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The world of media buying is weird

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Why read this? : We look at media buying, the marketing activity where you normally spend the most money. Learn what makes much of what goes on in this area so weird. We go through how to deal with some of the key challenges you run into. Read this to learn how to get more out of your media buying.

As we were recently updating our media planning and digital media guides. we couldn’t help thinking how weird media buying is. 

First, there’s the product you buy, when you buy media. It’s kinda weird, because it’s not what you normally think of as a product. It’s intangible. You can’t really touch it. And it’s transient. Once you “use” it, it’s gone for ever. 

Then, there’s the people who work in media buying (and don’t even get us started on media sales teams). They’re quite weird too. They spend a lot of time trying to justify what they do. They share lots of detail about media. Often, way too much detail. 

And finally, there’s the whole relationship side of media buying. Much of what happens isn’t based on logical decision-making, but on relationships. 

The "product" of media buying

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

You assume the right people will see that space / time combo, and enough of them will react to it, that you’ll see some benefit for your brand. More awareness. More trial. Maybe, just maybe, it’ll even drive sale? 

But let’s just pause a second. Because it’s a bit more complicated than it seems.

Space and time

First, you’re buying “space” and “time”. That all sounds a bit Doctor Who, right? Or is that just us? 

The “space” you buy isn’t really something you can touch. It’s intangible. 

You might be able to see an example billboard, or print advert. But you won’t be able to see the thousand billboards, or hundred thousand magazines your advert will appear in.

And on screen-based adverts – TV or digital – it’s even less touchable. Less tangible.

Blank Billboard seen from the ground against a clear cloudy sky

Media isn’t tangible like the coffee you bought this morning. Or those new work-from-home sweatpants you’ve got your eye on. You can touch those. They’re tangible and concrete.  

At best, you only have your own individual experience of the media placement. You don’t experience it as most of your target audience experience it.

Plus, that advert only occupies that space for a fixed amount of time. The 14 day billboard. The 30 second TV slot. Or the 3 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’s part of why media buying is weird. Because how can you plan, buy or sell something you never properly touch? And which only exists at a specific point in time, never to be repeated? 

Well, that brings us on to the next reason why media buying is weird. 


We’ve worked with many different media agencies, and people who work in media 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 buying, the whole industry gives off the same whiff you get from used car showrooms. 

Because, let’s be honest, media 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 gone forever. 

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

Justify your existence

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

Of all the different types of 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, there’s always a review meeting between the media agency senior schmoozer and the client head marketing honcho, at least once a year.

And with the same certainty that Donald Trump’s tweets will cause widespread offence, there’ll be a proposal 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. 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, then getting 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 which suits the agency, 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 get us started on bloody media schedule spreadsheets), the really weird thing about media buying is how much it depends on relationships. On 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, it’s a socialiser’s dream.

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

And it gets even worse when the 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 the most profitable pubs and cafes in any city are the ones near media agencies

Because, when they aren’t writing mega long Powerpoint decks or incredibly complex 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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