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Media planning

Why read this? : Media planning focuses on where, when and how your target audience sees your advertising. We look at how to match the 3 main media styles to your communication style. Plus, learn how to get the most out of your media agency, and how you evaluate media spend effectiveness. Read this to learn more about media planning. 

Media planning

How this guide raises your game :-

  1. Learn when to use broadcast, narrowcast and monocast media.
  2. Understand how to get the most out of the media agency. 
  3. Learn about media schedules and measuring return on ad spend.

There are 2 main parts to any advertising campaign.

First, there’s the message. It’s what you say to influence and persuade your target audience. It aims to change customer attitudes and behaviours.

Then there’s the media. It’s where, when and how this message gets in front of those customers It aims to reach customers in the right place, at the right time and in the right way.

Media is one of the biggest marketing spending areas. You need a plan for how you’ll do it, so it supports the rest of your marketing plan and brand activation.

This guide will show how media planning helps you optimise getting your message in front of the right customers.

Blank Billboard seen from the ground against a clear cloudy sky

Ready to test your knowledge?

What’s your starting level of knowledge about media planning?

Take the 2 minute, 5 question Three-Brains media planning quiz and see how much you know about media planning already.

Media planning in the advertising development process

In an ideal world, you write one brief which covers both your advertising message and media planning needs.

You should have a combined briefing session with your advertising agency and media agency as they need to work together to answer the brief. (See our how to advertise guide for more on this).

They should also present their response back to you together (the proposal). Most agencies are used to working this way. Message and media should come together and tell a clear overall story.

The proposal should answer the key questions in the brief so you get a relevant, impactful and unique integrated plan.

The advertising development process - a guide on how to advertise successfully

The media planning key question

The key question the media element of the proposal / plan needs to answer is this :-

“Are we reaching the right people in a meaningful way, at an efficient cost conveying what we want to convey?”.

The media agency’s responsibility is where, when and how the message will be delivered. As per our why media buying is weird article, they’re buying space and time for your message. But they clearly need to know what message goes into that space and time. That’s why the 2 agencies must work closely together. Where and when a message appears impacts how customers perceive it. Message and media combine to produce an overall effect. You can use a tool like the Communication Style : Media Style Matrix to understand this effect.

The Communication Style : Media Style Matrix

This matrix model lets you look at how involved customers are in the media – the communication style. And how efficiently you target – the media style.

Communication style

The communication style relates to the advertising message. It can be split into 3 different styles based on the level of customer involvement.

Where there’s low involvement by the customer, they don’t interact with the advertising message. They passively receive it. It’s all one-way. This is called a monologue communication style.

Communication - Media Style matrix Step 1

However, if the customer does have to interact with the message, say answering a call to action, this is known as a response communication style.

And where there’s high involvement, this is called a dialogue communication style. For example, where it drives multiple interactions e.g. with a CRM program or subscription service

Media style

There are also 3 different options in the media style, based on the level of targeting efficiency.

When you try to reach as many people as possible and don’t worry about targeting efficiency, that’s broadcast media. If however, you want to focus on reaching only the right audience and be more efficient with your media, that’s narrowcast media. And if you want to target very specific customers or segments, that’s monocast media. 

Combining communication style and media style then gets you to one of these options :-

  • Broad.
  • Focused.
  • Individual. 


This is where the communication style is monologue and there’s less need for media targeting efficiency. This is the traditional view of mass advertising. The aim is for your message to reach as many people as possible.

Categories and brands which have mass appeal use this mix often. Think supermarkets, banks, cars, food and drink brands, for example. 

Broadcast media channels include :- 

  • TV (free-to-air channels)
  • outdoor
  • print (newspapers and general interest magazines)
  • cinema
  • commercial radio channels. 
Communication - Media Style matrix Step 2

These channels are most commonly used when the brief‘s objective is to drive awareness. They get the message “out there”. Customers generally can’t interact or engage directly with these channels.

The advertising message is repeated over time so more people see it (the reach). And they see it several times (the frequency). Reach and frequency are important media planning terms we’ll come back to shortly. 

These channels usually have very specific advertising formats and specifications.

For example, TV or radio channels only accept certain lengths of advertising (15, 30 or 60 seconds, for example). Print channels often specify advertising dimensions like height, width and colour.

However, many of these traditional channels now offer extra options to remain competitive against more flexible digital media channels. So, options like sponsoring a TV show with bumper ads which appear at either end of an ad break. Or wrap-around adverts which go around the outside cover of the magazine, for example. 

It’s the media agency‘s job to manage all this for you. They deal directly with media owners and media sales teams. They use their expertise to recommend the best ways to hit your media reach objectives.


In this advertising and media combination, the message’s aim is usually further down the brand choice funnel at consideration and trial. You want to make the media placement more relevant

The message will usually be more specific, targeted and persuasive. It’ll have a clearer call to action.

The media spend becomes more efficient. It targets more specific customer segments. Groups who share a common media behaviour and interest. With broadcast, you reach a lot of people who won’t be interested. With narrowcast, you eliminate a lot of this media ‘wastage’.

Take TV channels, for example. Free-to-air channels are viewable by anyone. They contain a broad range of different types of TV shows. News, sport, entertainment, documentaries, reality shows and so on.

But compare that to most satellite or cable TV channels. Their content is more likely to be focused on specific topic areas. TV channels which only focus on food and drink. Or sport. Or history.

If your product relates to one of those topic areas, you can focus your media spend on these channels. You’re more likely to find an interested audience. The same principle applies to specialist print titles and digital radio channels.

Narrowcast - Locations and events

The narrowcast and response combination can also work well around specific outdoor locations and events.

Let’s say your offer is only available in Sydney, for example. An outdoor billboard in high-traffic areas like Circular Quay or Central Station would get a more specific audience of people who pass those locations. Say, compared to a TV campaign or a broader billboard campaign across the whole country.

It’s the same principle for specific events.

For example, look at seasonal events such as Christmas, Easter and Mother’s Day. You can focus on specific audiences at those times.

These types of narrowcast media placements can also work where they’re part of a regular fixed event like the finals of sports tournaments.

Or part of a planned campaign of events like a music tour.

Or even one-off PR events organised by the advertiser, like a launch party for a new product.

Screengrab of Woolworths Mothers Day promotion including pictures of chocolates, a teddy bear and toiletries


In this final box, you find more of a one-to-one connection between the advertiser and the customer. These are channels which enable a direct conversation to take place. The customer is highly engaged. Their experience is that they have a one-to-one conversation with ‘the brand’.

In reality though, most of these conversations are relatively automated with marketing technology

Automated systems like website interactions, social media posting, e-mail and CRM programs create a feeling that you’re getting a personalised experience.

But in many cases, you’re choosing from a pre-selected list of options. That makes it easier for the business to manage the process.  

Communication - Media Style matrix Step 3

These are highly efficient from a media planning point of view. Customers also like them because the experience feels more personalised and relevant. These channel types work best when the challenge is to drive trial and loyalty towards the end of the brand choice funnel. 

Digital media channels

Many of these one-to-one channels are digital media channels. For smaller and newer brands in particular, these types of digital media channels such as search, social media and online display advertising are often better managed in-house too.

There’s often no cost-saving booking digital media through agencies. With traditional media channels, media agencies can often negotiate discounts. But, with companies like Google and Facebook, the price is done through auctions.

Plus, these tech companies have set up their Ad Manager systems to make them relatively easy to use and accessible to non-specialist users. 

Digital media channels for monocast and dialogue approaches help you get to market faster. Or to test concepts at low spend levels, as we do with our shop.

However, digital media can be a cluttered and competitive space. For larger brands digital may not always offer the scale which traditional channels offer.

Instagram post saying No Network cables? Thank Dr John O'Sullivan and the team at CSIRO - with a picture of a woman wearing a T-shirt that shows a WiFi symbol and the words Australian Invention

Media planning choice

There’s no single “best” media channel. Which media channel or channels you choose in your media planning depends on your marketing and communication challenges outlined in the brief.

When the media agency responds to your initial brief, you should review which combination of broadcast, narrowcast or monocast best meets your needs.

And then review the media channels which sit under each of those media styles. 

This can often be the most challenging part of media planning. There are many media channels to choose from.

Question mark spray painted onto a tree trunk among a wood of trees

On the positive side, this media fragmentation means the supply of media space often exceeds the demand. This puts you or your agency in a strong negotiating position when you buy media. Media sales teams will often try to make their pricing more competitive so you choose them over other media owners. 

On the negative side though, it can be difficult to compare so many options to work out the best plan.

Even within the 15 channels in our diagram above, think how many individual media companies and publishers sit under each of those channels. 

In many cases, this is why bigger businesses hire media agencies. Media agencies specialise in understanding all these channels and media owners. They make expert recommendations on the best media planning mix. 

Media Agency Role

The media agency expertise usually covers 3 key areas :- 

  • data and insight about media behaviours. 
  • build media plans which deliver reach and frequency for your campaigns.
  • negotiate the best media rate and book and manage the placement of the campaigns.

We’ll give a brief overview of each area. See our how to get the most out of your media agency article for more detail.

Media - Data and insights

In simple terms, you base your choice of media channel on the data you have about that channel. That data tells you if you’ll reach the right target audience, for example. It’ll also tell you when and where that audience will be able to see your advertising. 

The media supplier’s sales team and the media agency will be able to gather data on each channel and match it to the customer profile in your brief.

They’ll also be able to look at the cost of placing those adverts in those media channels and calculate where and when the most customers (the reach) will see your advertising the most often (the frequency). 

Person holding glasses in front of them against a blurry street background

Media - Reach and frequency

Reach is how many people in your target audience will see your advert at least one time. Reach is important as it gives a sense of the scale of the media coverage. You can’t guarantee reach will lead to a sale. But you can guarantee an advert which doesn’t reach a customer will have no impact.

Frequency is how often they will see the advertising. Frequency is important as seeing an advert once is usually not enough to convince customers to buy. They usually need to see an advert several times for it to have an impact.

This frequency number is also sometimes referred to as Opportunities To See (OTS). 1+ OTS reach for example is the number of people who see the advert more than once. Whereas 4+ OTS is the number of people who see the advert more than 4 times. (A frequency / OTS of between 4 and 7 is pretty standard for most campaigns).

GRPs and TARPs

Often the media agency will multiply the reach and frequency to give you a total number of advertising exposures. Often called GRP or Gross Ratings Points.

Sometimes this number is converted to TARPS – or Target Audience Rating Points. This is the percentage of an audience that viewed at a given time. 

It’s important to understand these terms as they’re used to calculate the cost of the media placement. Higher GRPs or TARPS cost more. You can use these numbers to compare the scale of your media coverage against previous campaigns. Or against competitor media campaigns. (As they’ll likely buy media in similar places to you).

The media agency should also propose the optimal flighting for the campaign. Flighting is the pattern or shape of the media spend over the campaign’s duration. For example, you can spend more at the start of a campaign, and then let it tail off. Or spread spend evenly over the whole campaign. Or ‘pulse’ the campaign to run more in some weeks and less in others.

Which flighting will work best depends on your marketing and communication objectives. The category and target audience dynamics will also play a role. And you should also consider how new the message is, and what competitors are likely to be doing. 

Negotiating and booking media

There are 2 remaining jobs for the media agency. They have to talk to the media sales team of the media suppliers and negotiate how much media coverage you’ll get for your spend. Their job is to get you the most reach and frequency for your media spend. 

As they buy media for many clients, they’ll use this buying power to try to get better deals out of media suppliers.

Once fees are agreed (usually along with reach and frequency targets), next comes booking the media. This starts with a formal admin task where you have to review the media placements on a media schedule. 

Person holding 6 hundred dollar bills in front of them which have been set alight

There’s also usually a Media Booking Authorisation form. You sign off the schedule and the form. Plus, you include payment confirmation, such as a PO number. This is important as the media agency wants to know they’ll get paid. It’s normally them who pay the media company, and then you pay the agency. The timing of payments should be part of your contract with them. We cover contractual terms and conditions in our marketing agencies guide. 

Your main focus should be on the media schedule. It’s the detailed plan on where, when and how your adverts will appear. It’s vital you understand how to review it.

The media schedule

The media schedule is usually a spreadsheet. It covers both media channels and specific placements. For example, you’ll see on which TV channels and in which TV programmes / timeslots your media will appear.

If it’s digital media, it’ll include website details (at a page level) and impressions.

If it’s a physical placement (e.g. in a magazine or on a billboard), you’ll get details of locations and timing. 

The media schedule may look slightly different depending on the media agency, but normally covers these areas :-

The media schedule - an example

1. Campaign headlines

This should include the date and version of the schedule, the name of the media agency, client and campaign, and the start and end date of the campaign. It should also include the total campaign budget.

2. Media Owner and Channel

Each advertising placement should specify the media owner, and which channel the advert will appear in. Note, that this can include multiple channels and some media owners may own multiple channels.

3. Detailed ad placement including audience and geographic coverage

This section should include the details of each advertising placement including the target audience and the geographic coverage. This will include the different ad formats (e.g. 15s, 30s or 60s TV or a full page vs half page print or digital ad). Each placement should be listed separately. Geography should specify whether national, regional or focused on specific cities or districts. The media agency should provide a separate key to explain any abbreviations they use.

4. Formats and specifications

With each advertising placement listed separately, the specifications for each e.g. time or height and width dimensions, should be noted.

5. Objectives and measurement

These should reiterate the ad’s objective and how it’ll be measured. For example, reach might be measured on a CPM or Cost Per Thousand basis. Conversions might measured on a CPC or Cost Per Click basis.

6. Budget

Covers the spend per placement.

7. Timing

Should include the start and end date of each placement, when it’ll be measured and reported and a schedule so the client can clearly see when the ad will appear. This is usually done by week. 

Some channels like TV and digital allow you to capture data about how ads are performing in relatively real time. It’s part of the media agency‘s role to track this type of data and use it to optimise placements.  If a particular TV show isn’t delivering the promised ratings or a particular website the promised visitor numbers, the media agency should be able to negotiate a readjustment so you get the reach you paid for. 

Media planning and Return on Advertising Spend

It’s likely that outside production or staff costs, media will be the single biggest expense in the business. So, it’s worth being close to how you spend your media money and understand the Return on Investment (ROI). 

You should have set clear goals and measures in your brief to determine if a media spend has delivered. 

For example, how many more units do you need to sell to cover the cost of the media spend?

If you spend $1m on advertising but only generate $100k in profit, then clearly that’s not great.

Glass jar knocked over on floor with coins spilled out onto the floor

Your Return on Advertising Spend is the extra profit from sales that was generated while your advertising was running. You should be able to compare the level of sales BEFORE the advertising spend with the level of sales DURING the advertising spend. It’s also important to analyse whether your advertising only drives short-term sales or also delivers a longer-term return. (See our advertising impact on sales and profits article for more on this). 

For example, advertising around a PR event or sales promotion usually only works short-term. But more brand-building type advertising often has a longer-term sales impact. You should go back to your original objectives when you measure the effectiveness of your media spend. Analyse the results and look for correlations to build your learning of what the best measures are for your next campaign.

Digital media is a good place to start

It’s for that reason we like digital media as a good place to start in media planning.

You can go into those channels with relatively small investments and see what works and what doesn’t.

The data is readily available and it’s usually particularly attributable as digital media by definition invites interaction. A click, a like or a purchase. 

You can analyse this digital data and look for correlations and trends in your sales and customer numbers. You’re looking for what works and what doesn’t, so you can do better next time. 

Scrabble tiles spelling out Digital Marketing laid out on a wooden table

Conclusion - media planning

Media planning can feel complex, especially with bigger campaigns. There are so many media suppliers and a lot of terminology and processes to work through. The key is to stay focused on the media planning core question. “Are we reaching the right people in a meaningful way at an efficient cost conveying what we want to convey?”.

It’s only as you learn what your target audience (the right people) responds to (in a meaningful way) that you improve your media planning. Test digital campaigns so you can start to build these insights

Then you can start to spend more smartly (at an efficient cost) in broader digital and traditional media channels to grow your business. Which at the end of the day should be your over-arching business objective for media planning and buying.

Three-Brains and media planning

We’ve worked on many marketing communications projects, including media planning. We can help you connect media back to building your brand and growing your sales. Get in touch to learn how our coaching and consulting services can help you raise your media planning game.

To achieve clear and consistent marketing communications, the first step is pulling together a clear brief for everyone involved in creating your activity.

That includes key elements of your target audience understanding and brand identity as well as stating your business and project goals. 

Download our blank template with accompanying notes to get you started on the process of creating a great marketing communications brief. 

Download it here or from our resources section. 

PowerPoint and Keynote versions of this document available on request. 

Marketing Communication brief - blank template
Click to download the pdf

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