The Year Ahead for ... Media Planning

Toby Roberts says a role that is becoming ever more broad and complex has never been more important to a brand's prospects.

The past couple of years have been a great time for media planning, but not for media planners. The rise of the specialist, both agencyand client-side, with their own agendas and key performance indicators, seems to be accelerating a sort of "unbundling" of marketing communications into a series of unconnected disciplines. Within this context, media planners, as generalists with a working knowledge of all media, may struggle to keep up with the complexity of the landscape they must make sense of. Taking the broader view has never been more of a challenge.

On the other hand, the global financial meltdown of 2008 has intensified the focus on price paid. Placing a value on the "thinking", difficult at the best of times, has now become an urgent issue that needs to be resolved. A tricky business indeed.

Yet the backdrop to this is that media planning has never been more exciting, more full of possibility, more necessary. The past few years have seen a transformation in the way people receive, consume and create "media". This has changed a comparatively straightforward job into a rather more tricky one.

So, what does all this mean for media planning in 2011? Well, first: expect more of the same. The scope of the media planner's job will continue to broaden as media multiplies. To complicate matters further, the vast majority of these new opportunities cannot be simply added to an increasingly long list of media "touchpoints". Increasingly, they are demanding new techniques of communication. Techniques we will have to be familiar with. And I haven't even started on the new data tools and research methodologies.

But we need to do more than keep up. In fact, my hope for 2011 is that media planners come out fighting a bit more. Get a bit of swagger back. Now, more than ever, good media planning can make or break a brand. Not only that, but media planners are responsible for huge client investment. We decide where the money goes. We've got to reframe the conversation to be about top-line business growth, not the bottom line. We've got to become the finance director's best friend.

So that's the goal for 2011. Here are four things we need to do first:

Broaden our interests and resources

The ubiquity of "paid, owned, earned" has announced the media planner's ambition - everything's media and therefore our domain. Terrific. To make this stick, we've got to really understand everything that influences people as they make a purchase decision. We need to be as comfortable talking about brand behaviour and retail behaviour as we are talking about media behaviour.

We're working with a host of different partners, from media owners to academic institutions, not to mention our own internal resources, such as our econometric and business intelligence teams, to broaden our knowledge and opinion across the whole range of paid, owned and earned media.

This will allow us to walk the walk - to select the opportunities and spot the links across the whole of this new media landscape and create the best frameworks for ideas to succeed.

Get comfortable with uncertainty

The symmetry of paid-for media - the linear relationship between money in and impact delivered - is all but disappearing. Huge incremental impact can now be delivered with little or no "media" budget attached. This makes it attractive to marketers, but tough to plan because it is based on assumptions - how this sponsorship will work in social, what effect that will have on natural search, how we can then adjust our pay-per-click investment etc. And these assumptions could be wrong.

Given this, plans now need to be based on "if, then" thinking. Instead of being based on a sequence of certain actions, set in stone from the minute they're signed off, plans are now based on a set of probabilities. We know the end goal, but we also know there are different routes to get there and, depending on how people respond and involve themselves, we'll evolve and change course as it develops.

Be clear what can be optimised

And what can't

Dashboards, ad-exchanges, "real-time" planning. All are here, all are real, all are improving the efficiency with which we run campaigns. The growth in data and in our capability to use it lies behind much recent talk of planning around "behaviour" - around what people do, rather than what they think - because data about behaviour is now everywhere: searches, views, "likes" and so on.

We've got to be careful, though. Our job is not to shift media behaviours like these. Our job is to shift brand behaviour, retail behaviour, purchasing behaviour. And while media behaviour can, and should, be optimised, they are only ever interim measures.

So, in 2011, I'd like to see less focus on "what" and more focus on "why". This means more investment in tools and research, testing and learning, reactive implementation, and automation in the day-to-day running of campaigns. And all of this frees up our time to concentrate on the why. To take all of this data about what people are doing and to use it to dig a bit deeper. This is important because human motivation is complex and messy and can't be reduced to a set of rules. If we really are moving into the age of consumer capitalism, the only way for companies to truly grow is to understand their customers better than anybody else. We must lead this charge.

Change our output

I have huge belief in, and ambition for, media planning and where it will go next. It will become more comprehensive, more imaginative and more accountable. But there is still something fundamental that holds us back - the media plan. The Excel spreadsheet that shows what is appearing when, how many people will be exposed to it and what it will all cost. This is all vital information but the traditional plan, bizarrely, utterly fails to capture the essence of a modern-day media campaign. Discreet lines, marked "social" or "PPC", running for a full 52 weeks of the year are useless in expressing what we're trying to achieve.

I've no idea what will replace the "media plan". Maybe the media plan for each individual campaign will be as unique as the creative work that goes along with it - coloured blocks on a spreadsheet are not the way to communicate, never mind celebrate, the importance of media thinking.

Good luck in 2011, media planners. I've got high hopes.

Toby Roberts is the head of strategy at OMD UK.