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The world of media buying is weird

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Why read this? : We look at what makes media buying such a weird area. Learn what media has in common with Doctor Who. Plus, why media agencies often overcompensate. Read this for a wander through the weird world of media buying.

Updating our media planning and digital media guides recently, we couldn’t help thinking about how weird media buying is. 

For a start, the media product is weird. It’s not what you normally think of as a product. You can’t really touch it. It’s temporary. And once you “use” it, it’s gone forever. 

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

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

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 your message in this space / time slot. And enough of them will notice it, to have some impact on your brand. More awareness. More trial. Maybe, it’ll even drive sales?

But let’s go through that again more slowly. Because it’s more complicated than it sounds.

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 usually 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 campaign 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 to the next reason why media buying is weird. 

The "people" of media buying

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 has the whiff of the used car showroom. That’s because media buying is heavily focused on sales. And the selling part also adds to the weirdness. 

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

There’s a constant pressure to sell as once that space and time has gone, it’s gone forever. If they don’t sell it, they lose the money they’d have got for it.

This 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. 

Overcompensating

And when we say, ‘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 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, the media agency will propose they should ‘train’ the client team on media planning and buying. Absolutely guaranteed. 

Which leads to 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.

Sigh.

We’ve sat through so many of these. And to be honest, we do wonder who they’re for. Not the client’s head honcho. They hardly ever attend. They might do a short “rah-rah” speech at the start, but that’s about it.

To be honest, most clients don’t 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 struggle to tell a good story. 

Media Post-Campaign Analysis

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

Because at that, you’re pummeled 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, they might admit some placements underperformed. And that they’ve negotiated bonus placements to make up the difference. But this is like eating a bad meal at a restaurant, complaining and then getting an extra free terrible dessert and coffee afterwards. 

While it’s important to review performance as part of your marketing plan, it’s often done in a way to suit 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 "relationships" of media buying

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 are mainly extroverts. There are 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 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 sure 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

As the client, your media spend is the largest part of your marketing budget. But weirdly, the people you trust to spend that money live in a world of overcompensating details and high adrenalin socialising. Yep, media buying is a strange old part of marketing.  

Check out our media planning and digital media planning guides for more on this. Or get in touch if you need help to normalise the media buying 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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