Not everyone likes rules and boundaries; however, in media, we live and die by them… or at least we should. Advertising is generally thought of as a “creative” field, and it is – even in media planning and buying. We’ve all seen “Mad Men”. Creativity does not preclude accountability, though. Paid media is often a client’s single largest marketing expense, and its execution must be held accountable to clear, documented standards.In media planning and buying, this is where media buying guidelines can play a major role. We regularly review buying guidelines as part of our media audit process, and frankly they are often lacking.  Sometimes, there literally aren’t any.  In other cases, they are insufficient:  missing key items, vague, unenforceable, impractical, irrelevant, etc.

Guidelines are a way to tie the execution of media buys to media plans – and ultimately to the client’s communication objectives.  A strong set of guidelines is the linchpin to setting expectations and they help to identify a benchmark for success (accompanied with delivery and efficiency). Without them, an agency will make assumptions on the client’s behalf that aren’t always appropriate. You’ve heard the saying about the word assume, right?

Buying guidelines are an imperative link in the paid media supply chain.  They are the accountability link between advertiser and agency.  During our MMi audits, the comprehensiveness of each client’s guidelines is typically one of the first things that we review, as it sets the stage for compliance assessments. Without adequate guidelines, we must come to some agreements with the client and agency about how compliance will be analyzed, and to what degree any findings will be actionable. Sometimes we find that there is a vast difference in expectations between the two parties.

When developing or strengthening guidelines, here are 10 key considerations:

  1. Buying Guidelines should be specific to the client’s business conditions and communication objectives. These should drive tactical goals in areas such as preferred or restricted content, commercial separation requirements, quality vs. efficiency expectations, competitive exclusivity, etc.
  2. They should be as specific as possible, and as actionable as can be reasonably expected. Avoid terms like “endeavor to” and “make best efforts”.  If there are concrete exceptions to an expectation, list them out.  If there is a process for having exceptions approved, document it. If there are expected seller consequences for non-compliance, identify them.
  3. Include a brief target audience and media objectives overview including considerations beyond gender/age, secondary targets, recommended buying demographic or metrics, reach versus frequency or engagement priorities.
  4. What level of vendor contracts is required on your behalf? Detailed, current (and signed) orders should protect your investment for every media property order and include the relevant terms and conditions. These are the link between agency and seller in the media supply chain. If you have a broken link, you have no accountability.  This expectation should be outlined in the buying guidelines.
  5. What are your delivery expectations versus Planned and Purchased? These are often expressed as a target percent vs. the goal (i.e. Actual delivery from 95-105% vs. Planned). These may also be further stratified to include expectations by week/flight/brand/message/commercial length (+/- 10% for example) within what may be broader annual or corporate buys.
  6. How are post-performance methodologies defined? Provide definitions and timing for reporting as appropriate per media type: broadcast media posting rules, circulation analysis methodology, buy types and count-of-record source for digital payments.
  7. What are the provisions and timing for recovery of delivery shortfalls or non-compliance: credits, makegoods, bonus weight, under delivery recovery, etc.? What is the unit of measure for delivery? For example, in National TV, delivery is often measured over the course of a full broadcast year by network.  Best practice in local TV is quarterly delivery at the station level (not market).
  8. Do you have time of day (daypart) and other placement requirements and preferences including definitions?
  9. Have you defined expectations for financial management including timely invoice reconciliation and payment? Consider specific target dates by media channel (i.e. 60 days end of quarter, etc.). Be aware of the client’s own payment terms to the agency and how these might impact agency payment to sellers.
  10. What are your reporting requirements that support an appropriate and timely performance feedback loop? How often will post performance reports be delivered, and how long after the end of the media measurement period in question, and what will be consequences to the seller (and agency, if applicable) for any performance shortfalls vs. agreed compliance items?

This should go without saying, so it’s not included in our official top 10 … but include an effective date. There can’t be accountability if there is ambiguity around the timing of the directives in question.

Whether it’s a full manual or a few pages, once the set of guidelines has been agreed upon, a client signature is the final stamp of approval. From there, it’s imperative to route them to all involved in the buying process. In some instances, sharing them with your media reps can behoove your client. Your guidelines then filter into your negotiations with sellers, and serve as the criterion of the makeup of your buys. Guidelines also define how those buys should be analyzed post-run to gauge effectiveness and provide rules for reparations for any under-delivery or shortfall. If the full set of guidelines is not shared with sellers, it should be imperative that all relevant expectations are included (with consistent language) in order letters, contracts, insertion orders, etc.

In short, guidelines set the tone of a buy, provide stewardship guidance, and hold an agency accountable to the client’s wishes and expectations. In the “Mad Men” days, deals may have been transacted on handshakes or cocktail napkins.  In 2019, it’s imperative for accountability’s sake that all expectations are clearly documented.

If you enjoyed this post, you'll probably want to check out "3 Ways To Assure Strong Media Plan and Buy Linkage".

Follow us on LinkedIn for all the latest news and perspective on media accountability.

Photo Credit: © Andrey Popov |