Why Crafting An Effective Media Plan Is Like An Endurance Sport

I just completed my first full Ironman, marking off an endurance bucket-list check. This accomplishment followed a series of Ironman 70.3 races and numerous other endurance events over the years. A question I’m often asked is “what do you think about during the long hours of training and racing?”

During my recent California Ironman -- a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run -- I entertained my inner ad geek by reflecting on the number of interesting parallels between preparing for an endurance event and creating an effective advertising media plan. 

Some common themes included setting clear goals, conducting extensive research, developing a winning strategy, executing with consistency, and using data to make informed decisions and measure results.

Both endurance training and media planning require a combination of discipline, dedication, adaptability, and a focus on the long-term vision.

Whether you’re cranking on a 2024 media plan or considering signing up for a future race, some common rules apply.



Start with "why"

An underlying theory in Simon Sinek's seminal book is that effectively communicating the passion behind the "why" engages the listener’s limbic brain, inspiring action and tapping into emotional decision-making.

This principle also applies to persuading the target audience of an ad campaign and motivating oneself to tackle an endurance event.

My personal "why" is inspired by Socrates' enduring quote on physical fitness: "it is a shame for a man to grow old, without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable."

Establish measurable goals and objectives

A foundational step for creating an effective communications plan is aligning on clearly articulated goals (e.g., becoming the #1 widget brand) and then setting business objectives that drive the desired outcomes (e.g., increasing sales penetration by 20%).

My personal goal was to complete an Ironman while staying injury-free, balancing work and family obligations, and staying motivated from the beginning of my training to my-hands-raised-crossing-the-finish-line moment. My objective was to finish in under 12 hours, which I achieved in 10 hours and 55 minutes (my strategy worked! – more on that coming up).

Do your research

In media planning, uncovering actionable insights across the 4Cs -- Culture, Category, Company and Customer -- must inform a winning go-to-market strategy. Albert Einstein aptly noted, “if we knew what we were doing, it would not be called research.”

My journey to conquer a full Ironman was filled with uncertainties, particularly about injury-free training and balancing work and family.

So I applied the 4C’s methodology for my training by interviewing past IM athletes, immersing myself in loads of training articles, joining a local swim community, and going down many rabbit holes online for inspiration and instruction. 

Develop a rallying cry

Effective media plans require a clear and smart strategy expressed in a word or phrase, underpinned by insights to drive goals and objectives. Or simply, it should answer the question “how do we win?” My goal for the Ironman wasn’t about winning. My goal was to finish with a respectable time.

My strategic rallying cry was “be consistent.” As a triathlete noted in in an article earlier this year: “To achieve gains, repetition and consistency are key, as is learning to understand and accept that results will not happen overnight, but rather after months — or maybe even years — of sticking to the same routine.”

Gear up

Just as important as marketers investing in the right martech tools to achieve their goals, endurance athletes should carefully select the right gear -- and at the right cost to perform at their best.

But we work in a marketing era awash with rapid technology changes and a constant stream of acronyms, such as DMPs and CDPs sweeping in and out of the marketing landscape.

For my training, I applied the advice I give to clients -- which is first to understand your needs, weaknesses and use cases to inform which marketing technologies you buy, build, borrow or bypass. For endurance training, ask yourself whether the performance you will gain from, say, carbon-plated running shoes or the latest, high-end tri-bike, will truly outweigh the added expense. 

Test, learn, optimize

Highly effective advertising campaigns share a common trait with endurance sports training: they are dynamic and interactive.

In advertising, craft practitioners constantly refine their strategies through testing, creating a continuous learning cycle that allows them to analyze performance signals and optimize campaigns. This is perfectly analogous to endurance sports training.

Training is where you test and perpetually refine new swim/bike/run techniques, test different nutrition strategies, monitor results via trackable devices and apps, and constantly optimize your approach based on your personal data (performance signals) and external factors, such as unexpected weather.

As Iron Mike Tyson once said, “everyone has a plan 'till they get punched in the mouth.” I encountered my own unexpected punch in the form of downpours during the Ironman California, which forced on-the-fly optimizations during the bike and run with a healthy dose of digging-deep grit to complete the race. 

Appreciate your team

The best advertising work can only be achieved with a team that operates with mutual trust, respect, passion and joy.

The best endurance performance can only be achieved with the support, encouragement, and love of a team of family and friends, for which I have many to thank, especially my amazing wife.  

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