Requiem for Planning

My initiation into the media business came a few short weeks after I started as a media buyer/planner at Leo Burnett. In a ritual well known to veterans of the media trade, my new coworkers and I settled into "planning season," three months of eye-glazing work, as plans for the upcoming year were prepared, analyzed, itemized to the penny, challenged, revised, and eventually presented in great detail to the client. After a gauntlet of approvals, the plans were finalized and remained more or less intact during the course of the year.

While the annual planning routine remains a part of the business today, it has become an increasingly irrelevant exercise. The demands of today's business environment require the ability to respond to changing conditions on a weekly and even daily basis.

Beyond this practical challenge, the annual media plan and its traditional tools are insufficient in an environment where engagement is the metric that matters. Indeed, our reliance on, and often vigorous defense of, carefully planned day-part mixes and flighting patterns can distract from more strategically meaningful directions. But the proverbial nail in the coffin for the annual media plan is -- what else? -- digital media. Consider the search marketing model, where results, not to mention costs, timing, and everything else we try to control on a flowchart, are based entirely on consumer intent.

As if an average four-week reach measure didn't already seem antiquated, we can now track and even predict real-time outcomes of our marketing activities. Before long we'll be able to do so not only for Internet plans, but for digitally enabled TV plans.

If the detailed annual planning process works for your business, by all means continue to use it. The upfront TV buying infrastructure, among other industry practices, certainly supports this tradition. Where I work, our General Motors clients expect both breakthrough strategy and tremendous flexibility, so we can't afford to continue a planning tradition that supports neither. If you're in the same boat, consider these suggestions to break the annual media plan addiction:

>> Plan by task, not by year. Comprehensive media planning is far more strategic and actionable if it relates to a given component of the messaging strategy, such as a specific media property, a new campaign launch, or a sub-target within a plan. Start the year with an outline of the plan components and a base of core media properties. Then work with clients and vendors as well as creative and promotional agency partners to create and implement customized tactics for each initiative.

>> Plan for change. Nothing is more dispiriting to a media team than plan revisions that scuttle months of work. Avoid the disappointment by setting up alternate plays to be implemented on demand. Structure media agreements that allow flexibility to shift and optimize on the fly. Most important, value the management of change as a core function of your organization, not as something to be avoided.

>> Throw out the pie chart. Beside the annual flowchart, the most ubiquitous element of a traditional media plan is the media mix pie chart. In my career working across a range of industries, media targets, and budget levels, I've rarely seen a pie chart that looked much different from any other, particularly when the mix reflects activity across an entire year. While tremendous energy can be spent on this style of analysis, media mix alone cannot possibly tell the story of a distinctive plan strategy. Use media mix charts sparingly, because they can make even a brilliant plan look like a dud.

>> Let the consumer lead. As our plans are increasingly reoriented toward on-demand media, we will need a planning framework that acknowledges that consumers will decide how and when to interact with our messages. While unpredictable, we know that a voluntary interaction is decidedly more valuable than a forced one, so this is a course we want to encourage. To do so, we need a planning process that is focused on drawing consumers in rather than chasing them down. Without a doubt, long-term planning in some form remains an important tool. But it's time to put the outdated "planning season" behind us and embrace the process of continuous planning, implementation, and optimization.

Mary Carpenter is executive vice president at Starcom MediaVest Group and chief planning officer for GM Planworks. (

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