Celebrate Like It's 1986

By Thought Leaders Archives
Cover image for  article: Celebrate Like It's 1986

The Mets have an uphill battle to return to the World Series this year. It would be their sixth appearance ever and a chance to even their record at 3-3. Their last win was 1986 and the team, and baseball, have changed dramatically since then. What else has changed in the past 30 years? Among other things, the U.S. population has grown by more than 82 million to 323 million and the first class stamp went from 22 cents to 47 cents. What hasn't changed? The Media Flow Chart!

Of course, in 1986 there was no Excel spreadsheet to help create the format in seconds. Microsoft's Office 1.0 didn't debut until 1990. Many of us (politely) asked a friendly art director at our full service agency to please draw one. Sometimes, our secretaries did it with a ruler and thin marker (borrowed from that friendly art director). Remember secretaries?

So, the design of the flow chart hasn't changed -- but what about the content? In 1986 the new medium was cable. Typically, a national media flow chart included network TV and magazines with the months or weeks scheduled (colored by hand) inside the boxes (today's cells). We showed GRPs and cost by flight and/or total -- depending on the client. We added up the cost in the Totals column to the far right and showed the target audience reach/frequency. Then we had a row well below that line titled "cable." Yup, we didn't really know what else to do with it since the ratings were so low, if at all. Most of us included cable because we felt we should for any number of logical and sometimes illogical reasons. But, it had to be separate from real TV and print (thus it couldn't be included in the reach/frequency calculations). So, we colored in a row during the appropriate weeks and put a dollar amount against it. That budgeted amount was often determined by how much was left from the real media budget or what was spent the prior year. Budgeting for cable was that strategic. Then, we added the cable spend to the TV and magazine budgets (but not the reach and frequency, of course) and had a grand total spend. Pretty sophisticated weren't we, circa 1986?

Today's flow chart looks exactly the same if we substitute "digital" for "cable." That's right, today we treat digital the same way we did cable thirty years ago. While today's rationale is 180 degrees from where it was 30 years ago -- digital research is so much richer, why would we use anything as ancient as GRPs? -- the result is the same. So, why indeed has nothing really changed in 30 years when it comes to developing strategic media plans incorporating both traditional and new media types? As an industry, shouldn't we be striving to develop a media strategy that integrates state of the art data, analytics and thinkingso that clients benefit from all the tools available? Are clients truly benefitting when agencies continue to plan and measure established media elements separately? Are we really as innovative and brilliant as we say when we essentially haven't changed in 30 years?

Today's media specialists use analytics techniques similar to the planners of 1986. (Very broadly) just like in 1986 they examine the media consumption patterns of the target audience often using at least some form of syndicated research. Today's media specialists develop a media strategy and execute that strategy when the client will benefit most from the lowest pricing model. They will buy the media using the most appropriate research measurement tool specific to that medium.

Inside that process media professionals learned to accept with the leap of faith required at various points. First, since we cannot always identify the exact target audience, we take a leap of faith. (We know our core target shampoos 3+ times per week but MRI only lists 2+ or 4+.) Our media plan, utilizing syndicated data (and perhaps other, proprietary insights), shows we will achieve a 3+ reach of 85% and an average frequency of 5.2 of whichever imperfect target we choose. When comparing that to client tracking research from prior years it is determined that the plan meets the threshold of positive ROI. Since TV or radio cannot be purchased against the planning target (2+ weekly shampooers), we take another leap of faith and translate the plan into the purchasing currency: Women 18-49 GRPs. So, while all the research and analytics is focused on maximizing a strategy against what is almost the target, the very significant budget is eventually committed with a razor sharp focus on reaching an even broader audience of Women 18-49 -- because that's the one that can be measured. As an industry, we have been taking leaps of faith for a very long time.

In 1981 Walter E. Reichel, Senior Vice President and Executive Director of the media-programming department at Ted Bates & Company, the sixth largest U.S. agency at the time, shocked the industry by announcing he convinced his clients to transfer 5% of their network prime time budgets to WTBS (now TBS), the nation's first superstation. At its foundation, the agency took that leap of faith because Reichel and his research team examined the Nielsen data and determined that the broadcast networks were under-delivering in cable homes. (In 1981 that was 34% of all U.S. TV households, by the way.) Reichel didn't have actual ratings in cable homes and in fact it was the drop in viewership in pay cable homes that precipitated this blockbuster announcement. But, he did it. The sixth largest agency in the U.S. with blue chip clients like Avis, Colgate, RJR Nabisco, Prudential, General Foods and Xerox took a leap of faith. They made a recommendation they felt was in the best interest of their clients based upon the best data available and their experience and insights. Wow!

So then, why is it that today's agency analytics/research teams are unwilling to take a similar but much less risky leap of faith when it comes to analyzing/buying traditional and digital media with the same currency? Why are we relegated to the flow chart of 1986? The answer I hear from agencies is that digital data is so much more granular that targets can be dissected and metrics can be created so even the smallest detail can be filtered. That's good news. Actually, it's great news! But, digital data is not without flaws. From viewability to non-human impressions to completion rates, how are they measured? Should it change from client to client or be one standard? Should it be video specific?

I know the industry is working on developing answers to those questions, and more. But while think tanks are gazing into the future, can we take a leap of faith back to 1986 and plan traditional and digital media together? Isn't it time for the agency research/analytic teams that regularly amaze clients with their ability to create, identify and manipulate data to please work with the media teams and use those skills to find a way for media strategists to develop truly integrated media plans?

The opinions and points of view expressed in this commentary are exclusively the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of MediaVillage.com/MyersBizNet, Inc. management or associated bloggers.

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