When media planning came into vogue in the early-1960s, it was assumed that the numbers would tell everyone which media best targeted consumer prospects. However, when some of the larger ad agencies initiated computerized "media selection" models to handle the great mass of data that was required, they found that most of the required information wasn't available. This led the agencies to demand that the established TV/radio rating services add demographics to their reports, and to support the introduction of syndicated multimedia and market behavior services like Simmons (now Experian Marketing Services) to add more data, particularly for magazines.

Armed with such information, the computers churned out their "recommendations" using a zero-based approach that inevitably produced solutions running counter to what most advertisers were willing to accept. No more primetime TV and no more premium TV sports buys, and forget about high CPM selective magazines or drive time radio; "buy cheap" was always the message. But advertisers didn't want to hear it, so the agencies just stopped doing computer runs.

Sadly, media planning has become increasingly reliant on data from the audience measurement services and less inclined towards making subjective assessments or intuitive recommendations. In short, without numbers to back up their proposals, media planners invariably play it safe. As a result, most advertisers perceive the media function as a numbers-driven operation that garners "targeted" exposures for ad campaigns whose creative positioning and ad executions are primarily responsible for sales. Advertisers are also particularly receptive to cleverly postulated formulas that suggest there is a "correct" way to design media plans, which have proven to "work" in a majority of cases. In other words, they want to keep media as simple as possible and free of subjective solutions.

Few if any media plans presented to clients these days evaluate alternative ways of spending their media dollars. The client is only shown "The Plan," which, in far too many cases, is a creature of compromise, with the client's must-buys incorporated into the mix and rationalized one way or another. As for intermedia comparisons, the typical media plan avoids them like the plague. Instead, there is a plan for each medium, with the amount to be spent and the timing of the activity determined somewhat arbitrarily. As a result, most agencies tend to generate media plans that fit in with the client's accepted views and practices, except on those rare occasions when the agency is invited to take a really hard look at new media options and suggest departures if they seem warranted.

Despite the many inhibitors to media creativity, we sense a hunger for new approaches. When a media planner recognizes that his or her client is receptive to a more objective assessment of media alternatives, this can serve as both an eye-opener for the client and a prototype for similar evaluations on other accounts. What's more, such initiatives do wonders to upgrade the media department's image and status with marketing directors or brand managers, who are constantly comparing their agency's performance with competing shops.

If the planners decide to champion a departure from the usual media mix, they need to make a very strong case. Say a significant increase—from 10% to 30% of the total budget—is being contemplated for magazine ads. Are these ads intended to replace a proportion of the client's normal TV budget? If so, are they primarily branding ads or do they also perform some specialized support function, like providing more details about the product, targeting selective constituencies, light viewers, etc.? The client's brand people also need evidence to support such a recommendation to their superiors, and the agency had better be prepared to supply it. Starch does ad-specific magazine impact studies. Similar data are available for TV campaigns from various sources. How do ads for the client's brands—or the category as a whole—normally perform in magazines relative to TV? If magazine executions generate recall on par with (or better than) TV commercials, this needs to be shown to a client's brand manager, who may be fearful of supporting such a "radical" idea.

Obviously the media planners should set up meaningful goals for the new plan. Critical aspects may include the need for greater continuity rather than flighting; deciding how much reach is affordable during a given one- or four-week period; knowing whether a client's ad exposures can be ordered to avoid competitive advertising and/or to gain greater "immediacy" at those times when the consumer is most interested in the product; etc. In each case, it is important to show the client evidence that backs up the planners' assumptions.

Say the media planners come up with a plan they think they can sell to the client, with a clearly defined purpose for each component and its function as part of an interacting media mix. To begin with, the media department would have to sell its own agency, particularly top management, the account groups and, where appropriate (or feasible), the creatives. This would require an objective but hard hitting presentation on the realities of the contemporary media scene. Certainly one aspect of this wake-up call would be a review of the problems that TV advertisers face in attaining reach due to rating fragmentation, commercial clutter and ad avoidance, and how this translates into actual, not potential, ad exposure for typical brand schedules. The new plan must also be sold to the client's media experts. If it gets past them, it moves on to the brand managers, who in turn will have to show their bosses that something out of the ordinary in the media area might be a good idea.

When facing such challenges, it is vital for the planners to have laid the groundwork well in advance, not simply arrive on the scene with a totally unexpected media plan. Even assuming that the brand getting this attention has been singled out as one that might really benefit, and is helmed by a potentially receptive marketing director, it's obvious that the planners should enlist the support of the client's media director in advance. This gives the advertiser's media department—if it buys into the rationale in the first place—ample time to consider how the new media elements can be handled administratively, educate itself about them and feel a sense of "partnership" with the agency's proposal. Talking to the client's brand executives in terms they understand is also part of the process.

Being realists, we doubt that most agency media planners would dare to challenge the system and embark on a crusade that advocates new media mixes and scheduling concepts. But a few might, and if one really believes that a departure from the norm is needed, and that the client is, at least, somewhat receptive, why not take up the challenge and try to make a real contribution? Why not become part of the marketing process? Sure, the odds of success aren't great, and it's going to be difficult to sell fearful account managers or reluctant creatives. And ultimately, once the case has been made, and documented in marketing-relevant terms, it may still be overruled because nobody wants to rock the boat. But at least an enterprising media planner will have made an impression, and perhaps the time will come, on a different account, when the powers that be really will listen.


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