The Wisdom of Mike Tyson: Scenario Planning in Marketing

By: Guest | January 22, 2013 | 

Today’s guest post is by James Ellis.

It’s strange something said by Mike Tyson would have such legs, but his quote, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face” really seems to resonate with people

Marketers especially.

You see marketers, who traffic in things called marketing plans, are surprisingly averse to planning for that knock-out moment when they get punched in the face.

For example, what happens when that social media plan gets up-ended when someone (or a lot of someones) decides to use that social platform to poke holes in the brand’s image? (Paging Motrin Moms, BP Public Relations Twitter accounts, or rogue Domino’s Pizza employees.)

Worse, what happens when that meticulously considered plan just doesn’t work? What happens when no one shows up? When no one comments? When no one shares or likes or follows?

The Right Hook

The thing is, every boxer knows they are going to get punched in the face at some point. Well, they know it with their head, but they might not know it in their heart. Maybe they secretly hope that they can win the bout without having to feel that sting. They practice bobbing and weaving, envisioning the victory, but do they really plan for what happens when they get hit in the face? Or when they fall to the canvas?

Every marketer, whether they admit it or not, plans to be able to take the victory lap when things work out. When the marketer can show an ROI higher than anticipated, they are quick to send that email. But no one plans for the “what if” where things just fall apart.

The Upper Cut

No marketer has a perfect track record. Everyone has at least one semi-traumatic adverse event in their past. And while we presume the marketer has learned from that misstep, that doesn’t mean they are protected against any future catastrophes.

Obviously, the reason marketers are reticent to make such plans is because of ego. If the brand paid the marketer a great deal of money to come up with a plan, that plan must be a good one. So why would a good plan need an ejector seat?

And yet, all jet fighters, no matter how well designed or the cost to build, have ejector seats. Pilots demand them, as will brands very soon.

It is the smarter marketer who knows Murphy is alive and well and quietly plotting against us all. That marketer goes through a process of scenario planning, considering everything that might go wrong and outlining every worst-case scenario to determine the smartest corse of action. And that course should be considered ahead of time, not in the heat of panic and crisis.


Thus, the marketer can build a working contingency plan: A way to quietly or quickly roll things back to minimize the damage (or a plan for a new message in case the target audience reacts negatively); or a clearly defined point at which the team realizes things aren’t working and what specific steps you’ll take to tweak the message or pivot – or even bin – the project.

The smarter marketer will quickly realize that rather it being a time waster, planning for every possible negative scenario actually enhances the likelihood of a successful project. If you know and define what can go wrong, you’ll take steps to make sure it won’t happen.

This kind of contingency planning will soon be par for the course, not just in highly regulated markets like pharma and financial sectors, but any time someone pays you for smart marketing thinking.

Adding contingency planning isn’t an admission of imperfection, but an acceptance of the world as it is. It makes for better marketing and better marketers. So let’s step it up. And be prepared for the day we take that punch in the face.

James Ellis is a digital strategist, mad scientist, lover, fighter, drummer, and blogger living in Chicago. You can reach out to him, or just argue with his premise, at

  • patmrhoads

    James, great post. I agree with you that a marketer probably doesn’t want to plan for worst-case scenarios because of the thinking that if they create a good plan, they shouldn’t need ‘ejector seats’. But I’m not sure this will change any time soon, if ever. Part of it is that blurry line between ego and confidence, Clients (or bosses) are expecting the latter, based on recent results or a solid pitch. But also because of cost. It takes time to create good, thoughtful marketing campaigns, and time equals money. Spending even more time to think through how to appropriately (and dramatically, if it really is bombing) adjust or even ditch a campaign, and do it well, would take a lot more time. If enough clients/bosses demand it, we may see the day when marketers regularly engage in this kind of exercise, but unless that happens, I don’t see it.
    (In case this got lost in my comment, I do agree that a smart marketer WILL take the time to plan accordingly.)

  • James, I enjoyed the analogies you used in this post. Your closing paragraph is absolutely accurate. Well done, and thanks.

  • crestodina

    Great post, James. Yup, we’ve all taken our punches. To be totally honest, I’m not all that ready for the uppercut. On the other side, there are also times when I think I landed the perfect punch, only to find it didn’t connect.
    PS: Love the headline! Mike Tyson and wisdom in the same sentence? But yes, that’s a great quote…

  • JosephTeilhard

    Does this really mean the end of the world is in 2012. I mean com one people!

    • @JosephTeilhard I own this blog and I’m trying to understand your comment. Am I to take it you didn’t like the blog post and you can’t professionally articulate why not?

      • @ginidietrich I was hoping he meant not enough comments for this caliber of post.

  • saltlab

    Thanks everyone. Glad you liked the post.

  • You know I love a good sports analogy – this one would have been a great guest blog post over in my neck of the woods.
    In some cases, it only takes one opening (often due to fatigue or over-committing) to suffer a TKD or KO. So condition your plan through working it out before you set foot in the ring. Also, stick to your fundamentals and avoid over-reaching while trying to go for a haymaker KO of your opponent.
    There are no one-swing strategies other than screwing up and letting your competitors get that one swing at you while you are exposed!

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