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Principal-based media: A modern Hobson’s choice for planners

Principal-based media: A modern Hobson’s choice for planners

It’s a media planner’s job to understand a client’s business, diagnose problems and find answers to them. Imagine doing all that work, only to find the solution had been picked before they started.

Thomas Hobson operated a livery stable in Cambridge. When his horses weren’t needed for the delivery of mail along the Great North Road, he’d rent them out to students and staff at the university.

It turned out to be a lucrative business, with customers drawn to the choice of 40 horses he owned. But Hobson soon found some were being taken out more often than others, so he introduced a strict rotation system. Customers had to pick the next horse in line. Hobson’s choice was “this one or none” — a free choice where only one thing is on offer.

Hobson wasn’t a bad man. He’d simply arrived at a solution to benefit his own business, avoiding his best horses from being run down and no doubt increasing efficiencies around preparing the next horse to be sent out. But to a customer under the impression of being able to pick the right horse for their experience level, height, weight or journey time, the lack of any real control in the decision may have felt a little frustrating.

The story of Hobson and his horses comes to mind when reading about the practice of principal-based media (PM, which is also known as inventory media or proprietary media) by agencies.

The Media Leader has widely covered the issue and it’s commendable that a light is being shone on it. For a moment, I’d like to put any moral judgement to one side (although if you want to question the morals of the approach, please don’t stop that train of thought). I’m also going to avoid a detailed analysis of how it’s carried out (you can find that on this site and it’s worth a read).

ANA calls for contracts and auditing shakeup over principal media ‘conflicts of interest’

What PM means for planning

As a planner and strategist of a good few years on both the media and creative sides, I feel it’s worth considering what the practice of PM means for the art (increasingly a science) of planning.

The fundamental agency/advertiser relationship is: “We understand the complex world of [media, creative messaging, branding etc], so if you tell us your problem, we can advise on a solution that will help you.” In Hobson’s era, this would’ve been something like: “I know horses — tell me where you want to get to and I’ll choose the right one for you.”

A central component of the advice from an agency is derived from the planners within it. It’s their job to understand a client’s business, its customers, the competition it faces, diagnose issues and understand what could help overcome them.

It’s quite the process. At times hugely frustrating, tying a person in knots as they wade through data and focus group soundbites. But there are wonderful moments when a solution starts to click into place and everything begins to feel so brilliantly simple.

So what a shame it would be for someone to have worked through all of this, only to find the solution had been picked before they started.

This isn’t a point around wasting a planner’s time (although that bit hurts on a personal level). Such an approach would raise questions around how a suitable solution could’ve been found before the problem is even diagnosed and would call into question the agency’s role of providing advice to suit the advertiser. “I know my horses, but you can only have this one.”

Implicit messaging

This is something planners of all disciplines should be concerned by. PM may feel like somebody else’s problem to the brand planner about to head into a creative briefing. But when that work is made, the manner in which it shows up in the world may very well be dictated by the practice.

The media planner has a particular set of levers they can pull. Channel, placement, format, region, daypart etc. Across this, they’re trying to convey an implicit message through associations, contexts and aligning to audience mindsets. They are looking for ways in which media can contribute to the creative message rather than simply carry it; to make the message resonate with the right people.

If a buying approach inhibits any of the levers available to a media planner, it takes away the power of the creative work and the ability of the campaign to deliver for the client.

An answer before the problem

This year, we’ve helped grow a men’s online fashion brand by aligning to shopping habits built around individual missions rather than fashion seasons. This meant different channels, publishers and seasonality to what has run in the past.

And we’ve shifted sales of a soft drink popular among minority groups by celebrating the diverse talents of those groups, showcasing them among a wider audience. Again, this required a completely different plan to campaigns past.

In both pieces of work, creative and media worked together to ensure messaging and delivery were aligned. That is made much harder when the media can only be selected from a pre-bought supply of inventory.

So, beyond the morals of the process and the ability for agencies to “make money on the money”, as Nick Manning puts it, there’s a more fundamental question we must ask of PM: how can it provide the right answer before it even begins to know the problem? Or, in Hobson’s case: how do you know the right horse before you’ve met the rider?

Chris Herbert is strategy partner at the7stars

Nick Manning: ‘Principal-based media’ is bad for the whole industry – here’s why

Bob WOOTTON, Principal, Deconstruction, on 25 May 2024
“Great piece, simply put, good narrative > good communication 👏”
Peter Thomson, Founder, The Press Business, on 23 May 2024
“Very well articulated Chris, you must have worked under some very wise bosses 😂”
Tony Jarvis, Media Research Architect, Olympic Media Consultancy , on 23 May 2024
“Brilliant analogy to Mr. Hobson and the role of media planners in ad campaign development.”

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