Commentary

The Department: Embracing the Blank Page

Can you think of a job that has changed more over the past 10 years than that of the media planner? Think of it: A mere decade or so ago, media planning was still largely a numbers game. Sure, we were beginning to catch on to the idea of creativity in media, but it was mostly a matter of slight tweaks to the age-old rules. Maybe we would challenge the notion that three is the magic number of exposures in every campaign -- so we'd boldly suggest measuring 4+ reach, or 2+, for our plans. Or we would shuffle magazines into new categories in our print plans: "Of course we can consider Redbook a parenting magazine! We're more creative these days."

At our most creative peak, we might have recommended what were then lumped together and vaguely termed "new media" -- oh-so-avant-garde grocery cart ads or airport TV. But truth be told, media was still at its core a game of manipulating mathematical odds. As it had been for decades before, our job was to assess ways to accumulate the most impressions for the lowest expenditure.

Then, over a relatively short period of time starting in the late 1990s, the industry came to embrace that media could be about more than just the acquisition of eyeballs. Suddenly "media strategy" was the new catchphrase. You couldn't throw a rock at a media luncheon without hitting a "context planner," "media strategist," and a "contact specialist," all at the same time.

This phase, which lasted until, oh, last week in some circles, was highlighted by the urgent need for a unifying reason for being behind an entire media recommendation. Where past media plans were sold in with numeric rationale, "creative" media planning was promoted mainly on the sensational nature of its overarching premise. Who among us isn't guilty of this one: "This plan is all about personal passions. We're going to be in the media that our target has a passion for. By being in these places we'll create an emotional connection between the brand and the audience..."

Go ahead, admit it! Either you said this in a plans presentation over the past five years or so, or you heard it at a media awards show (and wish you had come up with it first).

Fast-forward to today: We are facing an even more profound shift in the "deliverable" for media people. Amid today's media fragmentation and consumer control, we must finally accept that it's not enough to find increasingly clever ways to schedule ads. It's far too likely that those ads, no matter how smartly they're placed, will be missed entirely or ignored willfully.

Now media people have to invent new ideas. After sorting through the research, the budget, the target audience, and any other nagging details, we're faced with the dreaded blank piece of paper. And through some combination of intellect, effort, and inspiration, we've got to fill that page with an idea so creative, so cool, and so compelling that consumers will invite our client's brand into their lives and engage with it willingly.

Not only is this an enormous task -- one that has tied many a brilliant copywriter's stomach in knots. It's also one that's outside the skill set upon which many people build media careers in the first place. Instead of math skills and detail orientation, suddenly we need to have conceptual thinking and the ability to suspend disbelief. We need to go from accountants to storytellers, from pennypinchers to poets. It's mind-boggling. And to many media people firmly encamped in the old school, it's downright terrifying.

But I'm here to tell you that it's also incredibly energizing. When I finally do come up with the perfect, so-good-you-didn't-know-you-had-it-in-you idea, the thrill of that moment beats any I've had doing flow charts or reach-frequency estimates. And it more than makes up for the panicked moments I had while staring at that damned white page.

If media planning is going to reach its potential, then media people are going to have to become a lot more like creative people. All the research in the world won't come up with effective ideas. That's what we are for.

We simply have to embrace the blank page.

Lisa Seward is the media director at Fallon, Minneapolis. (lisa.seward@fallon.com)

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