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The world of media buying is weird

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Why read this? : Media is usually your biggest area of marketing investment. We share thoughts on how media buying works. Learn why buying a product that’s intangible and transient is such a weird experience. And learn the challenges you’ll face like the high level of detail and focus on social relationships. Read this to gain lessons about how to get the best out of your media buying. 

We recently updated our media planning and digital media guides. As we were doing so, we couldn’t help thinking about how weird media buying is. It’s really weird. 3 things drive that weirdness. 

First, there’s the nature of media itself. In particular the “product” that’s being sold. It’s intangible. You can’t really touch it. And it’s transient. Once it’s gone, it’s gone for ever. 

Second, there’s the people that work in media planning and buying (and don’t even get us started on media sales teams). They’ve got such a bad habit of trying to justify what they do. And they do that by overcompensating with detail. A lot of detail. 

And finally, there’s the whole relationship side that goes with media. Much of what happens in media buying isn’t based on logic, but on relationships. 

The nature of media buying

So, just think about what happens when you buy media. What is it you’re actually buying? You’re buying a produce that has a “space” and a “time”. Your advert will appear in a specific “space” for a specific “time”. 

Your asssumption is that the right people will see that space / time combination and enough of them will think of do something differently. That change will benefit your brand. 

Pause for just a moment, because there’s quite a lot going on in that last little bit. 

Space and time

Firstly, you’re buying a “space” and “time”. Now, put aside the fact that it makes you think of Doctor Who. Or is that just us? 

When it comes to the “space”, the media product itself occupies a space in the world. But it’s not a space you really can tangibly touch. 

The media product you buy is not tangible in the way that the coffee you bought this morning is. Or those new sweatpants you’ve got your eye on. You can touch those. They’re tangible and concrete.  

Blank Billboard seen from the ground against a clear cloudy sky

You might see a TV ad, or a digital banner or a search result in context. But actually, you only see your own individual instance of the media placement. You don’t see the way it’s served to the rest of your target audience. Only they see and experience it, and again as individuals, not as the sum of all its parts. 

And yes, maybe with a print ad, or a billboard you could tangibly ‘touch’ the advert. But again, you only get to see your own individual instance of the media placement. Not those of the actual audience. 

And then there’s the fact, that your advertising only occupies that space for a fixed amount of time. The 14 day outdoor billboard, the 30 second TV slot, or the three second online video view. And then it’s gone, used up, never to exist again. It’s transitory. 

It’s this intangible and transitory nature of media that is the first answer to why media buying is weird. Because how can you plan, buy or sell something that you never really see, touch or experience? And that only exists at a specific point in time, never to be repeated? 

Well that brings us on to our second reason for why media buying is weird. 


We’ve worked with many different media agencies and people who work in media planning and buying.

By and large, they’re a fun group of people (more of which in a second) who bring a different type of knowledge to your business.

But let’s be honest. If you don’t work directly in media planning and buying, the whole industry gives off the same whiff you get from car sales showrooms. 

Because, let’s be even more honest, media planning and buying is heavily focussed on sales.

Young man standing in Times Square at night looking up the bright media advertising billboards

It’s because the product they sell is so intangible and transitory. There’s a constant pressure to sell, because once that space and time has gone, it’s never coming back. 

Which brings us to the second reason why media buying is weird. And it’s that so many media people spend so much of their time trying to convince you it’s something more than it actually is. 

Justify your existence

And when we mean, ‘spend so much of their time’, we really, really mean spend so much of their time.

Of all the different types of marketing agencies, media agencies seem to spend the most time justifying their existence. (Though market research agencies can run them a close second).  

In our experience, at least once a year, there’ll be a review meeting between the media agency senior schmoozer and the client head marketing honcho.

And with the same certainty that Donald Trump’s tweets will cause widespread offence, there’ll be a proposal that the media agency needs to ‘train’ the client team better when it comes to media planning and buying. Absolutely guaranteed. 

Which generally ends up in a full day media training session. With hundreds of Powerpoint slides. And the minute details of the media landscape, the media process, the latest media jargon, what the agency does and why everything costs as much as it does.


We’ve sat through so many of these. And to be honest, we do wonder who they’re for. Not the client head honcho. They hardly ever attend. Or if they do, it’s a 5 minute “rah-rah” speech at the start and then they disappear off. 

To be honest, most clients don’t really care about most of that stuff. That’s why they hire experts from a media agency to do it. What they do care about is how media buying can grow their business. And that bit is where most media agencies really struggle to tell a good story. 

Media Post Campaign Analysis

In fact, generally the only thing worse than a media planning training day, is the media post campaign analysis session.

Because at that, you suddenly get bombarded with pages and pages of graphs, trend lines, and generic buzzword bullet points.

But somehow these never, ever seem to say the media agency didn’t do as good a job as they could.

Funny, that.

Business meeting round with a man presenting in front of a screen to 5 colleagues

At best, you might get an acknowledgement that some placements underperformed. And that they’ve negotiated bonus placements to make up the difference.

But this is a little like eating a terrible meal at a restaurant, complaining and then being given an extra free terrible desert and coffee afterwards. 

While it’s important to review performance as part of your marketing plan, it’s often done in a way that suits the agency and not you. Media teams rarely make a clear link to your sales and profits

That’s not a good thing because it’s YOUR money. So, like we say, media buying is weird. 

But we’re not quite done yet.

The relationship side of media buying is weird

Because despite the death by Powerpoint nature of most media agency planning meetings (and don’t even get us started on the damn media schedule spreadsheets), the really weird thing about media buying is how much of it depends on relationships and who you know. 

In our experience, the type of people it attracts and who go far in the industry really lean towards the extrovert side of the spectrum. There’s so many meetings, events and happenings in the media world, that it’s a socialiser’s dream.

Two women clinking white wine glasses together at an sunny outside cafe

And it gets even worse when your media agency wants you to start meeting the media sales team from media suppliers. Some of those meetings can be awful.

And that’s just the official networking. There’s also the unofficial side.

We’re pretty certain that the most profitable pubs and cafes in any city are the ones you find near media planning agencies. 

Because, when they are not writing mega long Powerpoint decks or incredibly complicated media schedules, that’s where most media buying types seem to spend most of their time.

To be fair, if that’s what it takes to get the work done, it’s not the worst thing in the world. 

Conclusion - media buying is weird

Remember, as the client, your media spend is the largest part of your marketing budget. And the fact that the people responsible for spending that live in a world of overcompensating details or a high adrenalin social whirl, well, that’s not normal. 

Yep, for sure, the world of media buying is weird. 

Check out our guides to media planning and digital media planning to find out more. Or contact us if you need help navigating through the weirdness. 

Photo credits

Blank billboard : Photo by Kate Trysh on Unsplash

Night time billboards : Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Business meeting : Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

Two women clinking wine glasses together : Photo by Zan on Unsplash

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