Commentary

Don’t Separate Planners and Buyers!

There’s a little tiff going on at the Spin Board. I’d let it go, but it happens to be a debate over a subject near and dear to my heart – the separation of planning and buying in interactive media.

The controversy started with last week’s article by David Smith entitled “Digital Heroes, or Everybody’s an Online Buyer.” The main thrust of that article pointed out the silliness of clients, reps, business development folks and others when they try to usurp an agency buyer’s duties. I agree with David’s assessment and I think the folks that he mentioned in his article should step back and let online buyers do their jobs. However, David goes on to say that he believes that planning and buying are two very different things, going so far as to recommend that any clients spending money at an agency with hybrid planners and buyers should “Find a new agency.”

On the Spin Board, Jason Heller from Mass Transit Interactive indicated surprise at David’s statement. “We (Mass Transit) actually realized a much more efficient process when we changed our structure to have planners also negotiate and execute all deals,” penned Jason.

“Planners and buyers have different mentalities. The planner should be the expert on the client,” wrote David in response. “If the planner is handling client service, strategy and site negotiations, when do they get any work done?”

I’ve operated under a number of different department models during my career. Probably not as many as David, but I’ve seen enough to be able to make the following statement with conviction: Separated planning and buying doesn’t work well in interactive media. Period.

Let’s start with what’s wrong with a separation between planning and buying, and then we’ll get into the strengths of the combined model.

I’m sure you’ve all played the game “Telephone” as a kid. That’s when you whisper something like “Sal’s brother is a Yankee fan” in the ear of the kid next to you and he whispers that message to the kid to his left and so on and so forth, until the message reaches the last kid in the room and he announces to everyone that the original message was “Sally Struthers ate my Volkswagen.” Usually, one plays this game when they’re five or six years old, and it’s at that point that one learns a valuable life lesson: When one passes information to another, it’s almost inevitable that something gets lost in the translation.

I’ve found that when planning and buying are separated, the resulting campaigns tend to resemble the product of a game of Telephone with respect to the client’s goals. With a seam between planning and buying, there’s an opportunity for wires to get crossed. Especially if the planning agency and the buying agency are different companies.

At a prior gig where I served as media director, several agency planners serviced a client that had interactive buying consolidated at another agency. On every other account, these planners also negotiated and executed every aspect of their online campaigns. Only a month into the job, I noticed that my planners didn’t have the same enthusiasm for the client that separated planning and buying as they did for our integrated clients. Said one planner, “We put together great recommendations and send them off to the buying agency, but then they buy something completely different from what we recommended.” This strengthened my belief that planning and buying should never be separated.

In his response to Jason on the Spin Board, David wrote, “By having a dedicated buying group, we find that a smaller group can maintain site relations and become experts on the sites and the technologies.” I see no reason why one person can’t formulate relationships, know sites well and be ad technology experts while simultaneously making their best effort to understand the client and the client’s goals. It is my belief that the best interactive ad programs come from planners who can understand the client’s goals in the context of what can be executed in the various interactive media. And only when someone has strong relationships with the sites and technology vendors available to them can they adequately bring the right opportunities to the table for the client. I’ve been working in this business for quite a while and I’m fairly certain that clients want to communicate and strategize with interactive experts, not planners who merely give strategic direction to a buying group.

Integrated planning and buying has not only the advantage of increased efficiency, but it also gives planners a sense of pride in their work. When a planner can plan and execute end-to-end, that’s a significant accomplishment over which the planner has a sense of ownership. When it works well, it gives planners a sense of satisfaction that helps them enjoy their work. Without the ability to work the entire process from concept to execution, most planners quickly get bored with their work.

David said one other thing in his column last week that really bugged me. After telling clients at agencies with integrated planners and buyers to find a new agency, he wrote, “Ask them how they execute EVERY OTHER MEDIUM.”

That’s an unfair comparison if I’ve ever seen one. In almost every other medium, inventory is pretty much commoditized. When you’re a print buyer, you know that you’ll probably be talking 4-color page units with your magazine vendors and column inches with your newspaper vendors. In TV and radio, your basic units are :15s, :30s and :60s, for the most part.

However, in interactive, inventory is not yet a commodity. (By the way, I hope we never see it becoming a commodity) All advertisers haven’t yet moved toward one or two standard units and audience-based buying has not yet taken hold. In short, you need a specialist to navigate the interactive landscape.

In traditional media, the range of options is somewhat limited, so it’s advantageous to put together a specialized buying group and employ planners who can easily understand any options that buying group might come up with. But in interactive, the options are literally limitless. In order to distil the client’s objectives into the best possible media campaign, the planner handling the objectives and strategies needs to know what’s possible. He can’t do that without an intimate knowledge of media properties and the technologies they use to execute ad campaigns.

I know it goes against the grain of how traditional agencies have operated for years. And I know that people who have knowledge of planning, buying and technology are pretty hard to come by, but that’s the unique combination that produces the campaigns most in tune with client objectives. Integrated planning and buying is the way to go.

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