A 2021 Strategic Planning Guide for CMOs

Why it’s important to use this year’s planning to start a fresh agenda.

As challenging as 2020 has been for marketing executives, it’s also been an accelerator of change. Amid pandemic disruptions, many companies found ways to reset, making fundamental–and often overdue–changes in their marketing organizations.

Those resets have opened doors to opportunities. As we help our clients map out 2021 marketing plans, we see important new ways for marketing to continue to enhance and even transform its role in accelerating a company’s growth.

We see several shifts that present a rare opportunity to develop the kind of marketing organization many people have been aspiring to work in, and lead, for more than a decade. These changes are built into marketing plans now and will sharpen focus and create more impact in the year ahead, as well as serve as building blocks for long-term growth.

Important Focus Areas for CMOs Developing Their 2021 Marketing Plans

Blur the Lines of Marketing

The best CMOs understand that solutions lie beyond their own departments and functions. The first wave of alignment has traditionally been marketing and sales, and more recently, deeper coordination with corporate communications. Increasingly, we also see CMOs building into their marketing plans integration with experience, tech, digital and HR teams. That’s because a genuine cross-functional approach is no longer nice to have, it’s essential for growth. While marketing may have responsibility for its plan and budget, leaders must see how collaboration with other functions is critical to the company’s success.

Elevate the Insights Function to an Operating System

As adept as many companies have become with transactional customer analytics and data, CMOs are keenly aware that insights often lag behind the accelerated pace of change happening across industries. That means plans are always a few steps behind what’s going on with customers right now. The pandemic, especially, has triggered profound changes in people’s behavior, making the need for constant pulsing imperative. Marketing leaders need a system that combines transactional customer analytics with current insights on human, consumer and user attitudes and behaviors.

Develop New Digital-Selling Strategies

Marketers can add value in the long term through brand reputation building, but they also need to play the critical role of generating leads and demand. Luckily, sales teams aren’t just welcoming this change, they’re pleading for it. Unable to jump on planes or meet face-to-face, salespeople need new digital tools, content and tactics to nurture every step of the sale. While there has always been a desire to push marketing and sales together, the pandemic is realizing the true merge of these two functions.

“A genuine cross-functional approach is no longer nice to have, it’s essential for growth.”

And, while this is certainly true for direct-to-consumer sales, an even larger opportunity for marketing is in B2B transactions. These customers, who are also enthusiastic digital consumers, are hungry for seamless solutions to procurement problems. By helping sellers answer that call, marketing has a rare purview to transform the selling process.

Create a New Talent Strategy

Finding the right people to run these intensely cross-functional operations requires a new approach. CMOs need to hire people who can look inside marketing and beyond, quickly jumping into a sales or product or experience or a tech conversation. And it’s likely recruitment efforts won’t be enough, at least to answer 2021’s pressing needs. What gaps can be filled by hiring? Partnering with other organizations? Upskilling? Even an acquisition?

Build-in Quarterly True Ups

CMOs need to be lighter on their feet than ever. Plans must be dynamic, allowing companies to be more responsive to shifts in the market and adjust in real-time. And this flexibility needs to be embedded in the day-to-day fluctuations of the company’s core businesses. Thorough scenario and contingency planning are mandatory for each goal and objective to be ready and responsive, with closer tracking of brand and sales performance.  Dynamic planning, responding and acting will now become the new normal for marketing. At the same time, making smarter tradeoffs in the near-term will be part of the secret sauce for reframing marketing’s role in driving a long-term growth agenda.


Marketing planning can traditionally be an optimization exercise. Improvements in last year’s plan, with tweaks and adjustments here and there. This coming year, especially now, it’s an opportunity to use the planning cycle as a moment in time to: set a fresh agenda, harness the digital acceleration already underway, reorganize around outcomes, re-energize your team and redefine what success can look like.