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April 18, 2006

Is There Room for a New Way to Plan Media?

TV Commercials, print ads, billboards, Google Ad words, RSS ads--all kinds of advertisements--are ways for brands to reach customers. Each media has particular attributes, pros, and cons for their use as an advertising medium. The variety of places to advertise is overwhelming.

The people in an ad agency who make the decision on what ads to place where are media planners. They decide the best mix of media, how much of each, and the proper rotation to meet each client's particular objectives. Media planning is a discipline based upon objectives, budgets, reach, frequency, and meetings/lunches with media reps trying to convince the planners to use their media.

The end result is a schedule of all media that will be purchased for a campaign with the resulting audience delivered. Hopefully, the audience actually buys something from the company so that the investment in media dollars ends up making good business sense.

But of all the media choices, how do planners and clients know that the final media plan will actually deliver the best results for the dollars spent? Planners will tell you that's what their expertise does for their clients.

But is there another way?


The answer may lie in James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds.

Surowiecki's thesis is that given the proper conditions, crowds can make excellent decisions. Examples of prediction markets include the Iowa Electronic Markets, which have predicted the outcomes of US presidential elections more accurately than polling since 1988; the Hollywood Stock Exchange, which correctly predicted 35 of 2005's 40 big-category Oscar nominees and 7 out of 8 top category winners--and sells their data to movie studios; and newcomer Hedge Street, which seeks to predict future economic events.

In these markets, anyone can buy and sell shares of actors, directors, movies, and film-related options, in the case of the Hollywood Stock Exchange, and presidential nominees, in the case of the Iowa Electronic Markets. The idea is that a diverse crowd of people can make better decisions than one or two experts.

According to Surowiecki, there are three conditions needed to harness the Wisdom of Crowds:
1) The audience is diverse.
2) Everyone makes decisions independently of each other. In other words, there's no peeking.
3) There's a mechanism for aggregating everyone's decision.

Violate any of these conditions and the Wisdom of Crowds turns into the Madness of Crowds. Crowds that are homogenous tend to make similar decisions; crowds that can see what decisions other people are making tend to act like a herd of sheep, following the leader; and crowds that can not communicate their decision do not end up making one.

So, why can't we harness the Wisdom of Crowds in media planning?

The idea would be to develop a predictions market for media plans. Say, medium sized brand like Bianchi Bicycles, for example, needs a media plan. They post their requirements on the Media Planning Prediction Market (MPPM) website. Then, anyone can create a plan that they feel would meet their objectives and anyone can vote on everyone's plans. To maximize the quality of plans submitted, planners pay a modest amount for each plan they submit; a pay to play fee. Votes cost a modest sum, too. This provides incentive to choose wisely.

At the end of a predetermined amount of time, the plan with the most votes wins and Bianchi pays the planner for the plan. Winners receive a cut as well.

Note that anyone can create a plan and anyone can vote on a plan. To work best, the market need not be limited to people in the media industry, which satisfies Surowiecki's rule #1.

How will the media planning industry react? I predict most will think the idea won't fly. It minimizes individual's expertise in favor of a crowd. They'll concentrate on the Madness of Crowds, rather than the Wisdom of Crowds, ignoring Surowiecki's criteria for wisdom. But a few brave, smaller brands will take the plunge. Maybe they'll be Web 2.0 companies, who understand this Wisdom of Crowds thing in their bones. Maybe it's smaller brands that feel they have nothing to lose; maybe it's a band, or other entertainment property, that sees the PR value in being the first. I don't think it'll be a traditional business. But aside from the newness of the experience, I think the biggest objection will be from companies not wanting to put their objectives on the web for all to see. But doing so will be critical if they are to benefit from media plans that actually meet their objectives.

After a few successes, I believe the Media Planning Prediction Market will make room for itself in the marketplace and become a viable business. It won't take over the industry, but it may be a nice alternative, especially for smaller brands. The media planning industry is ripe for a prediction market; planning has many variables because of all the advertising choices, so complexity is part of its DNA. A Media Planning Prediction Market would roll up all the complexity into the decision of which is the best media plan out of the choices available. Crowds would help make the best decision.

Who 's with me on this?


Interesting point, and it connects to a surge of interest in other media industries (notably journalism and marketing) for the realization that 'my audience collectively knows more than I do individually'.

However, as far as I know, this more or less recent shift in power in the advertising industry/agency from the creatives to the planners in determining strategy has not gone down very well with the people who come up with the big ideas, create the campaigns, tell the story.

How will you sell this particular narrative - which seems to wrestle even more creative control away from advertising professionals?

Mark, I like the fact that you've brought up the way this "converges" with discussion surrounding journalism. The most cited book on this is Dan Gillmor's We the Media, but that conversation is vibrant in J-Schools around the country. Coming from a journalism school myself, a well-respected program in the journalism industry at Western Kentucky University, I know that this is a hotly contested issue in the journalism world.

There is a fear in journalism that releasing any part of that gatekeeping function makes a journalist a weakened career. The problem at J-Schools is that there is already an argument in the first place as to whether a journalist really needs formal training. Many people argue that you SHOULDN'T get a degree in journalism if you want to be a journalist but rather that you should work in another field and that the journalism part will come naturally. At WKU, they encouraged us to take a lot of classes in a lot of fields, least we all learn to communicate but not have anything substantial TO communicate.

And I think that's where the insecurity comes from in the journalism industry, at least with J-Schools. If you are already battling to be legitimated to a degree in your own field as a training school, the last thing you want to do is see the idea of "journalist as professional" further dehabilitated by giving control to the collective intelligence.

But, as Dan says, it's not that there is no longer a need for traditional journalism, as they provide a trusted news source. But, if journalists aren't responsive to the collective, who add to and correct and contradict and argue with their stories, then they are caring more about their own reputations and selves and less about the ideals of journalism, where there is an attempt to arrive at truly understanding current events.

Traditional news media will still provide a linghtning rod to get discussions started, but these stories should be seen for what they are--where the conversation begins, not where it ends.

Posted by: Sam Ford | April 28, 2006 1:00 PM

How do I sell this narrative?

I think the most successful place to start will be with brands that are:
1) Smaller
2) More adventurous
3) Self Reliant

An ad agency relationship is generally comprehensive. The company works as an "agent" on behalf of the advertiser when placing ads. So, the companies that would use this new service would be ones that don't have such a comprehensive relationship with their ad agencies.

Eg: Best Buy. I understand they do all their advertising in-house. Because they're not beholden to an external media team, they have more room to experiment with new things.

But smaller companies can take advantage of the service, too. There seems to be no end to microbreweries, bands, video games, other tech products and services, and sundry all natural personal care products that can take advantage of this approach.

It'll be easy for a company to experiment with this approach because they can try one campaign at a time. I think direct campaigns will be the majority of the early campaigns planned through this service.

Competing headlong against large agencies won't work. Going after the smaller, more aggressive marketers will.

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