Confessions of a media buyer: ‘Nobody wants to rock the boat’

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Media buyers may be the most frustrated people in digital advertising right now. In our latest confessions, in which we trade anonymity for honesty, we spoke to a senior media buyer at a major agency about why client education is such an uphill battle.

What about advertising frustrates you most right now?
For me, the biggest barrier to great work right now is digital planning. It’s completely based on what you did last time. Which isn’t right. For every plan, we basically take what we did last time and then update it. That’s especially frustrating for someone like me, who is always fighting for recognition.

Has programmatic advertising exacerbated the problem?
Yes. It’s not that folks aren’t informed about how shit banner ads are. It’s more that they don’t want to poke the bear. Everyone is just comfortable pointing to, “My colleague saw the banner ad, so I know it happened.” Nobody wants to rock the boat and ask: “What are we really doing here?”

So whose fault is that — agency or client?
The circle jerk works because the metric the client is selling into their organization is views, clicks, or something similarly airy. So then we reverse-engineer that with X amount of dollars we spend programmatically. But nobody wants to dig into if those were meaningful indicators of success. Clicks are not business outcomes. The tendency is to stay there and not take the next step.

Which is what?
Throw out the plan and lead clients to something new. That requires education or requires them to do something they may not be ready to do, like build an attribution model. Now we’re talking real work. Especially at bigger agencies where you have years of legacy thinking.

OK, so why is it so difficult to educate clients?
There are clients that  have multiple agency relationships. So you have to educate the client, but that means you have to educate the other agencies. We’re a media agency. It’s hard to educate creative agencies. And on the client side, even a smart CMO won’t cut it; the CEO has to buy in. Another thing that’s important here is if you look at some of the CPG organizations, they’re tied to TV because there was a formula worked out in 1956 or whatever that shows if you spend X, you get Y. It’s like their bible. They’re not letting go of that. So these are dozens of brand managers clutching these formulas, and even a progressive CMO can’t change it. It’s our failure as agencies that we can’t come back and say, “Here’s a similar formula for digital.”

I’ve heard agencies do some mild subterfuge by targeting ads to clients just so they’ll get off their backs.
Clients always complain they didn’t see ads — even when ads weren’t targeted at them. So fine. I’ll geotarget ads to their company headquarters, or to them. The TV-digital thing is so bad. Leadership at clients is rarely on social media. They’re just on Facebook. They act like digital ads don’t exist because they can’t see them. We made stuff on Facebook Stadium for one client that was enormously successful. We got them huge reach for a little money. But their perception of Stadium was that it was a failure. S0 the narrative in the company became, this was a failure, even though it wasn’t.

Why did they think Stadium failed?
They read an article in Adweek.

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