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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.

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