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What's needed to manipulate the world

There are too many coasters in the media world; coasters as in those people that coast by in life. There are far too many media people that are satisfied with adequate results, or at least adequate when compared to industry standards, which themselves are nothing to be proud about, and there are far too few people that work in the planning of proliferation of media that have the almost rabid determination to ensure outstanding delivery.

The following story is a subjective (and thus a possibly polarizing) story about a media planner, let’s call him Aleksi, and his unsuccessful media career before he quit (or rather was fired) and changed to a writing career for a small town newspaper instead. From what we can learn of Aleksi’s experience, it appears to be that there are many traits that are required to be an outstanding media planner (or strategist) without which sub-standard results and even blasé attitudes begin to become the norm. I know for a fact that Aleksi’s attitude became exact that over time, because I knew him very well. The required traits cannot be comprehensively enumerated, as they will always differ contextually (by field, communication channel, or even positional hierarchy) but a few overlapping traits can certainly be identified that should apply to all media people.

The first thing you’d be able to tell about media planning, having been close it it, is that there is an absolute need for statistical and analytical ability, as information based on anything else, in the planning stage, will almost always be conjecture and ultimately the mismanagement of a client’s finances. There were quite a few instances where my flat mate, Aleksi, had done so. The only reason I know this is because I went to university with him, and since I’ve known him, he had never had much mathematical competency. So when he came home depressed after presenting post-campaign reports to clients, I knew his failures had to have been linked to the poor numerical planning he often complained about many weeks or months earlier. The complaints were almost invariable when it got to that stage.

Perhaps advanced statistical understanding is not quite needed, but a media planner simply cannot get by without the ability to calculate probabilities given raw market data, or worse, with the perceived ability to do so only to draw erroneous conclusions from the data. Analytical ability is as important if not more important; pattern matching is an analytical skill and dissecting historical reports in order to decide on future plans, or even future iterations of a current campaign, is a skill that cannot be absent.  Aleksi seemingly had no pattern matching ability from what I could gather about the campaigns he drew together, otherwise he would definitely have been aware of several clear-cut patterns.

A media person requires at least a sophomoric understanding of logical fallacies and memory fallacies in order to know how to address them in such a way that the media campaign benefits from it. People are by nature exposed to a wide range of biases that make them act in certain ways, and having intimate knowledge of these will provide people like Aleksi with ways to refine their plans in order to reach their objectives. Of the hundreds available to us thanks to the study of psychology and human behaviour, examples like the source monitoring error become an invaluable tool if used well enough in a messaging campaign. Behavioural economics is a natural extension of this genre of information that is beneficial to have. In fact, further to the above, curiosity in general is an extremely important trait to have. Aleksi used to be a curious person when I first met him; I’m not sure what happened and I can’t prove there’s a correlation between curiosity an success rates, but I’m sure there is at least a weak, positive correlation.

There must be an ability to manipulate the masses, as well as the desire to do so. Ultimately that is what media is, whether the bottom-line message is a call to action or a rhetorical message, media’s goal is to either make people think something or do something, and that means manipulating their mind states in order to do so.  Successful media is still manipulative, technically, even if it is used to “manipulate” for a good cause. I’ve had many an inebriated argument with Aleksi about this matter – he’s of the opinion that it is not manipulation – and it is a matter we’ve never been able to see eye to eye with. Ultimately, I think, this is something that the media person needs to accept and embrace in order to excel at the task, in order to truly become relentless in the execution of the media campaign they want to create. Again, I can’t prove this about Aleksi, or any other media person, but my theory stands.

There is a need for the ability to recognize and dwell on one’s own mistakes without having the ego getting in the way. Inevitably and invariable, mistakes in either a media strategy or the execution thereof will be made, and it will cost money. However, these mistakes offer the chance to be learned from, and they require the kind of person that is ready to both acknowledge even silly errors, and then scrutinize them (in varying degrees depending on the mistake of course) to try to limit future reoccurrences. This sadly, is something that an outward-focused Aleksi was not successful at doing; his ego was too fragile for him to inwardly prod himself with such circumspection, even though the circumspection was about his work and not his own character. Media, like most other things in life, is also a process of trial and error, but without trial and error this is no progress.

Different executional approaches need to be taken not only for different channels, but also for different campaigns as well as a variety of varying factors. It is important to test different approaches to ensure the best ones are being taken, but it is even more important to be able to jump the line in order to get there. This is done by having domain knowledge of various audience types by platform (and many, many other factors) or otherwise having access to historical data that is both filterable and mutable. One way to come about such data is to introduce processes establish a multivariate testing standard or rule. Things like channels, copy and creative work all need to be tested against to uncover underlying patterns, should there be any, to tap into for future media campaigns. Aleksi does like to try different approaches, which is great, but he becomes fatigued far too quickly. This approach is a monotonous one and cannot be discarded once someone cannot bear it anymore. That was his fault.

Depending on who is asked, media planning will be described as an art or as a science, and the latter is the more apt category, or rather is some semblance of science (something that Aleksi and I can both agree on). Unlike art, and as with science, trial and error is the order of the day, even for a media campaign that has already begun. More so than that, it is important to discard of elements that are not working mid-campaign, including entire media channels that aren’t ultimately beneficial to the campaign objectives.

There is certainly a need to be able to work with creative people in the planning of the message copy and the more traditional creative elements (the visuals, the recordings, the interactive elements etc.) to ensure congruency with the selected channels. Actually, it is not only to ensure congruency but also to ensure that the creative work is fitting to the strategic theme of the media campaign. This ability is not as readily measurable as some of the others, but is an inter-personal communication skill that irrefutable has to be part of the overall skillset of the media person. Aleksi is quite the social person, and has great inter-personal communication abilities, so I’m sure he did this well enough.

The media person needs a very strong sense of integrity, as well as direction. This is a crucial trait as it will ensure that even if one does develop fruitful relationships with media owners that generally offer discounted rates for purchases, the integrity toward the client (or rather the objectives of said client) will ensure that one does not feel obliged to spend media budget with said media partner in order to upkeep that relationship, and certainly not to do so in order to receive luxurious supplier gifts at the end of the year, or whenever they may come around. Sadly, my friend was and still is too venal to have said no most of the time.

The same integrity would also be required to stand up against a client (respectfully of course) should they be misguided in the finer requirements they ask for, should the requirements not be congruent with the overall objectives – these things do happen (but alas, knowing Aleksi, he almost certainly would not have stood up to them). It cannot be seen as a bad thing to tell a client that they are wrong in certain circumstances, and in fact it is a bad thing to not do that very thing when the need arises for it, should the media person have the sufficient evidence to back their claim.

Decisiveness is crucial as anything short of it will almost certainly result in a waste of resources – either time, or squandered money on decisions that have been half-made. Budgetary constraints are unfortunately (for media agencies) very real and very often, in fact more often than not, the ideal media campaign in the mind of the planner is only that – idealistic. The limitation of money in any single campaigns adds pressure to the planning process, and begins to beg the question of big or small? The question asks whether the media go through a few large channels, or a larger number of small ones, or rather a hybrid of the two? Channel size should not be of much importance this early in the process, but sadly in far too many cases, it is. However, regardless of when this question is asked, if it is, then the person asking the question will have to have insight into things such as the data about these channels as well as tributary data about things like what type of audience segmentation would deliver the best results. These decisions can only be made with the right data, and the right inferences from market research (about demographic propensities tangential to the insights that said platforms touch on) and these decisions need to be made with a certain degree of definiteness, lest time is wasted on the choices that could be better spent contemplating other aspects of the planning process.

Finally, one needs an amount of luck, or serendipitous luck. Generally luck is not something in one’s control, but serendipity is in that the more a person exposes himself or herself to, the better the chance that they will be exposed something timely or something they otherwise would not have known. This so-called luck surface area can apply to a range of things in the media world, including learning about new media channels, platforms, media techniques, market trends, newly adapted nomenclature or communal attitudes in sub-communities within platforms already being addressed etc. This information is not something that is generally aggregated en masse, and thus is not easily accessible outside of a team. It is important then, for media people to be actively exposing themselves to as many stimuli as possible (but not so much that burnout becomes a risk) in order to achieve this serendipitous luck that may turn out to be beneficial in upcoming campaigns. This ties up with the required level of curiousity that I mentioned earlier, and the amount that Aleksi has is not, and was not sufficient.

A lot of requirements were introduced here, and many of them were introduced through Aleksi, a media planner that doesn’t really exist. Despite this fact, I feel very strongly about many of the opinions stated here and their need in the personalities of media planners in order to ensure the best execution of client requirements in the world of media marketing and communication – after all, is the level of expertise required to succeed not what clients pay for?

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