By John Nardone
The foundational strategic thinking behind media planning is simple: What percentage of a target audience does a brand need to reach and how many times does it need to reach that percentage in order to accomplish its business objectives? Unfortunately, this basic thinking has been lost in the dense fog of programmatic innovation, hidden behind the very tools designed to bring this thinking to life.
Today, advertisers closely evaluate a campaign's performance data at the surface level. They prioritize speed and mathematical efficiency over quality outcomes and long-term success. This is simply unsustainable. It's time for the advertising industry to reconnect the sophistication of its programmatic toolset to the foundational building blocks of media planning strategy.
Here is a look at three neglected pillars of media planning that need to be brought back to the fore, as well as a deeper dive into how those pillars should be reflected in day-to-day campaign scenarios.
Pillar 1. Ensure data quality, understand its provenance, and make sure to apply it in time to make a difference.
The audience data sitting in front of marketers isn't reality. It's full of bots and fraudulent activity and, thanks to cookie rejection and various skewed auction mechanics, there are large swaths of key target audiences that aren't even represented in a marketer's data. Unfortunately, too many marketers are taking their data at face value and not asking the tough questions about what their data really shows. Consequently, their observable universes are constrained, contorted, and often don't map against reality. This is where a true understanding of reach and frequency fall apart as well.
Of course, none of this means the data is useless. It's tremendously useful as a gateway to digging deeper and expanding on a brand's knowledge and campaign efficiency. But it means that marketers need to ask questions. They need to slice and dice. They need to know where their data originates, how it was derived, and what weaknesses might be present. Then they need to actively work with their data to improve and expand their relevance and reflection of reality.
It's also critical that the data be applied in a timely fashion — early enough to make a real difference in the overall efficiency of a campaign. Optimization that takes place too far into a campaign is not optimal at all. It's never too early to dive into the data and ask these critical questions.
Pillar 2. Understand the role of digital in the overall media mix.
For too many marketers today, digital exists in a vacuum. The metrics of programmatic media buying are self-contained, and little thought is given to the role that digital plays in the larger media mix.
The foundational question of the role of digital in the media mix must be reprioritized by marketers. Channels like TV, print, outdoor, radio, and others play a specific role in marketing, and digital is no different.
Multichannel efforts — especially those that respect desired targets for reach and frequency — only work when the relative strengths of each channel are recognized and leveraged to complement one another. This will become increasingly urgent as more traditional channels, like TV, acquire new levels of data-driven granularity in both targeting and measurement.
Pillar 3. Give creative its proper seat at the table.
The integrated agency setup of yesterday, in which a single entity was responsible for both media and creative, scarcely exists anymore. Instead, brands face a scenario in which no one is responsible for creative effectiveness.
The media agency isn't responsible because it doesn't control creative. The creative agency isn't given access to the data (or it doesn't have the analytical competencies to evaluate it), so it's unable to advocate and drive greater creative effectiveness. Unless the brand itself rolls up its sleeves to connect the dots, taking ownership over creative effectiveness simply doesn't happen.
Creative needs to be elevated and reintegrated into the media planning process. This starts with bringing the creative team to the planning table in the early stages, but it also requires the establishment of a feedback loop in which performance data can be fed back into the next creative iterations.
What a Strong Foundation Looks Like in Practice
The pillars outlined above represent foundational understandings and practices that need to be reprioritized among media planners today. But acknowledging their importance is only half the battle. The rubber meets the road at the campaign planning stage.
To illustrate this point, here's how the digital media planning process shifts in six distinct areas when marketers keep these pillars in mind.
Before the campaign starts:
A media buyer's job is to buy media. But if some foundational understandings aren't in place before the first dollar is spent, then a large percentage of that dollar is flushed down the toilet.
Before marketers consider making a buy, they should ask themselves the following questions and find the right answers before a dollar is spent.
- Do we really understand our target audience?
- Have we made the effort to go beyond broad TV audience definitions or cookie-based segments that we can pull from our data management platform?
- Have we applied a thoughtful and layered exercise that exposes and quantifies audience sub-segments?
- Have we mapped segments to purchase cycles and identified contextual and behavioral triggers that might reveal them in market?
- Have we set reach and frequency targets against audiences within the purchase cycle?
- Have we mapped our audience models back to the census to reality-check our work?
After creative, media, and technology partners have been selected, and before they go to work.
Establishing the collaborative team is an important milestone for any campaign. But before work begins, here's an important checklist marketers should cover:
- Have we established a common campaign architecture that ensures everyone is working from the same objectives and strategies?
- Have we made that architecture visual so everyone has a common understanding?
- Have we established one common process across partners for how the campaign will be managed and those strategies implemented?
During the campaign, as optimization begins.
During a campaign, marketers must ensure their decisions around optimization are based on data that is of sufficient quality. Optimization is a "garbage in, garbage out" situation. Optimizing on poor data is not just a waste of time, but also demonstratively counterproductive, often optimizing to weaker outcomes.
Digital data quality is defined in four key dimensions, and marketers should ask themselves these questions for each dimension:
- Representativeness: Does our data represent what we think it does? For example, do display clicks represent consumer engagement? Does the number of cookies represent audience reached?
- Fidelity: How accurate is the data in its representation?
- Granularity: Is the data available at a sufficient level of detail for it to be useful for the task?
- Portability: Is the data available where we need it, and can it be combined with and enriched by other data?
After marketers get frustrated with their results and before they point fingers or make permanent adjustments.
If a campaign isn't going the way everyone hoped, marketers should ask themselves: Was the strategy flawed, or was a good strategy poorly executed?
Before marketers make that assessment, they should understand their real delivered reach and frequency against their audiences.
Often, clients discover too late that campaign delivery doesn't reflect the intentions of the plan at all, and frequency management is a big culprit.
Fraud is another culprit, and while a fraud audit by a verification partner can help, it cannot protect against all fraud. These two problems alone often siphon away 25 percent or more of effective impressions, and that's before considering whether the rest were viewable. Marketers must go the extra mile to ensure they are delivering the right amount of media pressure.
Within the enterprise, as it hires and develops talent, and rewards success.
Quite simply, brands should not hire tool jockeys.
Sure, new toolsets require new skills, but the most important skills are grounded in an understanding of media fundamentals. If marketers don't prioritize strong media skills in talent, they'll end up with employees who can drive the tools but don't know where they should be going.
The best tech and most skillful manipulation of those tools will usually produce sub-par results if they aren't grounded in fundamentals. Giving a person a new hammer doesn't make that person a master carpenter. Giving someone a high-powered nail gun will just help that person build a shanty faster.
Before marketers issue sweeping calls for change in the industry.
It's tempting to look at the current state of programmatic media and start casting aspersions and calling for wholesale reinvention, if not regulation. But before marketers hop up on their soapboxes, they must ask themselves: Are these problems really the byproduct of structural industry trends, or are they caused by the industry forgetting to stick to the basics?
Technology is supposed to enable a more efficient execution of a brand's strategy. Technology is not the strategy itself. Strategy must be derived from a fundamental grasp of how the various inputs to a campaign — creative, data, and targeting — come together.
If marketers have forgotten these basics, learned them too late, or never learned them at all, it's time to reset and refer back to media planning fundamentals.
John Nardone is the CEO of Flashtalking, a partner in the ANA Thought Leadership Program.