A New Planning Organization

The agency media department business continues to change as it grows, especially on the unbundled side. A little more than a decade ago, unbundling media involved execution. The major agencies set up “independent” media buying operations, splitting off buying and planning. A number of forces converged to cause this, including the increasing incursions of independent buyers like Carat and Initiative, the continued move on the client side to “agency of record” assignments wherein one buyer executed all efforts within a medium, even where there were a number of different major creative agencies, and the growing importance of media in the eyes of the client.

In the past few years, media planning has made the move towards the independents. This move really brings the independent media operation of age. For the longest time, the creative agencies held on to media planning with the argument that media planning needed to be partnered with the creative group for true strategic innovation to happen. We all know now that this is not necessary and in fact, such bundling might hold media planning back.



In many cases where buying has been unbundled and media planning has stayed with the creative agency, planning has become the stepchild of the creative operation, just as media buying was a stepchild to account services and creative decades ago. Clients hired and fired agencies based on their creative reel, which translated to how good their ability was to develop great television spots. In today’s media neutral world, the astute client is looking for more and more from media planning, not the least of which is a media agnostic approach. This has been around for a long time and was first called zero based media planning. Whatever you call it, clients increasingly want an independent, fresh look at the media plan, evaluating all possible media options to further leverage their largest expenditure in marketing and leave no stone unturned.

Already some agencies have a cadre of young media planners who know as much about online as traditional media. This is the wave of the future, whether through a dedicated planning agency like GM Planworks or through combining with the independent buying unit as OMD has in establishing a fully integrated media agency.

Clients need continuity in their media planning operation. With the agency account management structure having swung back to a coordination role, media planning represents the home of the continuity based strategic thinker on the business. It used to be that agencies rotated creative groups on and off of a business in order to keep the thinking fresh. They did so at the behest of the client, who needed to stay with the agency due to the need for media operation continuity. In today’s media world, the client is free to use a number of different creative resources as necessary with the independent media operation as the continuity on the business.

Several weeks ago, Erwin Ephron published a thought piece on account planning. He talked about the need for account planning to be more closely associated with media planning so that the client does not have two strategic heads Erwin suggested that this would then become the basis for the new full service agency; one that represents strategic continuity for the client, plugging in creative resources as necessary once the strategy was hammered out. I am not sure that the independent media operations are quite ready to take on the subcontracting of creative, but the alliance of the media planner and the account planner under one roof, while not exactly the way that Mr. Ephron suggests it will play out, is a splendid idea.

This is an area that has bothered me for some time. When Jay Chiat first introduced Stanley Pollitt’s strategic planner concept to the U.S., calling it account planner, it changed the way that creative development took place at the agency. The account planner, generally a research trained person, would be the voice of the consumer on the team and the expert within the agency in bringing research, brand management and the communications plan together. Alas, in many agencies, this function has morphed into a profit center wherein focus groups are brought in-house and the account planner has become an in-house focus group moderator. In far too many situations a client ends up with two target audiences. One is a function of account planning and is smartly segmented into groups that the client attaches to and drives creative development. The other is generated by media planners and strategists and is quantifiable through demographic and sociographic slices of the market. In many cases, it is difficult or impossible to translate the account planner or market research based target audience into the demographic targets the eventually end up on the media buy. So the client thinks that their target is “techadopters” and the media buyer buys upscale Men 18-34 as defined by product usage information from MRI.

So much of our media planning and buying decisions are based on sources like MRI, Simmons and Intelliquest. And yet, most account planners do not spend time with these resources.

What if the new independent media (planning) agency took over the account planning function? All of the client’s research needs would be in one place. The account planner would live alongside the media strategist and they could work together as a team to develop segmentation that worked from a brand management, creative and media execution standpoint. The client could take control of what really happens now anyway, using a variety of creative resources against the strategy created by the new team. And, once again, media and creative will be executing to the same target.

While this will represent a radical change to some in the structure of the ad agency, I look upon it as a natural evolutionary step. One where the media planner finally takes his seat at the head table in the advertising agency, driving strategies against market segments that the client can reach effectively and affordably. In this world where there never seems to be enough money to do everything one wants to do with the media budget, the efficiency wrought from the new structure should generate some impactful communications plans.

The first media agency to effectively adopt such as stance will leap out in front of its competitors. The media reviews of today are in danger of becoming too commodotized, with price becoming a driving dynamic. This new structure will help to differentiate the media planning agency and set it apart from it’s competition. Any takers?

David L. Smith is President of Mediasmith, Inc., the Integrated Solutions Media Agency based in San Francisco and New York. He can be reached at

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