Strategic planning starts in the consumers head

The debate about ‘media neutrality’ is flawed because it relies on the idea that consumers want neutral planning in the first place, says Charlie Makin

Recently I met a senior client who asked me what I understood media neutrality to be. He said he was always reading about it, all his agencies talked to him about it, but he didn’t know how to define it without being overly simplistic.

I said I thought it was approaching a brief with an open mind and being prepared to consider every media channel to solve a communication problem. He agreed, his only problem was that he thought that this was what media planners did anyway.

You cannot disagree. It is a concept that has been developed in the self-absorbed world of advertising, by agencies positioning themselves against their competitors; it is not some great new truth or insight. When Marketing Week covered the issues a couple of weeks ago (MW September 5), all the agencies quoted asserted their credentials for being regarded as completely neutral and objective, yet no one provided any insight into how it works, why it was better and how it generated a greater return on investment.

I believe the idea of media neutrality is fundamentally flawed: it’s an over-simplistic solution to a very complex issue. Yes, of course media planners should be open minded and they should recommend media solutions that seamlessly work across all disciplines. Ultimately that’s what clients pay them to do and in a more complex world they need to have a broader understanding of communication to do this properly. However, this is all wasted if they don’t intrinsically understand consumers and their relationship with media and brands.

I have never met a media-neutral consumer. In fact, if you raised the issue with most reasonably intelligent people they would not understand the principle. All consumers have subjective preferences and biases in the media they choose and what they do with them, which consequently affects how they interact with brands. These are very complex processes and hugely difficult to understand, especially as the media landscape is changing so rapidly. You cannot reduce the complexity to one vapid concept for the benefit of the marketing fraternity.

The most important issue is to understand consumers’ media preferences and increasingly, how various media interact together. For instance, will they find it intrusive if their favourite radio station starts texting them? Does it change the relationship? This is where the process should start. It’s not about a blank sheet of paper and considering every option, but it is about trying to get inside the head of groups of consumers and predicting their behaviour.

Only when a planner gets inside the head of a consumer and understands the consumer’s behaviour can integrated planning begin. In many respects, once a planner has this knowledge the choice of media channels becomes self-selecting. It doesn’t need a neutral perspective; it needs someone with the insight, time and resource to really understand consumer behaviour and the skill set to influence them to behave differently. It’s not as sexy, it’s certainly more complex, but it will ultimately serve our clients better.

Charlie Makin is a partner of BLM

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