It’s time we brought back the media planner-buyer

It’s time we brought back the media planner-buyer
Brands such as HelloFresh utilise fast, predictive analytics

It’s time to bring back the generalist to properly serve clients as AI streamlines previously labour-intensive processes.

Media agencies face an existential threat from AI because clients will disintermediate them if agencies don’t start paying attention to what clients really want and delivering beyond the value of platforms.

Yet AI also presents an opportunity for media agencies to deeply cement themselves into the marketing process and remain not only relevant but essential.

To secure our future, we need to re-engineer the client experience. And to deliver it, we need differently skilled people.

Front and centre of this shift is the return of the generalist planner-buyer.

We’re not giving clients what they want

Our clients want more from us. And who can blame them when ever more is being asked of them? Media fragmentation, measurement and effectiveness, retail media, ecommerce, ESG, AI, in-housing — the list of things keeping our clients awake at night goes on and on.

They are becoming more strategic and T-shaped. What they want from an agency is collaborative expertise. They want an ally with whom they can have “grown-up” conversations, with sound strategic advice and alignment on what to do based on data, facts, insight, experience-led expectations around media performance and a broad knowledge of marketing.

That’s not what they get.

As media has fragmented and buying has become technology-driven, media agency teams have congealed into narrowly focused divisions of specialists who have a very deep knowledge of a particular discipline but know little about “media” or advertising more broadly. I-shaped people.

So while clients want an ally with whom they can make fast but strategic decisions, we either give them a cast of thousands and myriad routes to navigate our services or we give them someone who is in effect a relay point and has keep saying “I’ll get back to you”, because they don’t have the answers to the client’s questions.

How can we fix it?

It starts with bringing planning and buying firmly back together. That’s the start of the pendulum swinging back from technology to talent.

What those I-shaped people have been doing is twiddling knobs and sliders with arcane functions buried deep in complex platform user interfaces to buy media. And they’ve been learning first hand what works and what doesn’t.

And it’s not just pay-per-click and social.

Across all media, buying has become platform-based and expertise-siloed.

But AI is simplifying the planning and buying. Innovations such as Google’s Performance Max and Meta’s Advantage+ take the hard work out of setting up and optimising campaigns. And they yield better results. Meta reports typical ROI uplifts of over 30% on sales campaigns with Advantage+.

The process isn’t “push button and go”, but it’s significantly less labour-intensive than the manual route to building and managing campaigns. And the insights are surfaced and managed for you. You don’t need a specialist.

As this process becomes more automated, more can be planned and bought by the same individual. And more of the expertise can reside with them.

Having planned and bought the lot, and having seen the outcomes first hand, the planner-buyer is once again a meaningful focal point of client experience.

But that’s just the first step

Being able to set campaign goals and then stand by while a black box optimises within a given platform is one thing. But to maximise results, we need all the platforms working together, as well as media and creative in sync.

So the planner-buyer also needs to own effectiveness. Here, too, AI is changing the game. The fast, predictive analytics that the likes of Uber, HelloFresh and Meta use to orchestrate and optimise their media are available to anyone with a web browser.

OK, not just anyone. For non-coders, what’s on the end of those links looks terrifying. But point your nearest data scientist to those links and they can start providing tools to planners to give them all the effectiveness data and modelling they could want.

A quick upload of some input (media and marketing spend) and output (sales) data, set some parameters and run the models — and the planner-buyer has a raft of data-led scenarios to discuss with their client. And in moments, not months.

This means our planner-buyers need to be super comfortable with data, statistics and applying media knowledge to pick out the story from the data and make actionable recommendations.

But it doesn’t need advanced maths skills or coding chops.

Couldn’t clients just in-house all this button-pushing?

To get to the “nuts and bolts”, perhaps they could. An AI media plan might be good, but it can’t be great.

The planner-buyer has a “killer app”: they’re human.

Clients want the competitive advantage that comes from disruption, imagination, creativity and taking a leap into the unknown based on a theory of how the world could be. This is where media agencies — or, rather, the people in them — have always excelled.

Great media agencies have always been about the people in front, not the technology behind. If we want to give clients what they want and secure our future, the people in front should be our planner-buyers.

Steve Taylor is joint chief strategy officer at VCCP Media

Strategy Leaders: The Media Leader‘s weekly supplement with thought leadership, news and analysis dedicated to excellence in commercial media strategy.
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