The Changing Role Of Media Planner In A Digital World

Ad Agents“Ad Agents” is a column focused on the agency-side of the digital media community.

Matt Greitzer is the Co-Founder of Accordant Media, a media buying and optimization company.

“What do agencies do, anyway?”   In my twelve years in the agency business I never heard this phrase posed to me directly (though I often felt it left unsaid).  Three months out of my agency shoes, I’ve now heard untold themes and variations of this question, sometimes asked in earnest, sometimes in sheer exasperation, and sometimes in spite.  Many in the tech-centric circles of Silicon Valley and New York deem the agency obsolete, a relic of a bygone era soon to be extinct, replaced by SaaS software and predictive models.   This view is naive.  As long as vendors seek to part advertisers from their dollars, there exists the need for a neutral party to filter and vet the crowded landscape of publishers, technology and marketing service providers.  Beyond that, agencies provide the vital service of historical memory for large corporations.  Client-side marketing managers may change roles every twelve to eighteen months.  But senior agency leaders can spend a career focused on one client, and one client only.  The institutional capital agencies provide to longstanding clients and their marketing teams is impossible to replicate.  In their best incarnations, agency partners synthesize this deep understanding of clients’ business objectives with a broad view of the marketing vehicles available for achieving these objectives.

Synthesizing strategy and execution to achieve clients’ objectives is where agencies lend true value.  So despite the doubters and detractors, the need for agency partners is not likely to falter.  But while the need for agencies services remains, the role the agency plays in a digital marketing world is less certain.  And the changing needs and expectations of this role are no better represented than in the role of Media Planner.

For a hundred years or more the media planning discipline has been preoccupied with the question of “where.”  The role of the Media Planner was to seek out the most relevant opportunities to reach an advertiser’s target audience through paid media.  And thus the skills, training and toolsets that drove media planning focused on finding and buying content that best attracted those audiences.  When content was the only variable, this approach made sense.  But in a marketing landscape increasingly dominated by technology and data, knowing where to run relevant advertising is no longer an adequate solution.  Effective media planning needs to also address how to run relevant advertising, as in what technology and data strategy is required to deliver a relevant, targeted ad to the right audience with minimal waste.  Yet Media Planners are woefully undertrained to deliver against this requirement.

It’s no wonder advertising technology vendors dread selling to agencies.  Media Planners, the only true holders of agency purse strings, have neither the training nor the mandate to purchase ad technology solutions such as dynamic creative delivery, audience data warehouses, demand side platforms, business intelligence platforms, or any of the other powerful technical innovations that blossomed over the last five years.   And this list doesn’t even entertain social media and the flurry of innovations filling that category.  Not that Media Planners are uninterested in these innovations, they are, but their training and mandate remains squarely focused on the placement of media.  The agency community has not yet accepted that the technical components that determine how media is placed are every bit as important – maybe more so – than where that media runs.  Put another way, the diversity of skills and expertise required today to execute an effective digital media campaign are far too vast for the modern Media Planner to successfully navigate.  Perhaps it’s time for the role of the media planner to evolve and embrace this reality.

The Modern Media Planning Org

A modern media planning organization might look something like this: At the helm, sits a Media Strategist.  This person is a central client contact with a deep understanding of client objectives, and a broad understanding of digital media opportunities.  The Media Strategist sets the high level strategy for achieving client objectives using all available message distribution opportunities (including content, technology, data, etc.).  For example, the Media Strategist may determine that a client whose business is driven by repeat customers needs a central customer data management platform to supercharge their remarketing efforts -or, that another client, launching a new product to a niche market, is best served with custom sponsorships on niche content sites and word-of-mouth marketing on message boards and blogs.

The Media Strategist would call upon three distinct teams of specialists to execute their strategy: one team for integrated sponsorships, one for social media, and one for biddable, “algorithmic” media.  The first would be dedicated to high-end, custom sponsorships and strategic partnerships with key publishers.  The second, focused on using social media for customer acquisition, retention, and customer feedback.  And the third focused on the integration of technology, data and expertise to drive efficiency, targeted reach and reach extension through automated, biddable media.  Each of these teams would have deep category expertise in their field, and would be called upon to greater or lesser extent depending on their relevance for a given client’s needs.  The role of the Media Strategist as orchestrator of these three disciplines would be central to any digital marketing agency and core to their business.  While the three tactical arms of integrated sponsorships, social media and algorithmic media could either be built and maintained in-house, or outsourced to specialists.  Large agencies would likely build these tactical arms in-house, while small and mid-sized agencies would choose to outsource and focus on building their core strategic expertise.

A media organization built in this manner reconciles the need for high-level strategic coordination of digital marketing efforts with the requirement of deep tactical expertise in disparate areas of online marketing.  And not that it’s incumbent on agencies to address skeptical vendors, but this type of organization also clearly answers the question, “what do agencies do?”  In this new model they provide high-level digital marketing strategy and guidance, and marshal the appropriate tactical resources to achieve their objectives.  A clear delineation between strategic guidance and tactical expertise should allow agencies to deliver each more effectively.  Moreover, a realignment of media planning roles and responsibilities updates a century old organizational model developed for an analogue media landscape and makes it relevant for a digital marketing world.

Follow Matt Greitzer (@mattgreitzer), Accordant Media (@accordant) and (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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  1. Matt – Smart post and I agree with it all. I hear from planners that the clients are old school and still focused on where. Would be curious to know how marketers need to evolve symmetrically with new planning roles.

  2. DSP Jockey

    The media planners and supervisors down in the trenches at each agency are the ones being hung out to dry in this whole process. I’ve seen way too many situations where daily planning processes are being upended by executive management mandating the use of a DSP, or trading desk, or data company, without the requisite training and upfront educational piece.

    So some poor planner with no knowledge of ad exchanges, or maybe even digital, is now left to fend for themselves in an unfamiliar landscape without any direction.

    It’s an unfortunate scenario that I think is all-too-prevalent.

  3. Matt, well-done opening up the conversation about the evolving role and value add of agencies in a rapidly changing world. As traditional agency media buying services are automated, and the manual jobs of media planners and buyers are made obsolete, it will be incumbent on agencies to rethink the value they can add in media buying.

    I wish more agency folks were part of this conversation in more then a tertiary way, it is certainly is not a good sign when virtually the whole industry is asking if they are still relevant.

    I agree with you that agencies will always serve an important role in creative, strategy, institutional memory, vendor management and a myriad of other roles. But my question is what happens to the media buying function that currently makes them a ton of money and is responsible for a huge portion of their headcount if it becomes highly automated? Does an agency services model of time and materials still make sense when servers are providing the services instead of people?

  4. Matt Greitzer

    @Ed, totally agree that marketers need to align. Marketers drive agencies, period. As soon as they start asking for this type of service agencies will accommodate. What I see today is a scenario where agencies can lead their clients, and not just respond to demand. Some will step up to the plate.

    @DSP Jockey, great point. The sad thing for agencies, too, is that the savvy planners who understand this are voting with their feet and jumping ship to ad networks, DSPs, ad tech companies, etc. The agency “brain drain” is a worthy topic in and of itself.

    @Zach, you raise a very big question. To be clear, the headcount for media buying OFFLINE is not that big. It’s super efficient to spend $150B on TV. It’s not efficient at all to spend $12B on digital media, which is why agencies are tying themselves up in knots trying to make a business out of it. There is a (dangerous?) trend among holding companies to try to make digital look more like TV: spend way more money on way fewer sites to make it easy, efficient, etc. This atavistic behavior serves only agencies in the short term, and no one in the long term. If media buying becomes more automated the “buying” function of the planner may be less relevant. But the “planning” function remains, which is why I argue the role of Media Strategist is hyper-relevant in this new world. The “buyer,” then, really becomes the tactical expert, and that role is more or less relevant depending on what channel you are working in. For example, SEM is totally automated from a buying process, but the SEM manager is still a highly prized skillset. I can see the media buying function fragmenting into many niche categories with deep tactical skillets. Plain vanilla upfront IAB banner buying will likely not be a capability that differentiates anyone in the future.