prioritised and it frightens the hell out of me. Ultimately, there are businesses who operate in advance and there are those on the backfoot – you know which one you work for even if it goes against your grain.

In F1, they often say that racing in the rain is the greatest equalizer because it’s more about driving skill and the ability to control the car. When you think about the last 18 months, Marketers have also experienced an unforeseen equalizer in COVID – every competitor in your category has the same problems. In a wet F1 set-up, teams are fine-tuning many aspects of the vehicle such as ride height, tyre selection and pressure, while the driver needs to change their driving style to be soft touch to avoid lockups. During COVID, Marketers had to fine-tune and in some cases, completely change strategy, in order to survive and ensure their brands made it to the other end, which I argue we’re not at the end of yet, but we are at least, more familiar with now. Like F1, operating a marketing department during the pandemic has required a level of flexibility, adaptability and risk – things we’re all getting used to and that are unlikely to disappear soon. In a nano second of reflection, I believe the key aspects COVID highlighted (and continues to) revolve around planning, and specifically that:

  • (a) the world doesn’t stop and it is possible to run campaigns during a pandemic,
  • (2) not all brands were adversely affected – some industries boomed and were/are in more demand than usual, and;
  • (3) things can change quickly and we need to be prepared for the cards that are dealt. (Hello Sydney lockdown)

This last point is the most important. How does one “be ready for anything?” As a “worst case scenario” advocate, I like to use a scenario planning to ensure I am ready for and can face whatever the universe throws me. So, with the current landscape and Christmas looming, I pose these hypotheticals and ask you to consider how you would handle them.

  • What if the State you live in suffers from additional lockdowns?
  • For global teams, how does local activity affect the whole team’s ability to operate? E.g. You have offices in London, New Delhi and Sydney.
  • What if a more infectious and virulent strain of COVID develops in October?
  • What if a different pandemic spreads across the world in 2023?
  • What other major disasters could impact your brand?
  • What if Christmas is cancelled?

When I consider these, I start contemplating:

  • How does it change internal operations? Is it fair to stand people down? If everyone is WFH, what plans are in place to provide team cohesion and avoid seclusion? By now, you should have a formula for what works. And if you don’t, think about the lessons so far, ask the team for feedback and make them part of the process.
  • How does it impact the customer relationship and the ability to service them? Does location matter? Are there alternative ways we can still provide our product/service? Do they need to know how/if we’re impacted? Are we going to be another “here’s an email from our CEO and we’re all in this together” brand? (No more of those, please. Ever.)
  • Are there certain trends affecting the business or consumer behaviour? Are we analysing business performance in an effort to extract insights from which we can make better decisions, such as using a scenario matrix?
  • What assumptions have been made? Do we have any blind spots? Whose lens are we looking through? Challenge everything and everyone.

meeting team collaboration office teamwork

This is just the tip of the iceberg – I could go on forever but I will refrain. My point is that the last 18 months has taught everyone many lessons but without using them to plan and anticipate potential disruption, you run the risk of falling victim to commotion should things go awry. Uncertainty need not give you heart palpitations; it should give you options. Options you have thought about and plans you can execute if a situation requires. Basically, develop a plan B, C and D – know what they are, how to implement then and when you need to activate.

I’m unsure if we’re in pursuit of resilience or whether it has been bestowed upon us. But I do know that current times have forced smart organisations to think outside of their comfort zones and its these businesses who have strategically initiated scenario planning and crisis management. (Let’s not mention the organisations who have simply reverted back to pre-COVID operations as though that “normality” is going to solve everything – if you’re working for one of these organisations, get out now).

So, if you put your F1 team principal hat back on, you have half a season to go. Collate that pre-season testing data (i.e. last year’s Christmas results), extract the learnings from each race this year (i.e. campaign post-analysis to-date), assess remaining races routes (i.e. what else needs to be managed pre-Christmas), decide on your tyre strategy (i.e. what are your channels to market?), assess driver performance (i.e. which brands and products will you need for the best Christmas ever and ensure you have inventory reserved), ensure you have sufficient spare parts (i.e. secure your media inventory immediately) and finally, plan to drive in the wet so that if disruption hits, you simply pull out plan B, C or D while your competitors lock up, skid and hopefully, crash into a wall. Planning is the most crucial step in marketing. But there is no magic wand that whips it up for you – it takes time, consideration and lots of data. Without it, you miss the opportunity to do the best work possible and show your business what marketing really is – much more than catchy tag lines.

My favourite quote about planning is from composer/conductor, Leonard Bernstein, who suggests that “to achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” I don’t think there is a Marketer out there who isn’t driven by deadlines – that sense of hustle is a gift. Use it (to plan).

Diana Di Cecco is the CMO of 8-Star Energy. CMOpinion is a regular Mumbrella column.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.