The Evolving Role of the Media Planner

Media planning has been based for far too long on how consumers’ lives used to be. The way we all consume media has changed enormously, yet our media planning notions and measurements have changed little.

Mike Bloxham, Ball State University

I had no intentions of ever going into media planning. In fact, I had no idea such a career even existed. My journalism degree focused on the art of investigation, writing and publishing. Advertisements, of course, supported the publication, but an entire discipline around planning and buying the media? I had no idea; how ignorant of me.

My first job was at a media buying shop. I was going to be an assistant buyer for the New York DMA. Since this was 1996, it meant I was going to spend hours a day faxing insertion orders and calling sales reps to confirm when our commercials ran. I was making $19,000 a year, which came out to less per week than my part-time retail job, but I had health benefits, a nice cubicle in Manhattan and a legitimate job in my mother’s eyes. I also loved the people I worked with, which is the most defining aspect of any job.

Negotiating media prices was fun. I remember trying to set the price for Fox’s premiere of “Ally McBeal,” not knowing if we were dealing with a hit or a miss. It was like being an art appraiser. However, a few years into the job and after too many debates about the value of cable, I was getting bored.

Fortunately, it was 1999 and digital was picking up. I made my transition to the first of many digital shops that no long exist.

Today, there’s no room for boredom. I wish convincing clients to run in cable was the hardest part of my job. Today’s media planner is a marketer, inventor, anthropologist, sociologist, investor, artist and futurist. And they still need to be able to negotiate the best rates.

Reach and frequency used to define the industry, but today bringing real value through media is paramount. I’m not necessarily talking about “added value,” either. Once the value was in, a viewer would consume free content in exchange for dealing with some interruptive ads every fifteen minutes.

Consumers expect more, because there are other options to access that content and there’s more content to access. They also expect personalization in messaging–but not too much personalization, because that would make it creepy. They want a relationship with a brand, but they want to define the terms of that relationship. And if, by any chance, you screw up, they’ll let everyone know. It’s like adolescent dating in the 21st century and media planners at a minimum are trying to “do no harm.” At best, we need to create programs that will provide real usefulness. This is way more challenging than, “Here’s how many people in your target saw your message.”

In order to be a successful planner today, you need to understand your target audience, and I mean really understand them. You need to understand the role media plays in their life (both at a high level and tactical one) and know the brand you’re planning for (what does this brand mean to this audience or what can it mean?). Then ask yourself, what does your target audience really need? How can your brand satisfy this need? Which media channel/approach can best accomplish this?

Also, experience your media plan. It’s very easy to purchase a media that you may not be the target for, which means you may actually never organically stumble upon it. I had a terrible experience recently with a top tier brand’s digital media plan; not only did their ad seem out of context, but it was obscuring my experience of the content that I urgently needed. I don’t think this was intentional, but there’s no excuse for it. This is the opposite of providing a valuable experience.

I set out to become a journalist at a time when the rules of editorial and advertising were clearly defined. Publishers were the gatekeepers and there was a limit on content.

Today, the rules are radically different. There are few, if any, real gatekeepers any more. We’re all publishers and utility seems to be the differentiator. Even though the role of media planning is more sophisticated and important than ever, it’s still media planners who are deciding the fate of what stays and what goes.

If you’re a media planner or considering a career in media planning, understand this: your decisions are going to decide the fate of journalism and the future of media, in general. You have a big responsibility and your job matters.

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