Although as a media audit firm we adhere strictly to a maxim to never plan or buy media (we believe it is a conflict to our audit practice), our staff is comprised largely of former agency-side media planners and buyers, media sellers, and client media professionals.  At MMi, we have a healthy, good-natured rivalry between the “planner types” and the “buyer types” (which is incidentally led by our CEO, a proud former media buyer).

This is also true at most media agencies.  Each possesses a different (but complimentary) skill set.  Buyers have a deep, tactical understanding of one or more specific media channels.  Planners tend to have a more strategic focus, and a media background characterized by greater breadth with respect to the overall media supply chain, but less depth.  In some agencies or on some accounts, the roles may be blended or filled by the same person or team – but the two disciplines should not be blurred.

While we don't plan media we are frequently asked by clients (as neutral, paid media supply chain experts) to conduct a review of their media planning processes.  Also, an important metric for many of our media audits is Actual delivery vs. Planned.  Smart advertisers realize that there is as much value to be gained – as much efficiency to be maximized – by a disciplined media planning process as there is through good buying.  You can pay less for your media widgets than anyone else out there, but if you are buying the wrong widgets (or the wrong mix of widgets, scheduling your widgets the wrong way, etc.) then your paid media investment suffers.  How much does it suffer?  That depends on how far your strategy is from optimal.  And unless you are undergoing a disciplined approach to optimize that strategy, you can be assured that some unquantified portion of your spend is being wasted.

The paid media landscape has transformed in the roughly 25 years since I began my career as a junior media planner.  From a planning perspective, the sea change which we have experienced in media boils down to two very broad evolutions.  First, there is much more information available.  Technology has allowed for a much more robust understanding of customers and targets and how best to reach them.  The data is much more specific and recent, as well.  Broad consumption data might be refreshed every 6-12 months a couple decades ago, whereas now specific anonymized data about an individual browser, logged in user or device ID from earlier today might drive targeting.  Second, there are of course many, many more media channels – with increasingly sophisticated message delivery opportunities.  All of this is great for advertisers.  But it does not make a disciplined media planning process any less important.  Quite the opposite.

The Difference Between Some Media Planning and Good Media Planning

We see a lot of media plans, and we review many media planning processes – across agencies, clients, and business sectors.  There are a couple of basic differences between run-of-the-mill planning and great media planning:

1. Great plans feature a disciplined media planning process and documentation of each step.

  • The reason that a great planning process is so important is that there are certain questions that need to be adequately explored and answered to create an optimal media plan. Cutting corners means unanswered questions, which usually means waste.
  • Steps throughout the process should be documented, not only to demonstrate to clients that they have been conducted, but as an invaluable resource to future clients and agency personnel searching for background or perspective. Turnover is a fact of life in agencies and client marketing departments, and loss of organizational knowledge is a wasted resource.

2. Great media plans connect the dots.

  • This seems so obvious, but clearly it must not be. The single biggest lapse that we observe in media planning process reviews is a complete and utter lack of flow.  Here are our objectives, our business conditions, our competitive intelligence, our target audience, our media consumption insights … aaaaaand, here’s a media plan recommendation.  Wait, what?
  • What’s so often missing is much of anything that ties the recommended media plan back to the various other steps, any evidence of options explored, optimization employed, insights brought to bear on the final recommendation. This goes beyond answering “what was considered” to demonstrating and quantifying “why is this the single best media plan for our set of business conditions”.

Ultimately, engaging in “some” media planning without walking through the full process and connecting the dots through to the recommended plan is kind of like buying a car without doing any research.  You’ll spend your budget, and you’ll receive a car.  However, it may or may not be the idea vehicle for your needs, and you may or may not have paid the best possible price.

Excuses We Hear for Not Doing Good Media Planning

There are many, frankly.  They are often driven by time constraints, experience deficits, resource limitations – and in many cases bad behavior by the client organization.  Examples:

  1. “We don’t have a plan. Or, we do have a plan, but you can’t hold us to it.  It doesn’t mean anything.  We’re retail.  We’re direct-to-consumer.  We’re ____.  Our business doesn’t work that way.”  You can still have a plan, and you can still measure performance against it.  Yes, you can.  And if what you actually did changed dramatically from your strategic plan, there is in all likelihood a reason.  Isn’t it important to understand why?
  2. “We did a deep dive on that last year, and not much has changed.” Research and the media landscape are changing weekly.  Go through the process again this year, and every year.  If you get the same answers, great.
  3. “Our budgeting process really doesn’t allow time for an elaborate media planning process.” What is the missed opportunity on a sub-optimal media plan, and what is the value of that to your organization?  Have the individuals in charge of your company’s budgeting process seen those numbers?
  4. “Our clients just use last year as a starting point, and we plug in this year’s costs and promotional windows and move the dates around on a flowchart.” This might include ever-increasing siloed budgets (for partnerships, sponsorships, etc. which the agency had no opportunity to incorporate into overall strategy).  Clients need to understand why this may be a missed opportunity and a dangerous cycle.  Sometimes they already do, but their agency should be reminding them – often – about the risks associated with operating in this way.

We hear others, as well, and we generally don’t buy them, either.  The thing that is often lost in these excuses (and many of them represent legitimate challenges) is that whatever obstacles standing between your organization and an optimal media plan pale in comparison to the cost of executing a sub-optimal media plan.  I’ll say that again.  You are probably spending more by cutting corners on media planning than you would if you executed it in a thorough, disciplined fashion.Don’t believe me?  Say your media budget is $100 MM.  Don’t stop reading.  This works for just about any budget level.  What if you could execute a media plan that was 10% more effective than what you are doing now?  Or as effective, for 10% less spend?  That’s $10 MM.  How much would it cost to do that incremental amount of media planning?  A lot less than $10 MM.  Don’t be short-sighted.

A Basic Media Planning Process That Will Never Become Obsolete

What does a good media planning process look like?  There is no single, perfect planning process, but there are certain key elements:

  1. Foundational Considerations – business and marketing objectives, sales performance, plans (launches, promotions, etc.), available research and tools including past performance, budget or budget process
  2. Understanding Key Drivers – competitive analysis, target audience identification, media marketplace evolution (new opportunities, media consumption shifts, etc.)
  3. Creation and Optimization – what is the optimal way to achieve media objectives, key considerations, trade-offs, recommendations, tactics
  4. Measurement & Evaluation – how did media perform vs. plans, how effective was it, what worked and what didn’t, how will this learning inform planning next year

Below is an example of a basic media planning process template (one that we have developed here at MMi).

Perhaps (hopefully) your agency already has something like this.  It may even be more detailed, more nuanced, considerably prettier.  Most do.  We’ve seen them.  The question is – are they engaging in the process they have outlined?  How thoroughly?  Are you insisting upon it?  If not, what are the obstacles that you and they face to engaging in a more disciplined media planning process?  We know from experience how easy it is to fall into a “what would last year’s plan cost next year” mentality, but advertisers who plan their media that way do so at their own peril.If you are interested in knowing if your have a Great Media Planning process, let us hear from you.  We’d welcome the opportunity to give you our thoughts.  

Contact Steve Smith, VP Client Engagement at

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