ClickCease A Beginner's Guide To Media Planning and Buying Basics

A Beginner’s Guide To Media Planning and Buying Basics


Media planning basics

Media Planning and Buying 101

Read this article if you want to learn media planning basics and:

  • Want to reach and communicate with your target audience most efficiently
  • Have entered a career in media planning or buying
  • Are a brand or business considering hiring an individual or agency for ad strategy
  • Are curious why you keep seeing ads everywhere that seem to be targeted directly at you!

Or just request a demo of Mediatool

If you fall into the above categories then you’ve come to the right place
*In a time crunch? Check out the sprint version of this article

It’s no secret that simply making ads doesn’t equal brand success; ads have to be placed strategically in front of the right audiences. You also know that in this day and age, advertising isn’t what it used to be. There’s more competition than ever, more consumers with niche interests to cater your message to, and more means by which to reach them. In many ways it’s a revolutionary time with great opportunity to be inventive, tactical and dynamic; in other ways it’s daunting, overwhelming, and competitive.

The good news? There’s a constant feed of data and case studies available at your fingertips [thanks internet] that lend copious insights about where to begin and best practices as you navigate it all.

Exhibit A: This Article – Media Planning 101

With that, we ought to clarify – the topic of marketing and advertising is a doozy with many avenues, nooks, and nuances and while we’re certainly not attempting to get into the nitty gritty of all of it in this article, we will be talking about:

  • Exactly what media planning and buying are and how they work together (plus a sports metaphor that might help you visualize the process better!)
  • The steps to identifying, planning, negotiating, buying, monitoring, and analyzing your ad performances
  • The terms associated with media planning and buying
  • The softwares that can automate the process and save you time

You’ll often hear the process which combines media planning and media buying called simply, “a media plan”. Don’t let this confuse you. There are two very distinct but complementary jobs required to create a media plan. An effective marketing campaign employs both a media planner and a media buyer to launch, run, and and manage their media plan.

Let’s start with the definitions and then move onto the step-by-step process of each afterward.

Now, Back to the Media Planning Basics!

What Is Media Planning – The process of selecting the optimal combination of media outlets for advertising a particular marketing message. It involves researching, identifying, analyzing, comparing, planning, and working around a brand’s budget.

What Is Media Buying – The complementary, secondary process by which an individual or agency takes the insights gleaned from the media planner and begins to find and negotiate buying ad space across the intended media channels. This can be automated or done manually depending on preference, objectives, audience, budget, etc.

What Is A Media Plan – The entire, collective result of both of the above including a final evaluation of the campaign’s effectiveness.

The Process

Media Planning Basics
You can think of media planning as the first line of defense for a soon-to-be-launched marketing campaign. The media planner is responsible for foundational elements like…

Conducting Market Research

Internal – A good media planner will first work closely with a business or brand to understand the key objectives and goals of their marketing campaign and discuss who the target audience is or should be. From here, external research will be conducted.

External –
In this stage a media planner will gather and analyze insights about the market at large, research industry trends, assess the competition, identify target audiences, and understand where those audiences are most engaged with ad content. This is the stage where the marketer must unearth the nuances of a certain audience group and assess what their behaviors are, where they go for information, what products they care about and why, what media channels they are accessing throughout their day. From here, media objectives can be established…

Establishing Media Objectives

Once the analysis of the market and audience has been conducted, a media planner will dig deep into the media space to determine which channels will be most effective for reaching said audience. Will it be traditional media like television, radio, print advertisements in magazines, billboards, newspapers, etc? Or will it be digital media like mobile, social media, video, SEM?

Consumers receive and engage with content in myriad ways, both traditional and digital. Therefore, it’s a media planner’s main mission to find the perfect media mix for reaching their client’s target audience across media channels. After the channels have been selected, the media planner will express interest in suppliers’ inventory by way of submitting RFPs (requests for proposals).

Budgeting Appropriately – As with any business arrangement, staying within budget and optimizing said budget is account management 101. It’s imperative as a media planner that you not only determine how to advertise a brand’s message but that you allocate funds cost-effectively. Going above budget isn’t the only consideration either. Proper analysis should prepare a media planner to understand exactly how to spend the budget. Will they put 50% toward social media, 25% in mobile ads, 10% in billboards, and then rest in radio? Do they recommend securing guaranteed inventory or is RTB (real-time bidding) the best route? The call will be theirs but they better be sure it’s a calculated call!

Time to kick it over to the media buyer…

Media Buying Basics

Media buying is the act of taking the strategy off of the proverbial page and putting it out into the world. In this way, you could call a media buyer “The Executor” [in the best kind of way] because they’re responsible for seeing the plan through. Have you ever seen footage of a stockbroker or trader floor-trading? It’s pandemonium! A rush of excitement! A thrill to watch, and notoriously stressful to live. While media buying isn’t quite literally that dramatic, it is all about negotiations. That plus relationships. A media buyer is responsible for…

Establishing Relationships – Like any good salesperson, a media buyer should be well-versed in developing and maintaining relationships with media vendors (publishers and channel owners). These days, as automation tools are used more regularly for purchasing ad inventory, the direct need to manage a media vendor relationship may not be as commonplace but it’s certainly still a worthwhile skill to have.

Negotiating & Buying, Buying, Buying – Once the ads are primed for distribution and the RFPs have been sent, it’s time to negotiate the buying of ad space. There are many factors that contribute to the cost of particular ad space, most notably, traffic and exposure. If the media planner has done their homework correctly, the potential will justify the price tag. It’s the media buyer’s job to do their best to secure that ad space and do it at – or below – the budgeted amount. A media planner may recommend buying guaranteed inventory or suggest non-guaranteed inventory [aka RTB].

Monitoring & Optimizing Ad Performance –
Once ad space has been negotiated and bought, it’s the media buyer’s job to watch the ads over the course of their campaign cycle and make sure each is being optimized. If it isn’t, the media plan must pivot.

*For example, let’s say you’re a national clothing retailer promoting a spring sale on sundresses with ads going out across social media, a few on public transportation, on YouTube, and a television ad that’s running five times a day across five national networks. Suddenly, you learn that your biggest competitor has just launched their own spring sundress ad campaign targeting consumers on the same channels.

It’s time to check in with your media buyer to make sure they’re analyzing your ads, noting fluctuations in performance, and – making recommendations for new placements, different collateral, etc. Consider them your “boots on the ground”, making adjustments to optimize your ads when necessary.

Care for a sports metaphor to tie it all together? Let’s take a look at the entire media planning and buying process as if it were a soccer game!

The Soccer Metaphor
We’ll approach this scenario as if you are the business or brand working with a media agency to launch your newest ad campaign.

  • You = “The New Owner”
  • The media agency you hired = The Soccer Team
  • The head coach = The Media Planner
  • All Team A players = Your Media Buyers
  • All opposing team players (Team B) = Your competitors whose ads are running alongside yours
  • The referee = The Media Vendor [supplier]
  • Your ad campaign = The Soccer Ball

Got it?

Here we go…

Since Coach is responsible for leading his team and putting them on a path to victory, he first asks if he can sit down with you, the new team owner. He congratulates you on buying the team, assures you that the upcoming season is going to be a tremendous one and proceeds to ask you what you’d like to see out of the team this year.

Obviously winning is your main objective but Coach wants to know what types of plays you envision; what a winning outcome means to you. He wants to understand your position. So, you share it with him.

(This is the internal market research)

Afterward, Coach assembles his team and in preparation for game day, spends hours upon hours analyzing plays, familiarizing himself with the competition and assessing his own team’s strengths and blind spots (aka researching, strategizing, and planning).

Eventually, he compiles a series of plays that he believes will set his team up for success and presents his game plan to the team.

(This is the end of the media planning phase)

Now it’s time for Team A to do what they do best, execute the plays. Team A’s players step out onto the field, face-to-face with Team B. The referee blows the whistle and this is where the negotiations begin. Forward #1 on Team A passes to midfielder #2 who kicks the ball around a handful of Team B defenders. A foul is called but the Ref gives Team A possession (aka negotiations are going well and ads are beginning to be placed).

So far so good – the ball moves up the field. Midfielder #2 launches the ball forward, it hits a rough patch of grass and spirals toward the center of the field. A Team B forward gets possession of the ball.

(Competitors’ ads are getting placement over yours)

Time to pivot! Forward #3 rushes up to steal the ball and finds himself in a face off with a Team B defender (bidding fiercely against the competition). Team A’s forward fakes out the defender, gets around him with the ball (aka wins the ad space) and sends it sailing past Team B’s goalie and into the net.

(The marketing campaign has ended successfully)

Team A celebrates on the field and well into the locker room. But soon after they’re talking about the game, assessing what they did well and what could have done better. They commit to working just as hard for the next game. They know that a new game means a new opponent with a completely different set of skills so they’ll have to strategize differently.

End scene

There are a few caveats worth noting in this example.

Running ad campaigns doesn’t always mean that one campaign wins and another loses, the way that this example suggests. However, this example does demonstrate how competitive the ad buying industry can be when there are many campaigns competing for exposure.

Your ad campaign (which was represented by the soccer ball) is not actually being fought over by the opposing team. They have their own ad campaign running, after all! If it helps, you can imagine it as though both teams have their own ball that they’re simultaneously trying to get up the field and into their respective goals. How quickly they do that and with how much finesse will indicate the success of their individual campaign.
Caveats aside, you get the idea!

Media Planning 101 Terminology

At this point we’ve thrown around a few industry terms so let’s define them (plus others)!

Inventory – a term that is used often interchangeably with ad placements. It can also describe the amount of ad space a publisher has to sell or a media buyer chooses to buy. It applies to ads in traditional and digital advertising.

Media Mix – the entire combination of media channels an individual or agency uses to achieve their specific marketing objectives. *If you use social media, radio, and TV to promote your marketing campaign, that’s your media mix. If you’re using direct mail, SEM, and online videos, that’s still your media mix.

Scheduling – the specifications a media planner and buyer puts around a marketing campaign that indicate what time and day certain ads will be served across their various media. Typically depends on target audience. *Hypothetically speaking, while 5am on Tuesdays may be a good time to feed Facebook ads to outdoor enthusiasts, Fridays at midnight on YouTube might be better for reaching music lovers.

Targeting – the act of identifying the ideal audience that should receive a marketing message. *Part of the internal and external market research portion of media planning.

Target Market (or Audience) – the final audience that has been chosen. These can be broad or specific. *A specific example would be if Bertolli Pasta was launching a new line of frozen, microwavable, single-serving pastas and they chose to market to young professionals between the ages of 25 and 35 working 60+ hour weeks and renting single bedroom apartments.

Manual Bidding – this is the act of manually changing the bid on a particular set of ads based on factors such as keyword performance, engagement, cost, etc. *This is the opposite of automation or programmatic buying.

Automatic Bidding (or Programmatic Media Buying) – the automated process of digitally buying and selling ad space and optimizing ad performance. It is based on algorithms with digital technology replacing manual negotiations. *When done in real-time, this is called RTB or real-time bidding.

Real-Time Bidding (RTB) – allows media vendors to sell ad impressions (views) through an ad exchange platform where each impression is sold as it becomes available, in real time. Advertisers can automatically adjust their bid based on changing market conditions. *Definition & killer infographic courtesy of Marketing Land and Who Is Hosting This?

Guaranteed Inventory (or Direct Buys) – this strategy allows a media planner and buyer to secure bulk inventory (or ad placements) at a fixed CPM. There are situations when this method makes most sense, like when a business wants the security of knowing that a certain number of eyes will be on their ad and they have the budget to support the higher cost of that guarantee. *It’s a “bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” type mindset.

Non-Guaranteed Inventory – sometimes referred to as real-time bidding, this is an auction, of sorts, where advertisers bid against each other’s rates in an attempt to secure better ad placement. But, as the name suggests, there is no guarantee that an ad will place at a certain dollar amount. Furthermore, guaranteed inventory typically has top priority. This method is ideal for advertisers with smaller budgets or those who can commit to monitoring ad placement and performance continually in real-time.

Cost Per Thousand (CPM) – this means the cost of an ad per 1,000 people who see it. So, if ad space is selling at $3 CPM you can expect to be paying $3 for every 1,000 people who come in contact with your ad. Understandably, lower CPM is more desirable but if a desired media channel is especially competitive, CPM will likely be higher.

Request For Proposal (or RFP) – a document submitted by an agency (in our case a media planner) often via a bidding process; intended to express interest to a supplier (or media vendor) in buying particular ad inventories.

Want more? Click here for an even fuller list of industry terms.

Harness the Power of the Tool

Access the right research and planning tools to streamline your media planning process. Here’s our list of recommendations for what to add to your toolbox:

For Research

For understanding and analyzing media usage by consumer, media channel, demographic, psychographic, etc. we recommend the following resources:

  • International Telecomms Union (ITU) – A global leader in measuring digital device usage and trends.
  • Nielsen – A global measurement and data analytics company providing media and consumer insights for markets worldwide.
  • Global WebIndex – A massive database tracking global and country-by-country social media statistics.
  • comScore – A resource for understanding internet usage and ad spend by country.
  • IAB Research – Utilize for reports about the success of online advertising as it pertains to the US, UK, and European markets.

This SmartInsights article, which has continually been updated since 2012 with the most current insights, lists a number of other digital marketing statistics sources worth checking out!

For Planning

Whether you’re engaging in programmatic ad buying or manually bidding, it’s critical to have a platform where:

  • All of your media plans can live and be shared in real time
  • Data from your ad performances can be consolidated
  • You can assess planned budget vs actual spend
  • Said data can be analyzed and formatted into easy-to-understand charts and graphs

A proper media planning tool removes tediousness and grunt work from your day. If you decide you’d like to give one a try, we’re a bit biased toward our own here at Mediatool and certainly happy to give you a demo.

What’s the Future of Media Planning?

If you expect for your ad to land on the radar of your target audience then the need for media planning and buying is clear. What’s more? The trajectory of automation in the marketing industry is on a decided incline. With the introduction, and subsequent proliferation, of programmatic buying over the last decade, there’s every indication that the need for integrating automation across traditional, digital, owned, earned, and paid media, is only growing.

A 2017 Digiday report which sited eMarketer research indicates that “Nearly eight in 10 mobile display ads in the U.S. are purchased programmatically, which will increase to around 85 percent by 2019.”

Furthermore, an Adobe Think Tank session yielded a comment from Phil Gaughran, the U.S. chief integration officer at agency McGarryBowen who stated that “By 2022, 80% of the advertising process will be automated [with] the remaining 20% comprised of such elements as brand value, storytelling, and other more experiential tactics that will always need a human driver.”

Our own co-founder of, Alexander Högman, sees the trend toward automation as exponential and inevitable. “What we have seen and continue to see is that the majority of marketing departments are switching over from working in excel spreadsheets to using more modern automated platforms that manage all media channels in one central place.”

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[2023 Update]
[2023 Update]