Budget agility is king. Here's how CMOs can achieve it

Rowan Tonkin Profile picture for user Rowan Tonkin May 11, 2023
In lean times, budget agility is everything - and marketing teams must find a way to do more with less. But how? Planful’s CMO Rowan Tonkin explains how marketing leaders can remain agile.

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There’s no way to sugarcoat it — it’s a tough time for growth for most businesses today.

And when companies struggle or simply face economic uncertainty, marketing usually becomes the first budget slashed.

We’ve already talked at length about why cutting marketing’s budget is a mistake — but if you’re dealing with the reality of doing more with less, you need to adopt an agile mindset.

Agility doesn’t mean abandoning your marketing goals at the first sign of trouble. Rather, it’s about using the right tech, knowing where to slow your efforts, and working collaboratively with what might seem an unlikely ally — finance — in order to build a budget that can flex with the economic ups and downs.

Here are some of the most common challenges that marketing leaders face in lean times and what can be done to overcome them. I’ll let you in on a secret: it’s all about creating (and sticking to) an agile budget. The tips below will help you boost your financial IQ as a marketing leader, and will help you and your team remain resilient in the face of change.

Tip #1 – immediately prioritize budget and spend visibility

Budget agility is a superpower right now, and investing in it gives you immediate access to budget and spend performance. The proper technology can go a long way to help your marketing team prove (and even improve) ROI, invest in what is working, and quickly divest the programs that are not, especially when you're under-resourced.

In 2020, 95% of companies were still relying on spreadsheets for some form of budgeting or planning. Yet, a well-known IBM report found that 88% of spreadsheets have at least one error.

So, while they’re simple to use, spreadsheets are fairly inconsistent, time-consuming, and error-prone. As a CMO, if you’re stuck solving these granular tech issues, you don’t have the bandwidth to think creatively about your budget — or, for that matter, how your goals support your company’s growth.

Marketing leaders can turn to tech to gain a deeper understanding of your department’s needs, along with how to reach goals and leverage your budget in the most efficient means possible. That way, as the economy wanes and waxes, you know exactly what areas need more resources and attention.

Just as importantly, it can help you defend your budget if your projects and programs find themselves on the chopping block.

Take PS Logistics, for example. The flatbed trucking company was stuck in a bogged-down process based on Excel. In the end, PS Logistics was able to find $2.4 million in annual savings by getting out of traditional spreadsheets and into a cloud-based planning solution.

Now imagine what that could do for your marketing budget.

Tip #2 – slow down rather than shut down

In 2020, companies were focused on survival. Because of radical changes brought on by COVID-19, many companies were required to shut down or opted to shut down in order to wait out the chaos. Either way, this caused major budget disruptions.

What we’re seeing now is something more akin to a traditional recession, like many of us experienced in 2008. Everything costs more, and companies are trying to make more happen with less funding. We know that during a recession, marketing’s performance defines business performance. For that very reason, it makes sense to slow down rather than cut your marketing budget entirely.

Think about turning on a tap in the middle of a drought. You know your water level is low, and you don’t know if more water is coming. You’ll continue to water your garden, but you’re going to prioritize which parts to water. The plants that can survive periods of drought will require less water, and others that could bloom for you may need a lot more, but prioritization is key. Much like managing a smaller-than-usual marketing budget, you don’t want to stop watering the garden completely — you just need to be focused on where to water.

If you are a marketing leader who suddenly finds yourself having to do more with less, don’t panic. Slowing down means you’ll likely need to adjust your budget to spend less. Look back at lessons learned during similar times of uncertainty, like the 2008 recession. Be ready to prove the value of your department and the ROI of your team’s efforts so that you can continue to operate (even if your funding is limited).

To tie back to Tip #1, having the proper tech in place can let you easily see the value of your efforts, and can help know what areas to adjust to meet your new budget requirements.

With a top-level view of your budget, you’ll be able to slow down without sacrificing quality.

Tip #3 – think of financial success as a team sport 

To prove your department’s business value, you need to open channels of communication with other departments and collaborate with your finance and accounting counterparts. Like we mentioned in Tip #1leveraging technology can help with this.

 Now is the time to foster a strong connection with your finance team. Working with finance to help them see the signals of return can ensure that you are well positioned to re-invest when the time is right. Collaboration can help you, as a marketing leader, to speak the language of business as well as boost your financial IQ.

The relationship between marketing and finance is often the opposite of peanut butter and jelly. For many companies, it’s more like oil and water. Marketing tends to ask for money for projects that don’t always have measurable ROI. Finance, on the other hand, wants to see measurable ROI in order to approve budgetary spend. On top of this, Marketing and Finance generally speak different “languages.” A finance colleague might not fully understand the importance of operational marketing metrics like clicks, impressions, or even brand perception — let alone how those metrics tie back to financial metrics or a budget line item. So, for marketing leaders, the challenge becomes about creating predictable revenue and proving your ROI to a CFO or finance team that might not understand.

You know there’s real value in the programs that may be hard to measure, but for now, you need to focus on the things you can. So, start by making a business case for your department.

Take the time to meet with Finance with the goal to break down “invisible” aspects of your marketing responsibilities, like brand recognition or organic social media. Include how you’ve made cuts and in what ways you plan to adjust your goals to suit the current climate. Then use a marketing performance management tool to accurately track your spend, build flexible scenarios to adapt to economic changes, and automate workflows to save you time.

Stay agile in 2023… and beyond

2023 is shaping up to be a tough year for business growth, with many marketing leaders finding themselves having to do more with less, as well as facing a slim budget and overworked teams. But not all hope is lost. With proper planning, your team can maintain, or even raise expectations with a mindset on budget agility.

And since you rarely know when disaster will strike, it makes sense to prep your department now by putting the right tools in place. Doing so will protect you when the going gets tough in the future.

CMOs have an opportunity to boost their company’s (and department’s) odds of success during an economic downturn. Using the right tools can reduce communication silos, ensuring everyone has the information they need in real time. Plus, features like AI can control automations that’ll save your team time and reduce the chance of errors. More on that to come later. If you want to take the dialogue further, keep an eye out for the CMO conversations at Planful Perform the week of May 8. There will be plenty of opportunities to track the conversations online, via the #PlanfulPerform23 hashtag, as well as on the Planful Perform event pages.

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