A few years ago, I wrote an article for iMedia Connection called "Burn out in ad operations." The gist of the article was that ad traffickers on the publisher side are the unsung and underappreciated heroes in ad operations. Care and cultivation of the trafficker as a most-valuable-player is vital to a publisher's business -- so show them some love, please.
Having now been immersed in both the publisher and agency side of ad operations and digital media over the last few years, I'd like to apply the same sentiments to the role of the digital media planner at the ad agency, who often crosses over into ad ops territory. Here's why they deserve more respect:
- Planners must be efficient multi-taskers, fielding and negotiating proposals from multiple publishers. They must match their client's objectives with the audience characteristics of each publisher. They need to understand sophisticated ad formats and map them to the publisher's capabilities. And they need to have the good sense to understand the relationship between granular targeting and a publisher's ability to apply sufficient reach in ad inventory.
- The process of consolidating multiple proposals from publishers into a single media plan is primitive and in many cases consists of cutting and pasting multiple spreadsheets together in preparation for review with a client. Having worked literally around the world with ad agencies over the last two years, I can safely say that this inefficiency is a universal language.
- In some agencies, the planner is also the buyer and the production coordinator between creative agencies producing ad units. This is in addition to acting as the client who must approve those ad units. This requires the planner to get involved in the technical aspects of creative that they may not have been adequately trained in, such the integration of clickTAGs in flash files. In some agencies, the planner also doubles as the trafficker. This forces the planner into having to learn and apply technical skills associated with entering campaigns in ad servers, generating ad tags, and troubleshooting with publishers. For those of you who work in publisher ad operations -- how many of the sales associates are also ad traffickers? That's right, "zero." And yet, at some agencies, planners are asked to combine the strategic skills of planning with the technical skills of trafficking.
- For many agencies, the entire process of managing digital media is typified by manual entry of data into multiple applications (e.g., audience management databases, media planning tools, spreadsheets, ad servers, and billing platforms). It is not unheard of to have each of these components require manual rekeying of data.
- There is no rest for the planner. When budgets have been finalized and approved, all of the tasks listed above need to be executed -- even if the client has waited until the eleventh hour to make their decision.
- Planners are at the bottom of the agency ladder in terms of seniority and, as a result, they are typically overworked and underpaid.
With all of this being said, not a single media dollar gets spent if the planner does not stay up late and do their job. So, I would claim that they are in the same boat as ad traffickers on the publisher side -- underpaid, undervalued, and overstressed.
New tools, new challenges
There are tools out there that will eventually help automate the process for planners. MediaOcean (the conglomeration of Donovan Data Systems and MediaBank), Facilitate's Symphony platform, and Adazzle are among the forerunners of solutions for the buy-side. However, they face challenges in adoption for the following reasons:
- Change is not easy. For many planners, as for anyone else in a process oriented job, the old way works just fine, thank you. "Spreadsheets are more flexible." "When I use my spreadsheet, I have control over manipulating my plans." "I've used a spreadsheet for 10 years and I'm used to them."
- Markets are unique. Agencies and markets around the globe have unique characteristics that require customization of media planning tools to work adequately. These range from language and currency requirements, to unique discount structures, new in-country ad servers, and market specific bill, book, pay systems.
- We forget about the end user. Decisions about applications are often made at the management level. How many in management actually know the intricacies and pain points of the planner's day to day work? Any decision on workflow applications needs to engage the end user, which helps select the right tool and increases adoption rate.
- Training and support is important. Management must mandate and support training -- the emphasis on adoption has run through the entire organization. It is a top down effort. Otherwise, it appears that attendance and compliance is optional when it should not be.
The planner is underappreciated, but tools are on the horizon. The challenges are many -- but must be met to make it more efficient to plan, buy, and deploy digital media.
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