commercial media buying: the good, the bad, and the necessary

A big part of my work as an in house marketing manager involves deciding which publishers my company should advertise with and negotiating details like term commitments and pricing.  Although it may sound like one of the more glamerous aspects of the marketing profession (is that supposed to be funny?), my experience with media buying has revealed it to be a mixed bag that can seldom be described as such.

As a media buyer with a reasonable advertising budget at my disposal, my primary function is to serve my company’s interests by negotiating for the most high quality advertising exposure possible at the lowest cost I can manage.  This is not always easy, and like anything else in the business world, the more you can bring to the table initially, the more you tend to walk away with at the end of the day.  If you are dealing with a media representative who percieves the potential for winning a large account later down the road by granting concessions in the form of volume discounts and other value items early on, you will do well to take advantage of that perception.  You should always represent your company or your client in an honest and upfront fashion, but it never hurts to indicate you will make future buying and budget allocation decisions based on the experience you have with them on the first transaction.

In the case of a trade magazine article (who shall remain nameless) that I wrote recently, I was able to get a free profile write up as a ‘toss in’ to foster good will after agreeing to buy an innitial three month run of premium display advertising.  The rep in this case felt it would be in his own best interest to convince my company up front that his magazine appreciated our patronage by featuring us in the magazine.  A little more negotiation on my part won us the right to submit draft copy and photographs to ensure that we were portrayed in a way that was consistent with our values and branding.

Since the magazine’s primary editorial function was to spread information about members of the area business community and they reserved the right not to run the article if it wasn’t consistent with what their own writers would produce, it worked out as a perfect solution.  And a very, very good get for me as well as the company I work for.

You should never be afraid to ask for more.  It is important to be respectful and professional in your dealings with organizations when negotiating on your company or client’s behalf, however you will never stand out if you don’t take something of added value at the end of the majority of these negotiations.  Most media reps will not volunteer how much of a discount they are able or willing to give, and so you often have to tease it out of them.  Keep in mind, they almost always work on commission and whatever you manage to save for your company or client will be coming out of their paycheck.

You shouldn’t feel bad about this, however, because they know well before hand how much they are willing to give up in order to gain your business.  Your job is to deftly and tactfully feel them out and ask for what you want to make sure you maximize your value.  This translates into increased ROI (return on investment) before the advertisement is even run.  And if you’re in marketing, that’s that kind of thing your clients and bosses will look for in determining your value as a media buyer.

Ask for it if you want it.  If they aren’t willing to go where you are hoping for, use a low initial offer to bring them to some kind of compromise.  Any time you can save even a small amount of your advertising budget it will translate into immediate value that you can rightfully take credit for.  Additionally, the money you save can be spent on other advertising that will further increase your advertising ROI.

A lot of this may sound like common sense, but it is surprising how easy it is to get swept up by fast talk or vague promises from media reps if you aren’t clear from the start on how you will proceed and what you hope to end up with.  You can be prepared by gathering good information, keeping detailed records and building up the self-confidence you’ll need to negotiate shrewdly and effectively.  These are things which I only fully learned by experience and through trial and error.

When I came into my position as a Marketing Specialist in early 2006, I had to learn how to be a savvy advocate for the company’s marketing priorities with very little guidance.  The gentleman whom I was selected to replace left the company under less than ideal terms and so I was not able to benefit from the advice of an experienced marketing professional before being thrown into the stew, as it were.  One of the issues I was faced with was the malicious deletion of nearly all computer files relating to the marketing department by my predecessor.

This meant not only did I not have samples of copy, product images, important legal guidelines, corporate graphic reference materials, branding guidelines, etc., but even if I had, they would have done little good because I had no idea where we currently had advertisements running and what our commitments would be for the rest of the year.  The only reference I had to even begin finding out where to send ad copy was an excel spreadsheet containing the names of newspaper reps from two years earlier.  For the rest I was forced to cross my fingers and hope I would start getting phone calls to clue me in to who we were dealing with.  It sounds unimaginable that this kind of thing could happen at a midsized company, but that’s exactly what did happen.

Luckily, with a little hard work and a lot of patience, I was able to eventually get a coherent idea of what we had running and who to go to for updates and changes.  One of the most important lessons I learned from my first experiences in marketing was that there is nothing more important than keeping detailed, accurate, and comprehensive records with regards to media, advertising reps, pricing, contract commitments, and opportunities.  Even now, two years later, I would be unable to represent my company in a useful way without extremely detailed records to assist me and ensure that I ‘know what I’m talking about’ in any given purchasing situation.

My company has a modest advertising budget when compared to giants like Coca Cola or Nike, however with several stores spread across two states and media markets to buy in for all of them, there is more than enough to surpass my ability to recall the details of individual advertising activities without consulting my notes and records.  I have stacks of binders devoted to nothing but advertising schedules, rates, contracts, which rep to use for what, etc.  In addition to that, I have detailed computer records to track spending and monitor invoices for errors in billing.

One thing you will quickly discover if you do media buying professionally is that if you don’t watch what you’re spending, your rep will not either.  Interestingly, errors that happen invariably involve overcharging.  Most of the time this is due to legitimate oversights and billing system errors that should be expected if for no other reason than the volume of items being accounted for.  In other circumstances, it is also not unheard of for a few ‘bad apple’ media reps to attempt to pad an account if their client doesn’t watch their bills closely.  In my experience, I have had to deal with both scenarios.

Keeping good records ensures that such errors will be noticed and correctly quickly, before they become a problem.  It is important to remember that as a media buyer, at the end of the day the buck will stop with you.  It is your responsibility to know what your company or client is spending on advertising and you must be able to be confident in that role.  That confidence can only come from having records to point to as facts, and knowing that you are keeping an active eye out for value both at the initial stages of the buying process and on the follow up.  If you do it right, professional media buying can be a rewarding experience that will help you in other areas of your career and your life.  If you don’t cover all your bases, it can end up costing your job and a good share of your professional credibility.

– Ben C.