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Is media planning the driver or the end-product of promotional strategy?


"How empty is theory in the presence of fact" (Mark Twain, 1835-1910). The world is such a complex network of circumstances that people have continuously been developing models and theories in their effort to make some sense of why and how things happen. Unfortunately, as this paper intends to expose, real-life situations rarely take into account the actual theories from which they originate, especially in the fields of media planning and buying, where intuition is still the guiding principle.

The fragmentation and segmentation of media, brands and audiences after the 1980s have created fundamental changes in the advertising industry--the media planning and buying process is increasingly complicated, options are various and constantly changing, and the role of media planners is differently perceived.

The media selection procedure is now suddenly more complex than 20-30 years ago. The new problem is how to creatively use different types of media in order to obtain the desired results. This synergy between the creative and the media planning departments could lead to positive or even spectacular results.

Therefore, the paper explores the areas of media planning and buying through comparing and contrasting theory and practical case studies, in an attempt to demonstrate the relativity of the advertising (and particularly the media planning) industry, its dependability on multiple and fluctuating variables, and therefore its intricate nature.

Review of Related Literature

As defined by the American Marketing Association (cited in Belch & Belch, 2007, p.7), marketing represents "the process of planning and executing the conception, pricing, promotion and distribution of ideas, goods and services to create exchanges that satisfy individual and organisational objectives." Thus, marketing can essentially be understood through the four P's of the marketing mix, namely Product, Price, Place and Promotion, which in turn clearly explains the relation of inclusion, and not equality, as it is often confused, that exists between promotion and marketing.

Belch & Belch (2007) identify promotion as "the coordination of all seller-initiated efforts to set up channels of information and persuasion in order to sell goods and services or promote an idea" (p.15) and describe the promotional mix as consisting of various tools used to accomplish communication objectives (advertising, direct marketing, interactive marketing, sales promotion, PR and personal selling). Figure 1 further demonstrates that the promotional strategy planning process is part of the marketing plan (or at least should be so for all companies that still plan their strategies).


Similarly, the promotional strategy planning process (or the "Integrated Marketing Communications Planning Model" as conceived by Belch & Belch (2007, p.28)) can be separated into five strategic steps, presented in Figure 2.


Percy & Elliott (2005) sustain that this planning model is what "a manager should take in developing a strategic plan for a brand's marketing communications" (p.49) and that consistency between marketing objectives and communication objectives is impervious for the effectiveness of a campaign. As it can be noticed, Percy & Elliott, together with most theoreticians, propose the model in which media strategy (or media planning) comes at the end of the promotional plan, as a step which is influenced and conditioned by all previous steps, arguably an end product of the promotional strategy.

Media planning is generally accepted as "determining which communication channels will be used to deliver the advertising message to the target audience" (Belch & Belch, 2007, p.32); however, since the 1990's, the position and importance of the media plan in the context of the promotional strategy have been highly debated subjects in the advertising industry.

By simply analysing Percy & Elliott's (2005) Communication Response Sequence, it is only logical to understand why setting the media strategy should be the last step in the promotion plan; it is first necessary for the target audience to be exposed to the advertisement, so that the message can subsequently be processed and the desired communication effects created, which can then be translated into action. Therefore, an advertiser should first establish who is the target audience, what action is desired from them, and finally how to convince them and through which media.

Research methodology

Unfortunately, things do not always happen as they are planned, especially in a field where negotiation, people's vanity and large sums of money are involved. This study is therefore important not because it discovers important facts, but because of its two aims:

--to bring into the light some 'realities' of the advertising industry, in contrast with the theoretical assumptions discussed by speciality writers;

--to view things from a new perspective, which is actually the basis of the 21st century new mentality--could it be that instead of an argument 'planning/ modelling vs. practice', there could actually be a collaboration, depending on the circumstances, which leads to best results?

In order to reach the above-mentioned objectives, the paper has primarily employed secondary data, in order to compare and contrast the existing literature with researches, studies, speciality publications and real-life examples, as discussed below.

Research of the real scenario

The fragmentation and segmentation of media, brands and audiences after the 1980s have created fundamental changes in the advertising industry--the media planning and buying process is increasingly complicated, options are various and constantly changing, and the role of media planners is differently perceived. The media selection procedure is now suddenly more complex than 20-30 years ago; "in the UK in 1982 there was one commercial TV station; in 1999 there were more than 100" (Percy & Elliott, 2005, p.164) not to mention that this multiplication process, apart from occurring vertically (more vehicles for each media type, segmented according to interests and cultures), also occurred laterally, with the advent of new media (internet, ambient media and new opportunities to take advantage of existing platforms).

Consequently, "some of Europe's largest advertisers, including Procter & Gamble, BT and Unilever, have put media planning at the heart of their communication strategy. For example, 'communication channel planning' has been made mandatory across all Unilever's worldwide business, where after setting brand priorities and objectives, media channel recommendations are agreed before a communication plan and subsequent creative briefs" (Percy & Elliott, 2005, p.164).

Furthermore, from simple departments of full-service agencies in the 1960s, 90% of media planning and buying were handled by a separate agency in the 1990s (Brierley, 2002). The media independents' business share saw an increase of 184% between 1986 and 1991, which led full-service agencies to respond by "hiving-off their media departments into completely separate agencies" (as Saatchi and Saatchi did in the late 1980s, creating Zenith media agency) (Brierley, 2002, p.64).

However, this industry restructuring also affected the advertising agencies internally, by changing the way media planners were perceived in relation to their colleagues, especially their creative counterparts. Several economic recessions in the 1970s and 1980s led to a decrease in the creative's hegemony, because clients were concerned that attractive advertising was not always similar to effective advertising, and became increasingly reliant on media planners who could provide research and figures instead of merely ideas.

Suddenly, media planners had access to a wealth of information and knowledge about the market and the client, which was used not only for optimising media solutions, but also to gain monopoly over the advertising industry (controlling information which other agencies could not access) (Brierley, 2002). Consequently, media planners have come to "play a key role in the advertising industry as the gatekeepers of market knowledge" (Brierley, 2002, p.121)--"we're getting to the point where the media plan is done first, and the creative is done behind it (...) We used to be the dorks. Now we're driving the whole advertising process" (CEO of Carat North America, cited in Belch & Belch, 2007, p.91).

Because of the complexity of selecting the optimum media mix to deliver the brand's message, it is now more difficult to assume that the creative team will deliver a project which then media planners and buyers will fit in corresponding media, as it is also difficult to generalise that "creative people (...) are (...) for filling the time and space that media buyers have bought" (Bullmore, 1998, p.169). Although the media plan can theoretically work, an overly creative 6-minute advert like the one H&M released in 2005 for the new "&denim" collection could ruin all efforts of the promotional campaign. The commercial "was shown online (H&M website) and during the trailers of certain theatrical films, but due to complaints that the commercial glamorised gang violence and was H&M's attempt to use gun culture to sell their jeans to teenagers, H&M subsequently withdrew the ad from Canadian and U.S. markets and issued an apology" (Chidsta, 2006). Alternatively, Coca-Cola's well-executed campaigns could actually fail if placed in conjunction with unpleasant TV news (this is why the company specifically asks its agency to avoid slots during news bulletins) (Belch & Belch, 2007).

In reality, this 'conflict' seems to be heading more towards an integration, where perhaps the appropriate term should be the "creative media"; "in the early 1980s, successful marketing was all about great creative, because you dealt with a very static media environment, and the only way to really break through and build a brand was to have a great message ... today, the media environment has so changed that you can't have a great brand unless you have great creative and great media'' (Neff, 1999). Brierley (2005) also states that "the process will include the agreement of the media and the communication strategy first because of the costs involved. If a client's budget is below 3 million pounds, a national television strategy is not an option. It also depends on which consumers they want to try and hit (...) at this stage the main decision concerns the most appropriate media to use (...) and the campaign's weight, duration and relationship to other promotions that the client is involved in, as well as its relationships to competitor activity (...) the account planner will provide a creative brief to the creative team" (p.60).

The new problem is how to creatively use different types of media in order to obtain the desired results. This synergy between the creative and the media planning departments could lead to positive or even spectacular results--TBWA created a special, well-targeted advert for Absolute Vodka in the LA magazine, showing a picture with a swimming pool in the shape of a vodka bottle, with the logo "Absolute vodka, Absolute LA" (Belch & Belch, 2007, p.241), while Crispin Porter + Bogusky are becoming increasingly notorious for their inventive usage of alternative media in an effective and even cost-efficient manner (the Mini Cooper small budget re-launch using PR stunts and guerrilla marketing to break the clutter).

Brierley (2005) further demonstrates that a continuous collaboration between media and creative is required in order to meet the demands of the contemporary fluent environment--"once the media strategy has been decided, the media buying schedule can change substantially from the original (...) agencies like to have people who can plan and buy campaigns as they are negotiating because the media advertising market is changing so quickly. A new media launch, a sharp decline in readership or circulation or a new package deal by a media owner can change the plan substantially. Most media plans are made with contingency money in reserve in case a new opportunity arises or something newsworthy happens that the brand may want to associate with" (p. 115).

Maintaining openness to new possibilities is what led to American Express's Seinfeld and Superman campaign; the first two mini Internet movies (webisodes) with Seinfeld saving the day helped by American Express card membership where Superman was powerless were so successful that other movies appeared, and a TV version was also launched. Moreover, the success paved the way for a new product launch--Blue--for a more technology-savvy target audience. The campaign used the Internet, 'The AmEx brings you Central Park in Blue' concert, lifestyle-driven events in the LA House of Blues jazz club, sponsorships and exhibits.

Because media planning is dependent on various parameters (technology, budget, costs, reach, frequency, availability, impact and recall) that are either difficult to quantify or lack available and comparable data, and because the inter-relationships between variables are nonlinear and often irregular, media planners have difficulty making good decisions consistently (Rathnam et al, 1992). Although in theory problems are easily solved through models and eliminations, in real-life multiple situations can appear and should be taken into account if the campaign is to be effective.

Probably one of the most powerful influencers in the past decade for media plans has been the new media impact. With a growth of over 300% yearly (InternetWorldStats, 2009), the Internet is becoming the strongest and fastest-growing medium ever. According to ZenithOptimedia, "the recession might be here, with all the belt-tightening that entails, but digital is one of the few media forecast to grow, with UK internet ad revenues poised to reach 3.64bn [pounds sterling] in 2009" (Bold, 2008).

Agencies are using (and are forced to use) digital channels in their communications campaigns as this is the media the new active consumer is primarily accessing (the paradigms are shifting, consumers are becoming "empowered media users" that "control and shape the content" (Belch & Belch, 2007, p.13), enjoy multi-platform communications and are not so sensitive to traditional media anymore (MediaWeek, 2008)), it is cost effective and a quantifiable source of revenue, and ultimately it is viewed as the "best placed media sector to weather the economic storm" (in a poll conducted by MediaWeek, 2008).

Despite obvious benefits such as effective targeting for specific segments (business-to-business advertising) and tailoring, it must be remembered that the web is also uncontrollable and that the 'word of mouse' should not be ignored as it can 'make or break' a campaign. For example, not many people can actually remember iPod adverts, however, they can certainly remember friends or bloggers talking about it, or virals presenting the iPods as better than any other media player on the market. Alternatively, despite a strong TV campaign and PR exercise from Steve Jobs, many people are reticent to the iPhone--it seems 'cool', but the 'word' about its disappointing reliability exceeds the desire to purchase it. Consequently, "the interactive and uncontrollable nature of the Internet raises serious issues for media strategy, and suggests that in the future we will have to engage consumers in dialogue rather than monologue format and attempt to invite customers to participate in 'conversations' rather than being passive targets for messages" (Percy & Elliott, 2005, p.175).

Alternative media usage, therefore, lies in a strong mindshare--knowledge about a brand's customers, and using their media preferences for media selection, instead of demographic matching, as it is usually preferred, due to data availability and optimizing systems (Percy & Elliott, 2005). This is what Jain (2007) describes in the media revolution chapter of the "Advertising Works 15" as "breathing the air of the consumer" (p.12), or actively drawing the consumer into the brand's proposition, through mixing available media in innovative ways--for example, the DDB and OMD campaign for re-launching Monopoly was translated into the highly-successful Monopoly Live event, which took advantage of the passionate interest Londoners have for London and their desire to connect and play online (Green, 2007).

New media should not only be understood as the Internet--in fact, the Internet is becoming more of a traditional platform, but with endless possibilities of re-inventing itself. As an example, the Citroen C5 "Unmistakably German" campaign, which initially aired on TV, was also supported by mobile and Internet advertising; ads were specifically served to men between 30 and 54 (core target audience) on their mobile phones and a micro-site was accessible through banner click-through, comprising a mixture of entertainment, customization and direct sales, which led to "an enormous success with its target audience, with almost one in 10 people who viewed the ad clicking through (...) purchase intent rose by 9% among those who saw the campaign, while 18% said that they viewed the Citroen brand more favourably after they had seen it (...) there was also a strong indication that it enhanced the offline campaign, with a 44% increase in message association" (Whitehead, 2008 and Citroen C5, 2009).

When thinking about cinema as an advertising medium, the first and probably only opportunity coming to mind could be that advertising slot before movies. However, there are numerous alternatives to take advantage of a 'traditional' platform such as cinema; for example, there are the 6-sheets posters, washroom posters, Bluetooth offers, sampling, standees, popcorn boxes, foyer TV, ticket backs, floor media, counter cards, quad posters, and, alongside the advertising slot before the movies, there are also product placements and sponsorships in the movies (Chevrolet in "Transformers") (Digital Cinema Media, 2009).

The cinema case is only a slight proof that media planners are facing an increasingly complex decision when setting the media strategy and that creativity integrated with media planning can open even more possibilities (such as the increasingly used guerrilla tactics like the "live Honda TV skydivers ad" (Independent, 2008)).

There are a number of parameters that are often ignored in theory but become vital in real situations and can deter an entire campaign from being released--they were presented by Rossiter and Percy as the Media Planning Balloon (figure 3, adapted after Glover, 2008), and arguably explain why media planning and buying are playing a key part in the promotional strategy process.

"At the heart of media strategy is the fact that there is never enough money to achieve very high reach and very high frequency for a very long period of time" (Percy & Elliott, 2005, p.165). Although advertisers would like their work to be present in every media, as many times as possible, at the best timings and for a long period to prevent decay, this situation is virtually impossible since the costs are enormous and the budget is always limited. Perhaps the truly creative flair comes when with a miniature budget, often established top-down, with no actual connection to the marketing and communication objectives to be achieved, the most effective and innovative campaign can be achieved.

This happened with CP+B's successful Mini Cooper's re-launch, when with a small advertising budget but a wise use of media--magazine, billboards and PR stunts--the agency managed to generate buzz and re-invent the brand; or with Carl's Jr. fast-food hamburger chain, which used Paris Hilton, the 'it girl' of that moment, in its Spicy BBQ Six Dollar Burger ads to generate publicity for the restaurant and positive action (Belch & Belch, 2007)). Unfortunately, this is also when important money could be wasted on more economic ideas and inefficient media, which later have disappointing results.


The Advertising Research Foundation showed that "nearly half of advertisers and agencies altered their 2005 media buying plans based on some form of return on investment analysis" (Belch & Belch, 2007, p.191) thus essentially demonstrating that even if advertising is being done, people do not really believe or understand its actual importance, which relates more to qualitative than to quantitative factors; therefore, promotional budgets which "ideally (...) should be determined by what must be done to accomplish its communication objectives (...) are often determined using a more simplistic approach, such as how much money is available or a percentage of a company's or brand's sales revenue" (Belch & Belch, 2007, p.31) and advertising is the first expenditure to be cut down in a period of recession (Lupu, 2008), although research consistently demonstrates that companies which sustain their advertising even during crisis periods gain more, during and after the recession (reinforcing confidence in the brand and relationship with the customers).

However, advertising agencies (and especially media planners) can also influence the budget they receive through demonstrating actual results--digital media is the most efficient in this respective, as data and direct response are readily available online. Moreover, more methods of measuring key performance indicators are appearing, even for traditional media (Jaguar was using call-locator systems to detect where the callers to dealerships were located, and thus monitor the response of different areas to their advertising message (Belch & Belch, 2007)) and media planners also employ buying effectiveness measures (TV ratings) in order to keep their accounts. Ultimately, the media planner's job is not only to conceive the media strategy and buy advertising space and time, but also to convince the client of the worthiness of his decision.

As Brierley (2002) also admits, "money is the ultimate limiting factor for advertising (...) since it determines media availability and sets limits to (...) coverage and frequency" (p.105) and further limits production through costs (and availability of technology). Reach, frequency and the number of advertising cycles, as described in the Media Planning Balloon (figure 3), represent the most important constraining variables in a media plan, since their value and mixture is directly influenced by budget availability and specifically influence the campaign's effects. Although "some media auditing studies have shown a variation in the effect of advertising on sales due solely to creative execution of 10 to 1" (Percy & Elliott, 2005, p.165), usually mediocre creative works can also achieve the desired effects through an optimum mix of reach and frequency, according to objectives (more frequency for creating brand attitude, more reach for brand awareness).

Media coverage and popularity are also media selection criteria, since "talked about television" or any medium (Brierley, 2002, p.81) is more effective than its competitors but can also command premium rates, which again rises the budget constraints; for example, a weekday full-page mono display in the Financial Times costs 40,400 pounds (Financial Times, 2009) while one in The Sun costs 40,159 pounds (New Media Age, 2009), demonstrating that media popularity could dictate prices more than readership quality. Moreover, availability is considered by Brierley (2002) as "the most important consideration for media planners" (p.89) because, for example, the tobacco industry cannot use advertising in the UK. Time and space bought for a particular advert is also important; when commercials are linked to a show or placed during a programme, they are directly influenced by the programmes' contents--although "advertisers have access to broadcasting schedules (...) in advance so that ads can be, and often are, booked and prepared to appear in specific programmes" Brierley (2002, p.120) discusses the case when Zenith bought time for British Airways during an aeroplane disaster movie on Carlton TV.

When converting a plan into reality, parameters often change and can subsequently alter the initial plans. If, in theory, media costs are established on the rate card basis, the media buyer actually receives discounts or encounters unexpected premium rates due to negotiating deals or exceptional state of situation. Generally, TV buying for example has been a volume-led market, by offering satisfying deals for both clients and media buyers; nonetheless, this situation could strategically be dangerous since media planners not always recommend media on the basis of effectiveness, but on the basis of "the volumes of money being spent" (Brierley, 2002, p.56), which could turn into wastage if improperly managed.

Furthermore, media buyers were (and probably still are) sometimes placing ads in certain media (more expensive/ better commission offered to agencies/ better negotiating relationships) despite effectiveness considerations, or were/are placing ads in expensive media and do not push for discounted rates, in order to receive higher commission returns (Brierley, 2002, p. 64).

Nowadays, however, it appears that although companies have different advertising agencies handling their brand portfolios, they usually tend to have one media planning and buying agency (an integrated media buying strategy such as Carat for Cadbury)--"they would be able to get more media coverage for their money. If they did a deal for the whole year, a confectionery manufacturer could use summer slots for chocolate ice-cream, winter slots for chocolate bars and chocolate drinks, and Easter and Christmas spots at discounted rates for special brands. Nearly 80 of the top advertisers in Britain, including Cadbury, Heinz, RHM Foods and Premier Brands, had centralised their media buying in this way by 1993" (Brierley, 2002, p.67).

Nevertheless, centralised media buying also entails increased power to the top advertisers, who can impose their own buying terms and discounts--"Kellogg's were known to be demanding discounts from ITV companies of up to 75% in 1992 for children's TV, largely because of the erosion of the audience for children's TV from satellite, videos and computer games, but also because of the recession and the company's buying clout" (Brierley, 2002, p.68). This situation occurs especially during recession periods--in Romania, for example, the top three TV advertisers (Procter & Gamble, Unilever and L'Oreal) have drastically reduced their advertising budget for December (up to 70% for Unilever), suggesting that this decision could be prolonged in 2009 as well, unless media owners offer significant discounts and deals, and also implying that several media vehicles could be "dropped altogether from the schedule if bigger discounts are not offered" (Barbu, 2008; Brierley, 2002, p.105).

Sometimes, media buyers would also use broking (which is not admitted to anymore nowadays) --block-booking space and time at a special discount (and with the receiving of a brokerage fee) which would then be filled with various clients. Clients therefore would be unable to choose advert placing according to their communication objectives, and would have to agree to a 'squeeze' in the already-booked scheme (media buyers usually acquire packages which are more profitable than individual purchases, but contain a mixture of high-rating and low-rating spots). Media plans could also be influenced by clients who can change their compensation schemes to incentivise their agencies to work more with other media, apart from TV and magazines (Belch & Belch (2007) give the examples of Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Ford and Nissan) or by media associations (Brierley (2002) presents the case when the Newspaper Publishers' Association spent 10 million pounds to try to convince advertisers that TV was not essential and that press advertising was also effective).

Sometimes, even the organisational context and a company's relationship with its media planning agency can affect the media strategy, usually in a negative way through unrealistic client demands, conflicts of interest (two competitors handled by the same agency), changing compensation policies, or new management teams (in 2006 Asda was set to "review 40 million pounds media planning and buying out of Carat" after rumours questioning the strength of their relationship following the departure of Aegis's chief executive, known to be close to the business, to MPG, a rival of Carat in the predicted pitch (Lester, 2006)).

Ultimately, the lack of sufficient information, inconsistent terminologies, time pressure and difficulty in measuring effectiveness of media strategies represent additional limiting factors that impede the straightforwardness of a media plan execution.


The results derived from this paper conclude that, since real-life situations impose so many variables on media planning, it is never easy to suggest how things should work for best results, as each case is unique and suited for different strategies. Of course, there are useful frameworks which can act as starting points, but, in the end, estimating correctly and juggling with each circumstance is the way to achieve results. This has led advertisers to agree that in media planning all "depends upon the particular circumstances; there is no single solution" (Broadbent, cited in Percy & Elliott, 2005, p.171) but if "you can learn to estimate correctly, you are bound to achieve your goal" (Steiner, cited in Belch & Belch, 2007, p.310). This research is, however, limited by a number of factors, as discussed at the beginning of the paper, therefore it may be that the next step of this work would be a series of empirical studies which can provide a more complete and accurate picture of the situations analysed. This would most likely lead to similar results, but it could also identify and synthesise patterns of right decisions for various situations, which could possibly ease the future work of media planners and buyers.


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Corresponding author

Marius Bulearca can be contacted at:

Marius Bulearca, Center for Industry and Services' Economics of the Romanian Academy

Suzana Bulearca, Bournemouth University, United Kingdom
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Author:Bulearca, Marius; Bulearca, Suzana
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Date:Jul 1, 2009
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