I was lucky enough to talk at Adweek Europe earlier this week. The Advertising Association hosted a Last One Standing debate. Each speaker was invited to give their answer to the question, what’s the biggest myth in advertising, and what do you propose to do about it? We were given ten minutes, and asked to be provocative but actionable.

Below is the talk I gave as my answer.

The biggest myth in advertising?

Plans.

Marketing plans. Media plans. Business plans. Each of them a myth.

Not because they don’t exist. We’ve all seen them. We’ve all written them. But we’ve all re-written them too. Plans are a myth because we believe them to do one thing, when in reality they do something else entirely.

Plans no longer drive what we’re going to do. They just reflect where we are.

We have become better at version control than we are at setting direction in the first place.

And it’s a widespread phenomenon, too. We surveyed clients and agencies, through the Advertising Assocation, to find out how true it was.

We asked them whether they finished 2013 with the same plan with which they started the year. 90% said their plan had changed. We then asked by how much the final plan differed from the original. 30% said it had changed by at least 30%. Half our respondents said it had changed by at least half. That’s an extraordinary amount.

Now, no one doubts that change happens. Cliché tells us it’s the only constant. Of course we need to respond to developments. But adapting to change isn’t the same as changing the plan. Changing the plan pretends that change doesn’t happen. We use it to delude ourselves that we’re in control. We need a new approach, one that embraces uncertainty. Organisations must recognise the need to adapt and institutionalise the ability to do so.

It’s always been this way, of course. It’s not just the changing nature of the media and technological landscape that has revealed the myth of plans. A hundred years ago, before marketing adopted its military language, an actual military strategist called Helmut von Moltke said this: “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force”.

Or, as Mike Tyson put it, perhaps even more eloquently: “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

Trouble is, these days, that hostile force could come from anywhere. It can come when and where you least expect it. Which gives me a rather tenuous excuse to play my favourite clip from The One Show. This is David Cameron, almost home and dry after another cosy interview on the sofa. If you doubt the unexpected nature of the final question, check the look on the co-presenter’s face, as well as Cameron’s.

It’s an impressive recovery. Cameron turns a question about his morality into an answer about his stamina and his fitness for the job. He uses the temporary threat to re-assert his own leadership. It’s a lesson many brands and organisations could learn from.

What’s strange about the way brands are behaving is that most marketers know precisely what’s coming their way. IBM surveyed CMOs globally and asked them which issues do they feel most under-prepared for, and which issues do they think will affect marketing the most.

The answers to each question were the same. The explosion in data. The changing landscape of social media. The proliferation of devices and channels through which businesses need to conduct their consumer relationships. The constant shift in consumer demographics.

CMOs are caught in a perfect storm but apparently paralysed to do anything about it. How do we tackle this?

I’m currently reading Good Strategy/Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt. It’s a book everyone working in or interested in strategy should read. Towards the end there’s a great anecdote about Andrew Carnegie. He was a steel magnate and a powerhouse industrialist of the US. In 1890 he was at a reception, holding court, when he was introduced to a man named Frederick Taylor, an expert on organizing work. Carnegie, the skeptic, offered Taylor $10,0000 if Taylor told him “something worth hearing about management.” That was an awful lot of money then.

Taylor said, “I would advise you to make a list of the ten most important things you can do. And then, start doing number one.”

Sounds obvious. But, so the story goes, a week later a cheque for $10,000 arrived on Taylor’s desk.

Why?

This wasn’t about the list. It was about the process of constructing it. Carnegie was forced to focus on the intersection between what was important and what was actionable – what you need to do and what you can do. It asked him to reflect on the more fundamental purposes of his business, and to devise ways of advancing them based on his current reality.

In short, defining our priorities is incredibly valuable. It gives us a direction of how to address the multiple issues we face in a co-ordinated but multi-disciplinary way. It gives us a broader, more purposeful view of the business.

You can see the effect when this is applied to marketing. In another IBM survey, the State of Marketing, leading marketers were those identified as being able to impact each of the 4Ps. They influence the product itself, its pricing and place as well as its promotion. Leading marketers have a broader, more purposeful view and make their presence felt everywhere.

This is the top 20% of marketers. They are the ones who don’t run away from the issues for which everyone else feels under-prepared. Rather, they run towards them. They are proactively influencing the customer experience across channels. They are innovating in their use of new technologies. These are the businesses that embrace uncertainty. They learn from what’s happening in the market and act on new inputs. They identify challenges and address them. They don’t have a plan simply for mobile, or for social, or for media. They know what they want to achieve but can adapt in their approach to achieving it.

And they are not only leading marketers compared to their peers. They’re also driving growth for the businesses they work for, which are outperforming the market when it comes to growth in income, profit and stock price.

They are businesses that epitomise Jeff Bezos’ idea of an organisation that is “stubborn on vision, flexible on details”.

And this is our way out of the plans myth. A new dual approach. There will always have to be certain elements of what we do that will need to be fixed: the vision we work to; the outcomes we want to generated; the priorities we agree to. But we should become better at being flexed in others: the actions we take in pursuit of our vision; the means of generating our desired outcomes; the roles and responsibilities we give to people who fulfil our priorities.

This adaptive approach allows us to track progress in an actionable way. Real-time metrics that allow us to identify opportunity. That way, when we do change, it’s for the right reasons.

Easier said than done, you say. And you’d be right. Simple is hard. The bigger your organization, the harder it is. But I’ve sat in workshops recently with global clients who want their marketing departments to think just like this. Everyone needs to get going.

And  on that note I’ll leave you with this final thought, from Elbert Hubbard. It’s another 100 year old quote that’s even more relevant today than it was then.

“THE WORLD IS MOVING SO FAST THESE DAYS THAT THE MAN WHO SAYS IT CAN’T BE DONE IS GENERALLY INTERRUPTED BY SOMEONE DOING IT.”

Thank you.