The Year Ahead for ... Media Planning

David Wilding proposes three focuses: people are not 'target audiences', data needs context and behaviour should dictate everything.

David Wilding
David Wilding

Several years ago, I knew of a bloke whose pulling technique involved pointing at a woman's chest as she walked past and guessing her bra size aloud.

If he was in media planning today (and I suspect he's more likely to be in prison), he might argue that this was bespoke targeting based on an analysis of an individual's available data.

But, in reality, he was a bit of a freak, entirely lacking in empathy and made people feel deeply uncomfortable.

Media planners would do well to be mindful of the moral of the story in the year ahead: nobody likes a creep.

Because the biggest thing we need to get to grips with in 2012 will again be how best to use the data we'll increasingly have available. While obviously hugely welcome in opening up exciting new opportunities, it's the media planner's responsibility to make sure that data is used for the good.

And, to do this, I believe that media planning should be focusing on three simple things in the year ahead: people, context and behaviour.


If media planners remember one thing this year, it should be that there are people behind every number, every click and every cost per action. Not target audiences. Diverse, complicated, emotional people trying to muddle through life the best they can.

It's more than semantics; it's a vital distinction. Because target audiences probably don't care if your sophisticated hyper-targeting follows them all over the internet long after they've bought something. People do.

Target audiences spend time on Facebook and so, logically, would want a "relationship" with brands via social media. It's just that most people seemingly don't.

Target audiences are ABC1 or 16-34 and all the cliches that come with it (and, by the way, with youth unemployment so depressingly high and the nation's wealth predominantly locked up with baby boomers, 2012 seems as good a time as ever to question media planning's preoccupation with youth). People? Well, you get the picture.

Besides, data is increasingly making a mockery of the notion of target audiences, as we see clear evidence again and again that people aren't behaving the way that demographics or focus groups dictate that they should.

Target audiences (especially those crazy 16-34s) want to adopt the very latest technology as soon as it's available. People just want things to be intuitive, simple and fun. It's devices that combine the two that will excite media planners in 2012. TiVo and Zeebox are two to watch.

But, happily, media planning seems to be beyond the stage of predicting that the emergence of one thing will lead to the death of another.

Most media can do most things in some form now, but have advantages over other media in certain contexts. Media planning needs to understand how, when and why people use what and select the right media accordingly.

Which leads us nicely on to ...


Like toast without butter, data without context can be dry and unappetising. But data in context is pure media planning heaven.

In that respect, we should all be very excited about mobile. Now, I know we've been saying this for years, but if there was ever going to be an actual year of mobile, then 2012 might just be it. By the end of the year, we're predicted to reach the tipping point where more than 50 per cent of the UK population has a smartphone. These smartphones are basically live context in your pocket and pave the way for precise location marketing, retail payments and relevant content (in the right context and with empathy, it almost goes without saying) on something approaching significant scale.

The challenge and opportunity for media planners is that how brands best take advantage of this is still very much up for grabs, but it's unlikely to be heavily based around "advertising" as we currently define it.

More broadly, context will be everywhere in a unique year for the UK. The Diamond Jubilee, double bank holidays, Euro 2012, the Olympics and the Paralympics should not only mean we all have a glass of something in our hand almost constantly this summer, but we'll seem to have more in common with each other as a nation than at any time for a while. Big, shared, uniting context will be everywhere.

Look out for our old friend "wastage" making a comeback as media planners clamour for mass audiences and universal appeal. Whether this is a one-off gig for wastage or the start of a new nationwide arena tour remains to be seen, but it's a foolish media planner who underestimates the power of the shared experience.


For media planners, we can expect this emphasis on understanding people and context to increasingly bypass attitude and go straight to behaviour.

With so many metrics now available to media planners, it has never been easier to answer the question of what media delivers in terms of actual human actions.

We can look forward to the development of the language of media planning increasingly mirroring the language of business, as terms such as "eyeballs", "coverage" and "frequency" increasingly look outmoded.

This, in turn, will place greater emphasis on media planners focusing on the right objective. I believe engagement measures such as Facebook fans will increasingly be seen as intermediate measures at best and a futile distraction at worst, unless planners can quickly articulate what impact this has on business performance (and not just for Starbucks or Coca-Cola).

Finally, we should start to see significant changes to how we undertake media research in the year ahead. Analysing claimed behaviour in desk-bound surveys or focus groups seems a strange way to truly seek to understand behaviour and context. Media planners need to don the metaphorical white coats and goggles, and take an experimental approach to research. We will be amazed at what we might discover.

There has never been a more exciting time for media planning than now, as we continue to marvel at the endless opportunities provided by the new, while enjoying the ongoing miracle of the more established. By focusing on people, context and behaviour, I fully expect 2012 will be another year of wonder and discovery for media planners everywhere.

David Wilding is the head of planning at PHD.