How to run effective marketing workshops for brand teams

Running an outstanding marketing workshop requires much more than just good workshop facilitation. I have been lucky enough to run hundreds of marketing workshops of various shapes and sizes all over the world. In this article I will share some tips for running a successful event and also some of the pitfalls I’ve experienced along the way.

In recent years brand teams have tended to become increasingly multi-national and multi-functional and with that marketing workshops have become more expensive to run and more difficult to manage.

Marketing workshops can come in various shapes and sizes with differing degrees of difficulty and for many different purposes. The biggest event I ran was for about 100 marketing people in the basement ballroom of a Bangkok hotel, the most beautiful was overlooking a Norwegian Fjord (quite a distracting view) and the most nauseous was in Lagos where the local general manager insisted on chain smoking cigars for two days. Hopefully I can share a little of what I have learned.

Why have a workshop?

The first stage in ensuring a successful event is to ensure that the pretext for marketing workshop is right in the first place.

What workshops are good for is achieving alignment on key marketing initiatives such as a new brand vision, an innovation strategy, insight prioritisation or even content strategy. They can be good for generating ideas and new product concepts. They can be good for learning new techniques and disseminating best practice.

They are good for helping to develop and harness project momentum once a project team has formed. This can be particularly powerful in the context of multi-national or multifunctional project teams.

What they are not so good for is evaluation of ideas or analysis and can be imperfect vehicles for decision-making.

However, if you want a team to buy into the solution developed, by taking their hearts and minds with you, then a well-run workshop or series of workshops can certainly help generate that kind of ownership.

Are you sure a workshop is best?

Many of the people I meet in business complain about a number of things – not enough time, too many e-mails, HR and too many meetings (especially conference calls). So think hard before putting “another bloody meeting” in the diary.

One way of thinking about it is to work out what the financial benefit to the business of having the workshop is and then work out the real total cost of running the workshop – don’t forget travel, accommodation, time costs. Add it all up. This is what they used to call a back-of-the-fag-packet calculation, these days a post-it note will have to do.

Does it still make sense to have a workshop? Okay read on.

Who to involve?

In my experience the best number of people to involve in an effective marketing workshop is somewhere between 10 and 20 people. Any less and there’s not enough energy, any more and there’s not enough involvement or participation.

Bringing in more people to help them feel engaged or because you don’t want them to feel left out is often counter-productive. You need to bring with you everyone you want to buy into the solutions you develop.

Now for senior busy people that may not be practical. So there are ways to get them and keep them on-board perhaps through the use of stakeholder interviews or maybe ask them along to the group dinner to give it their blessing and show that they think what you are doing is important. This works.

Do I need an external facilitator?

The answer to this one is it depends. For straightforward topics you can most likely cover the bulk of the ground without external help. However, there is no substitute for hands on experience in running workshops. I call it flying hours.

I tend to get asked to facilitate the trickier meetings and workshops. The reason for this is as follows:

1.     I cost money to hire (see the cost payback point above)

2.     People may want an independent voice running the show for contentious issues (no punching below the belt!)

3.     It allows the person in charge of the project to worry about the workshop content and contribute to developing the solution without having to worry about managing the process

4.     There’s no substitute for experience (did I mention that?)

What’s the outcome we are looking for?

Having a crisp statement of objectives for the workshop helps to align upon and agree a contract with everyone on what you want to achieve and allows you to assess whether the set up, involvement and agenda for the session is realistic against that goal. Never miss this step out.

To pre-work or not?

 I always used to advise having some form of pre-work to get participants in the right frame of mind for the session and to gather stimulus for the session.

In response to poor compliance I started making pre-work easier and easier to do. A favourite was bring along a product example for inspiration.

What I found was that busy people who had not made time to do it would either turn up and sheepishly apologise (not a good start to a session) or buy any-old-crap from the garage just down the road that they would then proceed to post-rationalise (not a good start)

And garage pre-work says as much about their commitment to the process as garage flowers do about commitment to a relationship. I’ll leave that there.

These days I would say either give pre-work that benefits the workshop attendee in some way or don’t bother. So for example, pull together a really pithy research summary or some punchy learning from other markets.

Start as you mean to go on…

Three things make for a strong start..

1.     A great room in a well-run venue. A great meeting room is one with natural light – unfortunately no-one seems to have told all the hotel designers about that.

2.     A relevant ice-breaker

3.     A baggage dump. I don’t mean by this you need a cloakroom attendant. What I mean is that you ask people early on an open question that allows them to dump their top of the head thoughts or pre-dispositions. Get them out on the table. Get them off the chest then the workshop can move on.

Manage the energy..

The one thing I hate to hear as a workshop facilitator is “shall we just push on through lunch” People think that by working through lunch that they are in some way being more efficient by making the most of the time. In my experience this is almost always incorrect and counter-productive. Everyone needs a break to keep their thinking fresh and their energy directed.

They also need time to fiddle about with their smartphones and pace up and down making important calls in the car park. This is good because it stops them doing it in the workshop.

Also the agenda you put together should have enough variety to maintain interest and hence energy. Be careful about putting in too much fun stuff as it can back-fire if it comes across as too frivolous. Jungle drumming strictly in moderation!

Close it out

As important as having a good start is having a good ending. Attendees need to be lining up holding their shoes and belts at the security check in at Heathrow on the way home thinking it was all worth it because they had a good day and made some progress.

So a good summary of what was achieved, highlights of the day, perhaps even prizes and a realistic set of assigned next steps goes a long way to achieving that. The worst thing you can do to a busy person is leave them feeling you wasted their time and you want them lining up for your next workshop with a skip in their step (if that is physically possible)

Steve Purnell is director and founder of Brand Fruition. We offer strategic marketing support for ambitious enterprises through consulting and coaching. If you'd like to know more about how marketing workshops may help you address your tricky marketing challenges then please get in touch.