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What Makes a Good Online Media Planner

What Makes a Good Online Media Planner Scott Symonds

Recently, iMedia approached me and asked, “What makes a good Online Media Planner?” It’s a great question and something that lately, I’ve been thinking about quite a lot. As online ad budgets have grown, so has my workload as well as my media team and my need to hire good new people (hint: prospective media planners, this one’s for you).

First, I of course look for all the basic qualities that comprise any good employee list: relevant experience, friendliness, an eagerness and ability to contribute to the company, attention to detail, aspirations for self-improvement and career advancement, passion, thought leadership and ability to hold one’s liquor. Obviously this is a short list, and not exhaustive by any means. But you get the picture.

Next I watch for a few traits that are a little more specific to the online advertising world. Since online advertising is still a relatively new medium with strategies and processes quickly evolving, I find flexibility and tenacity of mind essential. Because every agency employee I know works on multiple campaigns with multiple clients simultaneously, the modern HR chestnut "must be able to multi-task" gets a necessary mention. And with new technologies, tactics and channels constantly popping-up, online work demands a certain innate curiosity for the new that is nearly as important as the insight to sort out the worthwhile from the worthless. 

So what makes a good Online Media Planner?

I don’t actually like the term ‘Media Planner’ because it is a holdover from traditional media where a planner is just that, a planner. In the online world a planner usually has to plan, buy and steward a campaign. So I prefer Media Manager or just Media to describe the discipline.

Then what makes a good Online Media Manager, Mr. Picky?

A good place to start is to establish Media’s place within the basic advertising agency department continuum: 


This is where Creative falls on the qualitative, aesthetic extreme of the agency personnel’s spectrum and Media is closer to the other end of that spectrum, near the quantified arena of Analysis. In this scenario, Media bridges the gap between Account (strategic leadership, client confidence and cross-departmental diplomacy) and Analysis (pivot tables, segmentations and mean regressions).

At its basic level Media needs to take the client’s needs as formulated in Account’s overall strategy brief and translate it into an effective media strategy and campaign plan. That strategy and plan then need to be negotiated and implemented in the most effective and efficient way possible to generate the results that feed Analysis and future media plan iterations. To do this well, the Online Media Manager’s job description, I believe, needs to be further broken down into three more detailed sub-disciplines.

Three parts to a good Online Media Manager

The Planner -- The Planner is the uncompromising idealist. A good Planner combs over the media brief, attacks the syndicated research and develops an overarching strategy. This person defines target audiences against client goals and consults the agency’s history of placements. The media planner then builds a detailed RFP seeking the best sites, the most precise page placements and appropriate ad size mix, creating a great plan. The Planner’s final deliverable is a deck of detailed media concepts and strategies that is ready for client approval.

Good Planners are detail-oriented, interested in trends and affinities, comfortable with numbers, fluent in targeting and reach strategy and should have some sort of passion relevant to an aspect of the media they work with. Lastly, they must possess the communications skills to present a compelling case for their strategy and plan to both the agency Account team and, of course, the client.

The Buyer -- The Buyer takes over where the Planner leaves off, but the Buyer has to deal with a more practical world. A good Buyer has to translate the Planner’s idealism into the best possible realization of what will actually work. The Buyer sends and follows up on the RFPs and creates a targeted competitive marketplace among the appropriate sites to secure the best rates, placements and creative units available for the client. Buyers look to leverage every available advantage at their disposal. The Buyer’s final product is a fully negotiated, ready-for-market plan or campaign.

Good Buyers are sociable, able to maintain productive contacts across many different groups. They have the ability to deal with multiple negotiations at once. They need to be responsible with the client money. They need to be mature enough not to let the marketplace power demand on their clients’ money go to their heads. Agencies take note: buyers are one of the more prevalent agency brand ambassadors to the industry at large. They are the agency face, if you will, representing the organization at industry cocktail hours, luncheons and conferences; thus, they should handle that responsibility appropriately. (Here’s where the ability to hold one’s liquor comes in handy.)

The Steward/Manager -- The Steward/Manager is the brutally unbiased judicial branch of the Media triad. The Steward monitors the campaign for improvement vs. the client’s desired goal. The Steward has the task of working with Analysis to identify implications from all relevant stable data points and make the appropriate adjustments to improve the campaign. These adjustments may include increasing spend on sites that are performing well, canceling placements that aren’t working or renegotiating rates or rotations to sites on the bubble. The Steward can’t play favorites based on the effort required for change, the friendliness of a rep, or the cool factor of a site. The Steward’s final product is the most effectively managed plan possible over the course of the campaign.

Good Stewards are analytical. They need to know how to read and interpret data and identify whether something is a meaningful difference. They need to be familiar with proprietary and industry averages so they measure current campaigns against others. They need to be relentless in their desire to maximize the output of the campaign to generate the best results.

Isn’t that a lot to ask for?

Yes. But it’s not any more than smart clients and better agencies demand. And not anything more than a career-driven Media person should aspire to. And, actually, that is merely what it takes to be good. It takes something more to be great.

And last, but not least …passion.

In the end, if I had to pick the single most desirable characteristic in a potential new Media hire, it would simply be passion. It’s the characteristic most likely to distinguish good from great. Not "two years related experience" or an MBA. Passion is that certain something that makes the difference. The killer app. Passion for breaking rules in order to get great results, passion for teamwork within the agency and partnering with the client, passion for understanding the target audience beyond the research numbers. It’s when passion is combined with experience and a challenging and engaging work environment that you get a great Media person.

So, do you have the passion?

Additional resources:

Check out the iMedia Job Connection

As Media Director for Agency.com’s San Francisco office, Scott Symonds leads a team of online media managers in planning, negotiating and stewarding interactive campaigns across more than a dozen clients. Since joining Agency.com in 1999 (previously as Exile on Seventh), he has developed media plans and strategies for leading brands including eBay, Visa, Wells Fargo and more.

With over ten years of experience in media planning and buying, Symonds was previously Spot Buying Director for Zenith/Optimedia’s Northern California office. There, he negotiated and managed spot television, radio and cable buys for Saatchi, Bates and Zenith clients including Toyota, Lexus and Best Foods.

Scott Symonds is the managing director of AKQA Media, which provides AKQA's full suite of global digital media, technology, and data science services encompassing paid and organized search optimization; digital media, planning and buying; and client...

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