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Planning for 2021


Q4 always signals a mad push for incremental revenue: you want to be top of mind as year-end client projects popup, and as opportunities take shape for next year. But it should also be the time when you develop your plan for the year ahead.

Planning is key to any successful business. It provides focus, guidelines for decisions, and when well communicated, alignment with your team on the direction and goals of the agency. And if there’s ever a year when these attributes will be needed, it’s going to be 2021! As you begin your planning, think about:

1. Strategy

We approach planning as a statement of intentions, a roadmap to success, and not just a budget exercise. What do you want to accomplish next year, and how will you get there? Setting a strategy that directs your decisions, and ultimately how you manage your efforts and team, is crucial to having a successful year.

In its essence, a good plan should answer three questions: 1) where are you currently? 2) where do you you want to be? 3) what will stop you from getting there? Step 1 takes a lot of listening and examination: what’s worked so far? What are you seeing among your competitors? What are you hearing from your clients? What ideas do your employees have? Having a hyper-informed view of your landscape has never been more important. Step 2 is a combination of desire and realism. It should be based upon the Step 1’s information so it’s achievable, but with ambition for greater success. Step 3 identifies issues you need to address and/or monitor to ensure they don’t stop you from achieving your plan.

And with your clients, don’t make any assumptions: now’s the time to be conducting account planning and business conversations. Find out how they’re thinking about next year and where you fit. What are they struggling with? These conversations not only beat guesswork but will also help to cement your relationships and provide clues for how to become an even more valuable partner.

2. Brand

Clients have always looked for agencies who provide leadership, and it’s even truer now. As we head into 2021, it’s clear there will be fewer agencies than at the start of 2020. This creates opportunities for agencies who can tell a strong story of helping clients navigate challenging problems. It comes down to delivering on a clear brand promise that separates you from your competition.

In tough times, strengthening your brand is often viewed as a “nice to have," but we believe it’s critical now. As a baseline, your differentiation has to be real and something of value to clients. And with no live events, it has to be explicit you’re relevant and staying ahead of the game. We don’t have enough fingers on which to count the agency websites with landing pages of photos from the massive events they’ve produced. That was then, and you’ve just missed your opportunity to tell prospects you’re ready for now.

Most importantly, your differentiation is delivered by your people. You probably have less staff now and those you do have are challenged doing more with less. Have you clearly communicated your brand promise and how your team delivers? Have you told them where you’re going and how you’re going to get there? Have you reconfigured your processes so you’re easier to work for (and with)? Have you given your staff the tools and the knowledge they need to deliver your services at the highest level in this reality? Whatever you say you stand for lives or dies with your team.

3. People

And while we’re on the subject of your team, your plan should include a realistic analysis of your staff: who’s essential to your business? Who’s ready to take on more responsibility? And a difficult question to ask: who’s no longer performing? Your needs have shifted since last Spring, and while you’ve likely made changes, talent evaluation should be ongoing. This is a natural time to take stock.

Staff or freelance? Maybe you have PTSD from layoffs and you’re hesitant to hire. What do you need to see in order to make your next hire? Maybe you’re producing everything with staff and don’t have freelance positions now, or vice-versa using all freelancers with no staff. The good agencies are examining their staff and freelance assignments and paying attention when either creates the most value in their business model.

4. Budget

And lastly, the numbers. We’re all hoping 2021 will be better, but should we plan on that? It could be 2021’s the year where a budget that’s flat-to-2020 is aggressive. Did you have a big Pre-COVID Q1 with live events? That doesn’t appear to be happening in 2021. Can you replace that business? Are you having new business success? The key is to be realistic without being pessimistic. The insights from your client conversations really become valuable here.

Some believe 2021 will have an inverted busy-season for corporate and B2B events, with “traditional” Pre-COVID Q1 activity flipping to Q4 as a result of pent-up demand for live. We believe it’s too soon to tell if that’ll be the case, and it certainly isn’t something to plan on. A good budget’s based upon the past and incorporates the future in a realistic, achievable manner. Once a budget is in place, vigilance and flexibility will be key, and being ready to pivot back to live will be an on-going thing to watch – but not expect.

In the end, a good plan creates the foundation to make smart business decisions that’ll allow your agency to not only survive but have success. But remember, it’s a starting point, and as a very smart CEO we know once said: “A budget is nothing but a plan, and plans change.” Be smart, be alert, and be prepared.

©2020 by Tonic Consulting Group, LLC. Chicago / New York