There was a time brands had to contend with one (sarkaari) TV broadcaster, one dominant regional satellite channel in many of the regional markets, one major English language newspaper in most of the top cities, and one radio channel in each of the top cities. No one was happy as media had a field day and there was no such thing as a 'market determined rate'. Then came the Gulf War in 1991 and the satellite TV boom. Media proliferated and brands got a huge buffet of media options to choose from. In the hyper-competitive media marketplace, performance became king.
While complexity/ scale on the media side went up, media became a separate profit centre at the ad agency groups and media agencies gathered size and clout. Today, 80 per cent of the organized sector media investment flows through the top 5-7 media agency groups. As demand gets centralized, now it is media's turn to shout 'We don't want no monopoly!' and yearn for the days of a fragmented-demand ecosystem. Many brands believe an unhappy media owner implies a favourable (to brands) ecosystem.
What has changed?
Media buying, as we know it, has undergone a few changes:
1. A large demand bucket (by a few large agency groups) has meant media inventory has started getting commoditized. Rather than buy space/ time that a brand needs, agencies are bidding for a large chunk of the available inventory (of space/ time) and distributing it among brands they partner with.
Problem: Media buying takes into account the unique situation of a brand and different rates for different brands is the norm. Rates dictated by a common inventory (but consisting of disparate brands from disparate categories) imply a move away from the free-market model that is so badly needed to get the BEST media rates.
Solution: Brands must not assume a large demand basket always implies a better rate. Questioning doesn't cost money; rather, it can deliver better value.
2. Media consumption has undergone a huge change. New media like mobile/ tablets have come in. Consumers are surrounded by social, search, TV, digital content, newspapers (printed/ online), OTT channels, web radio, digital music etc... This has meant media buying is more multi-media, more complex than the days when a TV-only or Print-only media plan would suffice.
Integrated brand-specific media ideas can't get subsumed to scale.
Problem: A one-size-fits-all approach betrays the need of the hour.
Solution: A consumer-centric media buying approach that addresses the unique needs of the brand is the best solution.
3. Access to more granular consumer data has meant better targeting in advertising. Aided by technology, traditional and digital media alike are providing the means to 'laser target' the right consumers. Programmatic has taken it one step further using machine learning/ algorithms to target consumers by demography, attitude, behaviour, life stage, past purchases etc. in real-time.
Problem: Programmatic represents our striving for building scale solutions. However, the largest of marketers are now questioning the effectiveness of too much emphasis on laser-targeted ad campaigns. We aren't sure if computer algorithms can help us address human desires/ motivations in the way we have done till now.
Solution: Bringing the human element back into media planning/ buying implies bringing back that brand custodian who understood the brand, its consumer, its trade partners, its marketing department, the company, the category ecosystem, the media ecosystem et al a lot more than what's being fed into an automated media buying system.
What hasn't changed:
Successful marketing is often asymmetric/ unorthodox.
Ambush Marketing was borne out of a desire to beat the competition - not necessarily at the highest price/ lowest rate. History bears testimony to the ingenuity of the 'media buyer-marketer' team working in tandem to deliver punchy ambushes.
A media agency partner doesn't have to always spend marketing rupees to deliver value. Today, more value can be created through owned, earned and shared media than ever before.
In sum, if you are looking for a magic formula; there isn't one!
Secret Recipe to Best Rates:
Before you question this, let me tell you; there isn't one secret recipe. The ingredients are well known - every media planner/ buyer has his own secret recipe using those ingredients:
Benchmarks - past/ present/ future rates - for own category/ other categories - for the concerned space/ time on the vehicle (channel/ publication/ site); helps know the boundary conditions
Competition - past/ present/ future rates - for own category/ other categories - for competing media vehicles helps know the supply side story
Media consumption data - media research data (time series) helps do all the data analysis before the negotiation including knowing the exact demand-supply situation
Relationship - media buyers and sellers have years of business relationships and trust to fall back on them - both know it takes a lifetime to nurture it
Brand investment - every deal is brand-specific and putting the cards on the table helps the brand
Company investment - ultimately, every advertiser is one client for a media partner. One must leverage media investments across all brands of the company.
Cross-media investment - it's important to know past/ future brand investments across the many media verticals (TV/ Print/ Radio/ Activation/ Digital etc.) of a media owner
While there's no denying the role machine learning/ data analysis can play in enabling teams, the one secret recipe that's stood the test of time - a motivated, experienced, hard-working brand partner who has all the information (as above) and is bent on getting the best rate for his brand. You could get this guy at any media agency - he won't need a large basket of brands to get him the best rate.
In sum, no one-size-fits-all and marketers who question conventional wisdom are the ones who benefit the most.
(The author is co-founder and managing director, Mediant Communications, a new-age media and communications agency)