Assetlink Bonds Planning, Execution

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It would be a huge overstatement to claim that marketing management software is the Next Big Thing. Yes, vendor sales are growing, and the concept has attracted increasing attention from the press and industry analysts. But business gurus have yet to decree that this technology is essential for future success -- the true mark of a triumphant concept. Rather, it continues to be seen as a way for marketers to run their operations more efficiently and under tighter control.


Despite this relatively relaxed atmosphere, a clearer understanding of these systems continues to evolve. An important distinction seems to exist between project management functions for daily execution of marketing efforts and strategic functions for marketing planning and control. Every organization needs execution, but it's mostly large ones that really care about formalized planning and control.


Large organizations also have specialized needs for management of marketing materials, such as brand logos, to ensure they are distributed, displayed and localized in accordance with corporate policy.


Assetlink (Assetlink, 925/461-9490, www.assetlink.com) falls into the big-company segment of marketing management systems. It provides marketing planning, budgeting and digital asset management functions in addition to project management and collaboration.


Like other high-end marketing management vendors, its customer list is weighted heavily toward consumer packaged goods and pharmaceuticals manufacturers, two industries with particularly demanding needs for marketing materials control and distribution.


Assetlink is designed for users who begin with formal strategic planning. It provides forms for situation analysis, objectives, budgets and marketing plans, plus functions to refine, review, approve and distribute these over time. Elements are stored as separate items in a database rather than sections of a long document, making it easy to find and reuse them throughout the system.


Plans can be broken down by business unit, geography, product line, channel, market segment or whatever divisions make sense for a particular company. Different versions can be stored and compared with each other and with actuals as the business year progresses.


Assetlink lets users supplement conventional financial reporting by defining marketing metrics such as number of leads or retention rates. These can be tied explicitly to objectives defined in the strategic plan. Scorecards displaying these metrics can be deployed to track results throughout the business.


Marketing plans provide the link between strategy and execution. Like strategic plans, they pass through versions and review processes. They also are tied to strategic objectives and budgets defined at higher levels. But marketing plans also are built from below by assembling campaigns, the fundamental unit of marketing execution.


Campaigns are split into activities and subactivities, which have documents, activity briefs, budgets, expenses and individual projects. Projects trigger workflows, sets of tasks that are assigned, scheduled, tracked, approved, completed and otherwise tied to actual work.


Most of Assetlink's execution components can be considered as workflow support. The tasks in a workflow can be defined in templates that specify the expected duration of each step, letting the system automatically generate a workflow schedule from a start or end date.


The system can capture time and materials costs per task, define and store associated documents and other deliverables, link to external resources such as an advertising agency and track percent completion. Like most marketing management systems, Assetlink does not provide advanced project management capabilities such as critical path analysis or resource load leveling. Such features often are considered unnecessary for the relatively simple, linear nature of common marketing projects.


In contrast, Assetlink's capabilities for review and approval of documents and artwork are quite sophisticated. The system can build a list of reviewers from registered users, notify each reviewer when an item is ready, send reminders when response is overdue, separately display each reviewer's comments, track approvals or rejections and store old versions as an item evolves. The items themselves, which are usually distributed as Adobe Acrobat files, remain unaltered during these processes.


Once an item reaches its final form, Assetlink provides an online repository to make it accessible. Hierarchical folders, search functions, thumbnails and previews help users find items. Security controls who can access each item while check-in and checkout features avoid conflicting revisions. External users, such as ad agencies, can add material to the repository and catalog it automatically.


An even more specialized module lets users automatically generate custom versions of standardized artwork, such as different-size package labels or ads in several languages. Users define templates with standard layouts and component tags and link this to a database of text and image elements.


Users then specify a set of characteristics, such as a particular product, language and dimensions. The system finds the correct elements and generates the correct image files. Mindless as it sounds, such work takes a huge amount of labor and quality checking at big companies. Assetlink has another module that assembles guidelines, templates and graphical elements to help produce consistent brand identity material, even though it does not actually generate artwork.


A different set of tools manages the marketing finances. These track budgets from the highest levels down to line items for individual tasks. They also can reconcile budgets with actual expenses and vendor invoices. A procurement module, just being added, tracks proposals, commitments, purchase orders and vendor performance and manages physical inventory of marketing materials. The system can exchange data with other corporate systems to help these processes.


Assetlink also provides general collaboration tools, including project-specific message boards and document-sharing Web sites. As with most marketing management systems, users access the software through a customizable portal that displays their own tasks, projects, reports and other information.


A hosted version of Assetlink costs $150 per user per month while a one-time license for installed software costs $100,000 to $250,000 for unlimited users on a single server, depending on which modules are purchased. The system runs on Windows servers and any Web browser. It was introduced in 1997 and has 30 implementations ranging from 50 to 500 users.


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