Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Musings on Online Education

Online education has been getting attention lately and many people ask me about it. So, today, I will give my take on it (on the college level) which may vary a bit from what you have generally read or heard.

There is no question that online learning is going to grow. It is very inexpensive for colleges and universities to get in to it especially compared to the current standard classroom courses. Imagine the operating leverage that a school gets! One could add 100 students to a course who are paying full tuition and all that the school might have to do is add a graduate teaching assistant to help grade papers. No use of tight classroom space, no heat, no electricity in that scenario either. The sales pitch is that many people live too far from a university to attend class in person or are consumed by their jobs during the week. So you may still obtain a degree in the discipline that you desire and you can work where and when you want often at your own pace. The appeal is clearly very strong for cash strapped institutions to get involved in a big way by providing a wider net for their universities. Here are a few of my views on online education that I have not heard much about from others:

1) Online education is a godsend to VERY motivated students but not to indifferent ones. Imagine this scenario. A young man from North Dakota gets an economics degree from school in Wisconsin. While there he takes an elective in History of Economic Thought and loves it. He badgers his advisor who arranges for him to take an independent study that allows him to dig deeply in to the work of Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo (all early Classical Economists with Smith being the giant). The next semester he graduates, returns home, and helps Mom and Dad run their ranch in rural North Dakota. He would like to pursue study of History of Economic Thought but there are only six or seven schools left who confer graduate degrees in the discipline and several are outside the U.S. He continues to read omnivorously about the topic and spends a vacation in London sitting in on a symposium on the work of Carl Menger, considered the father of the Austrian School of Economics. His mother thinks that he is nuts but his father encourages him and the young man’s work at the ranch, which, he will one day inherit, is exemplary. To his great delight, one of the schools that he would like to attend suddenly offers an online graduate program in History of Economic Thought. He is accepted and loves it. The professors are amused by his constant questions and e-mails and more than floored by how much background reading that he has done on his own and continues to do for their courses. For this lad, online education has been great and he is the perfect candidate. He can continue to be an emerging wealthy rancher while he simultaneously becomes an economics scholar. Without his online education, he would be self taught but there would likely be gaps in his learning unless he put forth an absolutely Herculean effort.
2) Recently, while walking the halls of a university classroom building, I overheard two students talking. One asked the other how the semester was going. “Great”, the young man replied. “I am taking three courses online, am not doing a damn thing, and so far I have all B’s.” Clearly, he is not as motivated as my mythical North Dakotan and few are. He sees his online courses as a great way to be a slacker. If one does not sit down at the screen and stay a while regularly, the online experience will not be worthwhile.
3) Some people tell me that the existing faculty at most schools will put up roadblocks to growth in online courses as they fear for their job. True, if online really catches on in education, fewer professors will be needed. This may especially true in foreign languages where introductory courses lend themselves to video and audio presentations that resemble programmed learning. Yet, on balance, I feel that these attacks on faculty are largely mean spirited and made by people who have never taught a college level course. There will be adjustments, however. Professors who lecture with notecards yellow with age will have to adjust to a new way of teaching. A bigger and trickier roadblock with be with accrediting bodies. Will credits be transferable to other institutions are among the issues that need to be sorted out and carefully.
4) Professors, and many will hate this analogy, will have to become “coaches” or Chief Motivating Officers in students lives as online education gets more traction. The caliber of online materials is constantly improving but the students still need direction and guidance even from people whom they may never meet in person. Ideally, professors should be major motivators now.
5) How will elite institutions react to online education as it grows? Some were involved in early experiments but will they embrace online learning significantly? Consider Ivy League giants Yale and Harvard. Or, how about our best liberal arts elite colleges such as Amherst and Williams? There is tremendous cache to going to these four schools largely due to the exclusivity of each. Graduates tend not be simply big donors--they are often huge donors. Contacts made at these schools help people for their entire lives. Will the alumni who write the six and seven figure checks continue to donate if THEIR schools become democratic and have thousands of enrollees from developing countries or a handful who never leave their holler in West Virginia? Look at what Starbucks is doing with Arizona State University. Thousands of baristas who stick to it with true dedication will get degrees largely financed by their generous employer. And, some will never have to leave Dayton! It is those type of schools, not in the top tier, that may use online most for the  immediate future.

That’s how I see it. I would love to hear your take on it.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com or leave a comment on the blog

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Things I Have Learned and Observed

A few weeks ago, a young adult approached me after a lecture and asked me a provocative question. He said, “Could you tell me the most important things that you have learned over the years?” I tried to put him off by saying something to the effect that  the older I get, the more I realize how little I know. He was persistent and I told him that I would get back to him. So, over recent days, I have mulled over the question very carefully. I will avoid the cliches such as “honesty is the best policy,” “to thine own self be true,” and “work hard, it pays off.” The cliches are all true but here is a list that you may not have thought about:

1) Markets always go to extremes--as l look back it does not matter if one is talking about the real estate, stock, commodity, oil, or broadcast marketplaces, they always seem to go from one extreme to another. I vividly remember 1974-1975 recession when we suffered through inflation, interest rates and possible impeachment. TV prices plummeted but in 1975 roared back with 50+% gains in some spot TV markets. Jump to 1999; radio broadcasters were stamping availabilities saying that their rates were valid for only five days and strange new tech companies were appearing on billboards in top 10 markets. I remember remarking in a client meeting that, “the media market was a balloon in search of a pin” (not original with me, of course) and was met with a roomful of people all shaking their head no. Several weeks later in early 2000 I had relocated to Atlanta and The Super Bowl advertising that year had many new entries among national advertisers that had recently completed Initial Public Offerings (IPO’s). Some of the commercials were so obtuse that you had no idea what the company did. That was the last straw for me. Soon after, the dotcom bubble burst. It was years before you could bring the internet up with smaller clients as many had lost personal funds in the debacle. So, the moral is regardless of market, to get skeptical when people say it can only go higher or, when it has fallen sharply in value, some will say that it can never bounce back. Asset values will fluctuate--always.
2) Demographics drive the bus in most cases--To me, this is the most powerful trend in existence. It is, to me, a tidal wave that cannot be held back. Many people tell me that Europe will bounce back from their current malaise. I agree that rallies can occur but many countries have severely aging populations who will put a damper on growth and strain finances with enormous increases in entitlement expenses. Declining populations have consequences! China faces the same problem with their one child policy in many provinces and Japan is also getting very old. Governments can try to stimulate business, tax less, tax more, even encourage having more children. Yet, the die is cast for many countries. As nations get older there will be fewer entrepreneurs and fewer opportunities for vibrant growth.  So watch Asia ex Japan and selected countries in Latin America and perhaps parts of Eastern Europe. That is where the action is going to be. It seems inevitable.
3) Strategists--everybody and his brother seem to be positioning themselves as strategists. In the last 40 years, I have only met a handful of people who deserved that title and they were worth their weight in gold. Many dubbed as strategists do not know the difference among a strategy, objective or a tactic yet they are called marketing or advertising strategists. Truly, titles do not make the man or woman!
4) Geniuses--people often ask me what it must have been like to be surrounded by geniuses having worked in advertising and marketing for so many years. The truth is that I worked with smart people, clever people, many quick with a line or an ad-lib but I never worked with a genius. There was never anyone that I was in awe of despite my long years at the game. The atmosphere was invigorating and fun many times but genius? I just did not see it. Sad but true.
5) Read and read some more--I tell this to all young people who will listen. There is truly great material out there and, if you are willing to put the time in, you can learn and understand a great deal. It still stuns me how little people in business read about their industry even though they are committed to spending decades in it. If you have no interest, get out and do something you enjoy. Charlie Munger, Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, was once asked what people might find surprising about his business partner, Warren Buffett. Munger said, “You would be amazed at how much Warren reads.”  I also tell young people that if you keep on top of your industry, you will likely have great success as most people will not read much. You do not have to be overtly competitive in most businesses. Being better informed gives you a huge edge. To people who tell me that they have no time to read, I always suggest that they unplug the TV.
6) Superficiality--it is rare for marketers or ad agency people to do a really deep dive on a topic. And, the few who do are often stifled because their management may say, “Just give me the bottom-line.”  If you boss is older, put your ideas in a report or lengthy e-mail. They will likely read it. I learned the hard way to give 30 second answers to a tough question and then followed up with a detailed response in writing. Some issues and problems are just plain complicated. The one minute manager approach is not always the best.

I have a fistful of other issues on this topic that I may include in a future post.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

Thursday, March 26, 2015

American Optimism


About five years ago, I was driving on an interstate after a long conversation with a friend who is far more liberal than I (not hard).  He went on a long harangue about drought, possible global famine, income inequality, inevitable economic decline and global warming. We agreed on climate change except that I said he needed more faith in technology. Solar and wind energy were renewable and virtually pollution free and were becoming more efficient each year and the energy companies were using high tech to find fossil fuels. He shook his head and essentially said that America was doomed along with most of the planet.

Driving along, I noticed a bumper sticker on a car in front of me. It said, “Annoy a liberal. Work hard and be happy.” I laughed out loud but it made me think. People left of center tend to be more negative than those who are apolitical or center-right. Most Americans do not sit around moaning. They get up each day, do their work, take care of their families and are not bitter.

What is it about Americans? I dug up a fascinating study that was undertaken in the dark days of the Great Recession (2008-2009). The Harris Poll in a joint venture with the prestigious Financial Times of London (the salmon colored newspaper you may notice at upscale newsstands) found in December, 2008 that the French (63%), Italians (62%), Spanish (59%), Britains (58%) and Germans (52%) were pessimistic about their economic situation. What about Americans? At the time, unemployment was 11.8% which was just below one depression benchmark of 12.0%. Some 54% of Americans were OPTIMISITIC about their economic situation even though we were in the biggest economic crunch since the 1933 bottom of the Great Depression.

Recently, I ran in to a financial planner and asked him why baby boomers had not saved much for retirement. Was it because they were spendthrifts or immature? He smiled and shook his head. “Americans do not save for a rainy day because many just don’t believe in rainy days. That is why people loved Ronald Reagan so much. He ran up our debt but his sunny optimism made you feel good about the country and, more importantly, about ourselves. He was America’s cheerleader.”

Separately, I saw an interview a few years back with Richard Gervais, a British comic and sometime writer who created the popular show, The Office. The program originated in Britain and then came to the U.S. in a different format. He said when he came to America, the show had to be adjusted fairly significantly. Essentially, he said it was because Americans were different from the Brits. “Americans are smarter, have better teeth, are more ambitious, somewhat heavier, and the big difference is that you are more optimistic than us.”

Why? Well, we are nation of immigrants and I believe that helps. Someone, maybe far in to the past, came here seeking a better life and many found it. Historically, Americans firmly believe that each new generation will live better than the prior one did.

Now all that has shifted in the last 18-24 months. I see it talking to young people. In front of a large group of 21 year olds recently, nearly 90% felt that they would never receive social security. I tried to explain that to save the system at some point both social security and medicare would face means testing and the rich and very affluent would have social security taxed away and medicare benefits cut severely. Some shook their heads but many ignored me. Several have approached me and said they will never own a home as their student loans will pin them down for the next three decades. The American dream for them is disappearing.

What they fail to see is that good old Yankee ingenuity will triumph. Take three blue chip companies, for example, that some analysts perceive as stodgy. Every year Johnson & Johnson grows their income and increases their dividend via new product development and selling to new markets. 3M is a huge company that consistently comes up with new products that the public wants and their footprint in Asia is unusually large. Or, how about Schlumberger, an oil services giant, that seems to come with one oil field innovation after another and increases the yield from every well their new technologies touch?

Clearly, things are not great right now. Yet, it saddens me to see American youth so discouraged when they have their whole lives ahead of them. And, the media feeds in to it constantly with story after story about how the current crop of college graduates will often not live nearly as well as their parents did. We need to reinstate our 200+ year trend of American optimism. Positive thinking coupled with positive action really works!

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Media Director 2025


Over the past week, I have had some lively exchanges with some media pros regarding what qualities a media director will need to have 10 years from now. Several of us are retired or semi-retired (as I am) and a few were under 35. Candidly, anyone 45-55 is not objective as they are apt to mutter something to the effect that they want nothing to change or little will change until they retire. That is a child’s dream--all of us decided to leave that to the children.

Looking 10 years ahead is not easy. You need to focus on the dramatic change of the past decade and recognize that the next 10 years will likely be far more significant in terms of upheaval than the last ten. Platforms that we cannot even conceive of now will be standard in 2025. So, who do you need to lead your media team in the future?

Clearly, the odds are overwhelming that the person will no longer be called a media director. No matter. The function will be largely the same but all of us who discussed it said it would far more important to agency performance that it has been in the past.

Someone asked me a year ago, what skills a 2014 media director needed. I mentioned that the ideal person had to be part economist, trend watcher, negotiator, media researcher, business analyst, futurist, and student of marketing. Sounds like a high bar, doesn’t it? I have never met anyone who hit on all those cylinders simultaneously.

For the future, some mix of the above attributes will still need to be there. I would say the key function even if we go to significant automation in on line and broadcast buying will be proper allocation across the various media platforms. That has always been a blend of art and science but art will make a huge comeback in the mix as new types of media emerge at an ever rapid pace.

I threw out an idea to my vest pocket panel of contributors. Perhaps the media director of the future, or whatever he or she is called, might come from account planning. Your basic training had been to be the eyes and ears of the consumer and to relentless in asking everyone, in every department, “WHY.” That might be the ideal candidate to manage the media world of 2025.

An interesting sidelight came out of the discussion. All of us no longer involved full time in the business did not feel that we would be right for the job in 2025. Perhaps humility comes with maturity.  :):):)

I would love to hear your opinions on this topic.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Ad Agency Mergers and Buyouts--A Long Look

Over the last year, a few people asked me to develop a post regarding the failure of advertising agency mergers. I sent out some feelers and was astounded when people forwarded my questions to friends and friends of friends who had been involved with either a merger or agency buyout. Some of the mergers went back a couple of decades and one lively octogenarian not only asked to be included but made some timeless comments. Also, what came out of the inquiries was that not all mergers and buyouts were failures. Some of the more successful ones quietly went about their work despite a rocky start and still survive today.

Setting the Stage

I do not think that it is an unwarranted assumption to say that people who start advertising agencies that lasted are different from many business people. They took a huge risk in opening a shop no matter how small it was. There was zero security. Many opened up as they were angry--they worked at an agency where someone else was taking the credit for their work or where management could not grow the agency fast enough to keep them. After being your own boss for a decade or two, it is virtually impossible to merge with someone and have equal partners after you or a few close cronies have called ALL the shots. If you were bought out, it is a painful transition of a different kind where you are reporting to others and have lost much of your decision making clout. For agency chiefs who had a strong self sufficient ego, this can be painful at best but usually impossible.

Also, every ad agency in my experience has a unique culture. They are not interchangeable as many banks or insurance companies are.

The Failures

Here are a mixed bag of comments from some battle scarred veterans of the merger/buyout game:

--“For years, I pretty much did as I pleased. One week in to the buyout, this dweeb from the accounting department came in to my office and reviewed by expense account line by line. It was humiliating. He told me that I could not have two scotches on a cross country plane ride. The jerk was overreaching but our new owners were insensitive fools. A lighter touch with us, and especially with me, would have helped a lot. Things fell apart fast. We lasted a couple of years but it was a disaster.”

--“I foolishly ran my little agency as an extended family. It worked well when you had less than 20 staffers who had worked together with almost no turnover. When we were bought out by a firm several times our size, we were unprepared. We could no longer cover for people with personal problems or weaknesses in certain areas. Our accounting and billing had been sloppy while our new leaders were buttoned up and they taught me a lot in that department. Their cash management was top notch. Had I known what they knew, we might have stayed independent!”

--“When we sold out, we positioned it to our team as the chance to work on a bigger stage. It was a flop. They were condescending to me and my associates and, after a year, tried to keep us away from our long term clients. A few of our junior people thrived as they loved the resources that our new owners had. Their healthcare and 401k plans were a big step up but I got tired of being treated like dirt.”

--“Merger! What a farce! We both knew that we needed added strength in several areas and thought that 1+1=3. Well, my new partner or Co-CEO wanted to push me out after a couple of months. I was 15 years older than he so I let everyone know at the merger that he would one day be czar. At best, I wanted five years. He had no patience. Many of my team left within a year. I hung on although he kept me out of the loop as much as possible. It was humiliating.”

--“I had to do a merger. I was getting old and no one or no group of my employees could buy me out. No bank would give them a loan. And Omnicom et al had no interest in buying my little operation.  So, I merged to feather my own financial nest. The other shop’s CEO was decent to me and a few of my senior people are still with him. Was I selfish? I wonder about it. But, most days I feel that I did what I had to do.  The culture shock was tough for us to swallow. Until you live it, you never know what it really is like.”

The Successes


--“We sold out to a much larger shop (six times our size). The CEO got me in to the mix and even had me meet with key clients and gave me one big one to oversee. After I met with the large client, a junior A.E. and I took him to dinner at a well known steak house. I ordered a bottle of single malt scotch and the client loved it. When he slipped in to the men’s room, they young A.E. told me that I could not order something so expensive. I held my temper but was furious. When I got home, I was still really hot. My wife, god bless her, sat me down and told me that we both knew there would be some adjustments. It was not my bat and ball anymore. So, I swallowed my pride and stayed for years. I now have a great retirement as I earned more at the larger firm than I ever did at my own. It was bumpy at times, of course, but many of my team is still there.”

--“I was an arrogant know it all. When we were bought out, I thought that I would take the new agency by storm. After a month, I was humbled. Big time. They had people with much broader experience than I did and their young people were on top of changes in the industry. I was stunned at how infantile our production estimates had been relative to theirs. They ran a tight ship. I checked my ego every day. I was in my 50’s but still learning. It was great.

-- “When we were bought out, we were relieved but nervous. The new owners behaved impeccably. They left us alone on our long standing accounts but had media and research services that were much better than what we had. Also, they put junior account people and creatives on our key business so the client became used to them over time. When I was ready to retire, people were in place whom my clients, now ours, trusted. They did it right and treated me with respect.

--“We were totally unprepared for the digital revolution. Was anybody really ready? Our new owners helped us and trained a few young people who have made the transition from traditional media to on-line and mobile. We would have closed our doors a few years ago if we had not sold out.

--Finally, my octogenarian friend added some interesting words of wisdom. “Mergers and acquisitions generally do not work. In my long life, they seem to work best in natural resources. A small oil company or natural gas producer is up against the wall with either too much debt or low energy prices. Along comes a giant who scoops them up in a downturn. The staff may report to the same foreman but the benefit and pay package is often better. They have state of the art tech that the wildcatter did not. Some leave but, for those who are disciplined, it often works out pretty well. Ad agencies are different. Many CEO’s are pompous--I certainly was. If you go in to a deal with the right attitude and recognize that you might learn something and also survive long enough to use it, then you can benefit.”

This is only the tip of the iceberg of the comments that I received. Many were so angry and obscene that I chose not to repeat them. Also, no one in my sample was in New York or was purchased by a publicly traded mega-shop. Times will change and several years from now there will be many new advertising platforms. Human nature, however, will not change so there be likely similar stories to these told above 20 years from now.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com or leave a comment on the blog.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Cord-Cutting Exaggeration


There is much chatter these days about “cord-cutting.” This is simply eliminating one’s TV cable or satellite service. Over the last two years, I have tried to track it very closely. The many people whom I have spoken with or exchanged e-mails with tend to place cord-cutting at about 75,000-80,000 households in the U.S each month. Losing 900,000 subscribers a year to pulling the plug is not a death knell to the industry as many new households come on board each year. It certainly does impact Pay TV growth, however.

In recent weeks, I have received significant mail from ad agency media people or principals discussing cord-cutting. Candidly, I find it a bit disturbing. Here are some of the comments that I have received:

--“Something is happening out there. Cord-cutting is really building up momentum. Cable and satellite are toast.”

--“I just have a feeling talking to people that cord-cutting is really taking off.  My shop needs to cut back on using TV.”

--“It seems everyone that I talk to is cutting the cable cord.”

Okay, people often make statements based on anecdotal evidence. I am sure that I am guilty as well. But, these characters should know better. The first rule of a marketer is to step outside of yourself and look at facts. The comments made above are made by people who are masquerading as marketers. If that sounds harsh, so be it. In a society with 319 million people, 80,000 households per month is not “everyone.”

The cable industry itself does not dodge the issue. I have read interviews where cable executives basically said cord-cutting is done by those who cannot afford the service plus those who do not see enough value in a subscription. It is hard to argue with that.

My experience with cord-cutters is as follows: the cord-cutters that I have met have tended to be very well educated millennials who, in most cases, could afford cable or satelllite. They lead busy personal and professional lives and many live in places where there is a lot to do outside of business hours such as New York, Boston, Washington, DC or San Francisco. TV is simply not that important to them. At the same time, I have not met or spoken with a rural person of any age who has cut the cord. TV is likely a serious part of their entertainment so they would loathe to give it up.

So, the mistake the ad professionals make is by listening to young people in the somewhat rarified air of their social network or even well paid staff. Recently, I asked a classroom full of students, many from rural areas, if they had cut the cord. I was met with stares and a bit of laughter. Two young men approached me after the lecture and asked how could anyone give up ESPN? I smiled and told them about the ESPN proposal to charge $30 per month for a streaming service. They both perked up and then sheepishly admitted that their parents picked up the tab for cable in their off-campus apartments.

In recent months, as a test, my wife and I cut the cord for the second time in six years. By using Netflix, Hulu, YouTube and many other on line options, we are doing fine without a subscription. Didn’t we miss the Super Bowl? Nope. We watched it streaming and it was fine. The Oscars? I went to You Tube and caught acceptance speeches 15-20 minutes after the announcement. We are looking in to Apple TV and may try that for a few months to see what it does for us. If we do that we would be “cord-shaving” meaning we downsize our Pay TV commitment to a one time only fee with Apple. Generally, cord-shaving means going from a premium service to a basic cable approach. The $20 per month Sling TV streaming service may be a better example yet of cord-shaving.

Despite efforts, I can find no evidence of many people coming back to Pay TV after they cut the cord. One person wrote to me and said his neighborhood resembles his childhood hometown in the 1960’s as TV antennas are now sprouting up all over the block. This may be true in his case but there is little evidence that this is sweeping the nation.

So, people need to be cautious about the impact of cord-cutting. We all know that TV goes not work as well as it did years ago. Commercial avoidance is soaring but largely due to DVR penetration growth and the strong emergence of the two-fisted viewer who is looking at another device or two especially when a commercial break is running. Those issues are affecting the effectiveness of TV advertising far more than cord-cutting.

Were I a cable or satellite executive, I would be nervous about cord-cutting and try to come up with some pre-emptive strike to slow it down.  Right now, I would say that the problem will only pick up real momentum if the economy tanks badly again (let us hope not) and many people see that eliminating paying for TV is a way to cut expenses. A second factor is that the millennials, saddled with a $1.3 trillion student debt, realize while they are out on their own for the first time, cutting the cord could instantly put $100-150 each month in their pockets for fun or maybe speed up payments on the millstone of student debt that is weighing them down.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Is Media Planning Obsolete?

Things are changing and faster than many would like. In the media world, much of this is caused by data driven marketing. Programmatic buying allows one to execute media buys via several digital technology platforms including ad exchanges and agency trading desks among others. The new world of media placement is increasingly quant based and is largely “cookie reliant” where we can track where prospects have been and are likely to go in the future. Programmatic delivers efficient planning at scale. Increasingly sophisticated algorithms can process a staggering volume of data that is  granular on steroids.

Clearly, the old days of understanding media properties, trying to zero in on a target and negotiating hard on a client’s behalf are disappearing and rapidly. On the plus side, what we used to call “scattergun reach” is also going away. We would reach our target but often with huge waste in conventional media.

With change a reality, agencies are learning to adapt. Yet the change is raising a difficult  issue that many whisper about, a few talk about and very few brave souls write about in public. The question I now hear frequently--”Is Media Planning Obsolete?”

My knee jerk reaction is definitely not but it will change and change big time over the next few years. No matter how smart the algorithms predictive skills get, I am convinced that they can only be as effective as the human direction that they have received. Someone has to make the decision of where to go and what mix of media to use. At the same time, it is obvious that, over time, fewer people will be needed in media strategy.

To those who say it can all be done by machine, I always conjure back to the optimization systems used for magazine selection as far back as the 1970’s. I remember a supervisor who would always want to take the “optimal” buy right off the computer printout and buy it. Even as a kid in the business, this really bothered me. I remember vividly asking, “What about editorial content? Doesn’t that count for something? If we buy this we are choosing one book (publication) over another because of a half a percentage point advantage in total reach or a 10 cent C.P.M. edge.” He did not like my comment and considered me somewhat insolent. As I matured, I realized he just did not want to think and could hide behind the optimization run. For evaluating editorial content, a key component in media selection, I became largely self taught.

So, today, if you lean too heavily on programmatic buying, you may not be doing your best. It can help to assist you in reaching the right people in the right place, but is it the right time? Again, analyses are getting more sophisticated but it seems that you need a master puppeteer, a.k.a media strategist or planner, to oversee things.

Proponents, and it is hard to be totally against it, say programmatic can or will give you several things including price transparency, granularity, control, and, in some cases, insight.

I threw the question out to a number of people and here are some of the more interesting responses:

30 year media planning veteran--“No one likes change. Actually, most of us hate it. I have tried really hard to keep up and peers tell me that I am doing well. Then I read where Pete Cory of Google said, ‘The pace of change will never be as slow as it is today.’  We are a solid mid-sized shop. Can we compete in a world of agency trading desks? Hell, I cannot even hire a junior planner. We will have to fake it for a while. As the pace of change accelerates, what do we do?”

Agency CEO (mid-sized)--“We have a wealthy and very well educated young client. Behind his back, we call him ‘Harvard Boy’ even though he did not go there. He has friends and contacts in mega shops and all over Wall Street. Anyway, Harvard boy arranged for me and my media chief to visit an agency trading desk in New York. It was fascinating and very intimidating to us. We went for a drink afterwards. I was laughing at the absurdity of things and my media director looked absolutely frightened. We used to position her as a guru. She asked me never to use that term again.”

Chief Marketing Officer, Publicly Traded Company--“Can’t we just go to Google or someone else directly who is a player in Big Data? Why do we need an agency for this part of our work? The agency has a sharp young woman who plans on our business. I might ask her to come client side and work with us as a contact with Google or whomever. She would make more money and have a future.”

Senior Creative Officer, Major Agency--“Behind the scenes, we are pleased with programmatic buying. Finance keeps saying how many people we can eliminate in media in a few years. Our executives are mixed--some see how important the good ones have been as we have moved to digital. Others just see it as a way to improve the bottom-line. One said if we blow away X many people, it would be likely adding a new account with a huge profit margin. I was hoping that there would be a big renaissance in the importance of media people. Every day one of them teaches one of my staff new ways to use mobile or online. As trading desks get stronger, too much of that may go away.”

Management Rep, Mid Sized Shop--“Of course, we will still need planners! The lead people will need superior analytic skills to guide us through this new maize. We will need fewer people but they will need to be better students of consumer behavior than what I see now. A few may adapt but not many will be able to do it fast enough.”

To close, I will quote at length someone whom I admire greatly. In the media planning world, he could best be described as an elder statesman. Here is his passionate response to the question “Is Media Planning Obsolete?”--

“Oh my god, I can't believe we have reached this fork in the road. I have always thought that as the media world becomes more complex and diverse the need for a strong media planner is more essential.  You need someone overseeing the entire operation and pulling all the moving parts together.  I have always said that media planning is like putting together a patchwork quilt. If you have only one color for all your patches, anyone can put that together. But when you have 15 color and size options, you need to have a strategist to oversee the entire operation and pull everything together.  The more complex, the more you need a media planner. The media buyer who negotiates the best buy is not there to really make the best decisions for each client.  They are there to bring in the best prices. It's a one-size-fits-all approach. There is a huge difference in a media buy for Tide detergent versus Mercedes Benz and that is what the media strategist must figure out.  What selection of media do I need to move MY INDIVIDUAL product.  It's not all about media tonnage. It's about the right message in the right medium at the right time that really moves product. This is THE most important job for media people.  It frightens me to think that planning is getting disrespected like this.  It's like getting in a car and having no idea how you are getting to your destination.  At that time the navigator (the guy with the road map) is a lot more important than the car driver. The navigator knows the goal and has figured out how to get there.  The driver can only guide the car but needs someone (or some machine) to determine the path to success.  And without the smart strategist, we would not really be where we are right now in media.  It was the media strategists who first bought ads on the Internet or on cable or on social media who changed the world of media.  If not for them we would still be buying print and network TV. Eliminating media planners/strategists assumes we have reached the apex in media.  I think not. There is something beyond the media we have available today.  Every day this world is changing.  We have reached Future Shock.  The changes are coming at alarming speed.  The winner in this race is going to be the media person who knows where media is going not where it has been.  Where it has been is the world of the media buyer. Where it is going is the world of the media planner/strategist.  I could not disagree with this thought process more.  Now, more than ever, we need smart media thinkers, not simple media executors.

On that eloquent note, let me say that if you want to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com or leave a comment on the blog.