TV buyers are no longer glamorous but the job they do remains critically important for brands, writes ID Comms' Tom Denford.
Machines are going to take our jobs, or, hopefully at least, just the boring parts of those jobs. In media that means utilising AI and machine learning to automate and optimise the buying of basic media inventory.
This simple task of buying $500 billion of media inventory globally, which used to employ thousands of polite, middle class humanities graduates, working from expensive office space in the centres of cities like London and New York, is a perfect candidate for replacement with technology.
At a recent Hyper Island session in New York, we discussed how 'robots' would affect the workplace, with machine learning able to now develop sophisticated decision making but typically only in areas that have repetitive tasks.
Where they fall down, of course, is in areas such as in intuition, strategy and creativity. All of which are still essential skills for today’s TV buyer.
When I started in the media industry 19 years ago my first job was as a TV buyer of the Ford account at the-then full service Ogilvy. There were six of us dedicated to buying Ford's ad spots in the UK across five main channels and a little 'digital' in the form of Sky.
Two decades ago, TV made up 80% of the media plan and Ford was one of the UK's largest advertisers spending millions each year on big budget car ads.
There was no YouTube, no VOD but what we did was a craft. It was also brilliant fun and for me it ticked all the right boxes: the creativity of placement and environment, the hardcore maths of optimisation and the art of negotiation (by skill or brute force, sometimes both) to ensure Ford always had the best-performing TV schedule.
Today, buying 'old-fashioned' TV spots is probably considered the least sexy job in a media agency. It's a lonely task for the decrepit, old TV dinosaurs left languishing in the corner of the agency whilst the younger, digital natives get all the limelight and the awards.
Except that, most advertisers still invest the majority of their media budgets into TV. It remains the world's most powerful and influential media channel but gets dismissed by many as simply the basics, the bread and butter upon which creative content and digital magic is sprinkled.
The old-world craft of optimising each spot manually took into consideration where an advertiser's message would be most effective.
We would evaluate a spotlist based on environment, quality of programme, likely rating, audience composition and a clever thing called audience conversion.
One of the biggest factors was the day of the week, on the basis that people can have a very different outlook on the world on a Thursday night compared to Sunday night, creating opportunities for different brands and different messages.
The enduring power of such craft is best illustrated by some research conducted in 2009 by Vladas Griskevicius. Vladas and his academic colleagues conducted an experiment in which they showed a control group some adverts within two different movies: The Shining and Before Sunset (in case you haven't seen either, the former is hostile and alarming, the latter cosy and reassuring).
They created two ads for the same product but with distinctly different creative messaging. The first stated that the product was "used by millions" and second edit said the product would make you "stand out from the crowd".
What they found was that when watched during The Shining, the "used by millions" message was vastly more persuasive than the "stand out from the crowd" message, one assumes because the unnerving movie environment would make people more inclined to stick together.
Exactly the opposite occurred in Before Sunset, where the reassuring environment encouraged viewers to want to "stand out from the crowd".
These are the types of decision that still need to be made in media agencies and, of which, your TV buyer is the guardian. Getting them right will potentially have a huge impact on the effectiveness of any communications.
Brands that leave TV buying to a robot are in danger of losing value from their TV budgets. Robots, programmatic and AI cannot do better than humans at understanding context and apply the links.
At the Media360 Conference this year, Sky's impressive Head of Media Andrew Mortimer stated "the craft of media planning has been lost to the obsession of metrics".
The irony is that marketers have the power to reverse this. If I was a marketer and invested a good proportion of my media budget in TV I would make the agency's TV buyer my best friend. They would be my most valuable ally.
Having a genuine media crafts-person on your team is critical. If you don't know who is buying (and more importantly optimising and negotiating) your TV airtime then find out.
Drop by, have lunch, send them gifts. Treat them with the respect they deserve. Because in an age where the echo chamber of digital advertising increasingly dominates the debate, it's still the humble TV buyer who will make the biggest impact on the value of your whole media investment.
This article was originally published on Mediatel, on 5 December 2016