The Accidental Death of the Media Planner

[First published on Google+ 20/02/2013]

So there I was at another through-the-line campaign briefing and I suddenly felt like I was in the wrong century. Planners from every channel were stepping up in quick succession to reveal with gushing enthusiasm how they intended to spend millions of pounds of nameless client budget. This is all familiar territory but why did it feel do alien this time? Like watching an episode of Mad Men doing 80s ad land. I admit, my mind might have wandered for a second but the moment has stayed with me ever since.

The age old art of media planning has long been passé in the world of performance marketing which has grown to dominate my exclusively digital marketing milieu. As media campaigns have focused more and more on direct response, the courting of agencies by media owners to secure hand-picked ad placements has long since given way to ad networks, algorithm based media buying platforms such as AdWords and most recently programmatic buying through ad exchanges and DSPs. Direct commercial relationships between brands and third parties continue only through marketing tactics such as affiliates, aggregates and online PR (OK, SEO if you insist).

The many tasks of the digital media planner have also been broken down into their constituent parts and made available as ongoing campaign configuration options. Tasks like demographic targeting are being handled with improved competency by profile matching and retargeting technology that learns about your customers (and non-customers) from on-site usage behaviour, off-site content consumption and recent search engine queries with far greater accuracy than any clumsy reader survey. Frequency capping, day-parting and re-marketing ensures the timeliness of ad messaging better than the most prescient planner.

In place of quarterly media schedules and upfront budget commitments, clients expect direct response campaign budgets, which represent an increasing proportion of ad spend, to be self-justifying month-on-month. As such, there is no reason for them to be anything but ‘always on’ reducing planning decisions over channel budgets to one of simple affordability.

With this erosion of the media planning landscape inevitably comes the erosion of the traditional media planning cost model. Performance marketing lends itself to performance-based management models which reward efficiency. This flies in the face of the age old media planner’s commission model which ultimately rewards them for increasing client spend.

So where does all this leave the traditional media planner?

Undoubtedly, digital marketing tactics increasingly benefit from specialist management but this role is very different to that of the media planner. Instead, constant campaign optimisation, test and learn cycles, continued tweaks of prices and promotions and tight negotiation with content and commercial partners are the order of the day. Identifying opportunities for digital marketing campaigns requires deep knowledge of individual channel tactics, broad understanding of the comparative tactical advantages between channels and a firm eye on the media and management costs involved. Ultimately, opportunities can be identified, suggested and trialled but nothing is allowed to continue unless the data it generates prove a positive contribution to the overall campaign ROI. In digital, the all knowing planner is an anachronism.

The more interesting question is how long can planning remain relevant in predominantly non-digital Brand marketing campaigns?

The offline media world where brands are traditionally built is shrinking in line with the trend towards a “digital first” mindset among publishers. Magazines and papers have become websites and tablet apps and are seeing growth only from digital audiences. More interestingly is the move by many large brands to become publishers in their own right using socially enhanced media platforms to generate and satisfy their own audiences.

Social Media user numbers are rising exponentially as social networks and platforms develop rich media capability, notably Twitter’s Vine video facility and the increasing integration of Google+ and YouTube. Combined with last year’s seismic changes to Google’s natural search algorithm, these changes confirm content development and distribution firmly as King once more.

This is persuading brands to use budget previously used sponsoring media content to produce their own of similar or better quality. The world’s biggest global brands are investing heavily in content for example on branded YouTube channels which are now designed as much for TV viewing as for mobile and desktops. Even TV budgets, hitherto the preserve of Brand advertising, are starting to bleed into Video on Demand and other forms of enhanced TV that can offer a degree of interactivity triggering all important tracking data as well as referring viewers to other, more trackable, brand properties online.

The blurring of the once firm edges between online and offline media is matched by the joining of above and below the line budgets and increasingly integrated marketing models. Many brands have dabbled with forms of cross-channel attribution that attempt to weight the value of each channel’s contribution to a sale more fairly. Econometrics is an entire science devoted to the more arcane data analysis that attempts to correlate media and marketing events between disconnected on and offline channels. The TV world has relied on econometric studies such as this one from Thinkbox/Ebiquity to highlight the theoretical value that the medium represents to clients but this is some way from the real time value required to keep up with digital. This academic posturing will soon be assisted and possibly overshadowed by real data connectivity between currently unrelated advertising channels and platforms (eg. mobile and TV) and previously untrackable modes of response such as sales calls, shop visits and purchases which are now on the horizon making the mindless chasing of column inches and TVRs a thing of the past.

What comes next?

The impact and effectiveness of traditional media is not in doubt but clients’ intolerance of untracked spend will make it harder to dedicate the proportion of average media budgets historically required by media such as TV, press and outdoor for them to contribute real impact to brand campaigns. As Bob Arnold of Kellogg told last year “Bottom line, programmatic buying is more efficient, more effective and more transparent than the traditional digital media buying model.”

In the imminent data utopia, planners will not be allowed the luxury of long-range media guesswork scheduling. Instead, the role of the planner in paid for media will inevitably be replaced by that of data analysts constantly working to prove the value of each element of an ‘always on’ mixed media campaign. Ironically, it is the mess of organic media (content/SEO/PR) that could benefit most from the future role of the planner.