The art of ad buying (for agencies)

Published Jan 11 2024 Last updated Jan 11 2024 7 minute read
agency ad buying
  • Sean Dougherty
    Written by Sean Dougherty

    A copywriter at Funnel, Sean has more than 15 years of experience working in branding and advertising (both agency and client side). He's also a professional voice actor.

For many agencies, crafting and executing a high-performing media plan is a delicate balance of science and art. The perfect mix of strategies, channels, and spend can exceed client goals, propelling them into new levels of success. 

At the same time, when client goals, agency creatives, audience dynamics, or any other element is a bit off target, a well-intentioned media spend can become a liability. 

When striking this balance, agencies sit in a unique position. They want to produce the best possible creative work, while also ensuring that they meet the business needs of their clients. 

And as that client list grows, so too do the demands on every media plan. So, how do agencies keep track of hundreds (if not thousands) of advertising investments for their different clients? And critically, what are the best practices for agencies looking to buy advertising space? 


Media buying (and planning) at a glance

While an agency’s creative output often gets the greatest share of the limelight, those shiny ad concepts are nothing without an ad buy to put them in front of their audience's eyes. When executed properly, those investments consider the client’s budget, audience, and goals to reach as many target customers as possible for the most cost-effective rate. 

And while the terms may be used interchangeably, media buying and media planning are two different acts. 

Media planning refers to strategizing which channels and platforms will drive the greatest return on ad spend. During this process, strategists use past performance data to infer where, when, and how often ad creatives will need to run. 

On the other hand, media buying refers to negotiating and purchasing that advertising inventory (be it digital display, out-of-home, broadcast, and more). 

Both processes often occur together when crafting the overall media plan for clients. 


The basics of media planning

While each agency may use its unique process for crafting a media plan, there are six main steps:

Define the client’s goals
Understand the audience
Confirm the channels and tactics
Build the media plan
Confirm and purchase the ad space
Track and analyze performance


Define the client’s goals

Every great agency outcome starts from a great client brief. Any brief worth its salt will clearly define the client’s goals, guiding the creative production and strategic selections of media channels. 

For instance, does your regional healthcare client want to position their cancer unit as the most advanced provider in the area? Or, does an apparel giant want to launch a new product line developed in collaboration with a star athlete? 

What are the end revenue goals for each campaign? When are the campaigns intended to run? How much budget is available for creative development and ad spend? 

These questions will help guide an agency to the final output and performance. That’s why it’s so important to define your client’s goals and expectations early on in the process. 

Understand the audience

Effective campaigns require a deep understanding of your audience beyond just demographics.

Ask yourself a few critical questions:

  • What media is my audience already consuming? 
  • What consumer trends are they participating in? 
  • Does this group hold any shared aspirations or defining life experiences? 
  • Does your audience share existing brand preferences or affinity? 

Agencies often take time to build out a detailed profile of a campaign’s target audience that answers all of these questions. Some agencies even build mood boards that attempt to visualize an audience's personal style, likes, and dislikes. 

This helps to inform the creative development as well as which media channels will reach the audience most effectively. 

Confirm the channels and tactics

With a clear understanding of the goals and audience in hand, an agency can proceed to select and recommend the tactics that will achieve those goals best. Your recommendations can be informed by years of experience as well as performance data from past campaigns. 

When presenting the recommended tactics, keep in mind that your client will likely have their own opinions based on industry knowledge and their own data. In these instances, it’s important to remember that the best results come from a symbiotic agency-client relationship where each side supports the other — even if you’ve won a Cannes Lion. 

AGENCY TIP: Your ability to work with multiple clients at once can earn you a unique perspective on emerging trends, as well as the ability to secure better rates by purchasing bulk ad space. 


Build the media plan

Once the client has agreed, in principle, to the channels that will be used, a detailed plan must then be built. Often, this plan takes the form of a calendar and outlines all placements and run times for all of the selected media channels. 

As a media plan includes more and more channels, the ability to visualize the plan may become more and more complex. This is due to how ad spaces are sold and ad creatives run across different media. 

For instance, when purchasing television spots, a media planner can often identify which station, day, and time block the ad will run. However, a digital marketing manager may only be able to provide goals for impressions or qualified leads during a given time period. 

AGENCY TIP: Different timeline visualizations (calendar view, Gantt chart, etc.) can help you to quickly understand where your media plan may be suffering from over- or under-saturation.


Additionally, depending on your agency’s preferred workflows and client approval points, your media plan may also include itemized costs. This helps a client to understand exactly where and when their investment is being used. 

AGENCY TIP: When building your media plans, keep your traffic manager in the loop. They may be able to identify future bottlenecks based on agency staffing and resource levels.


Purchase the ad space

Once your client approves the media plan, it's time to purchase the ad space. If you haven’t already, now is the time to negotiate with the various platforms and media outlets for the best possible price.

If your agency regularly purchases advertising space, you may be able to secure lower costs due to bulk buying. For instance, imagine you're an ad agency specializing in marketing across social media platforms, including TikTok. You may also have a steady roster of clients with a roughly predictable level of ad spend. 

In such a scenario, you may be able to negotiate a discounted rate with your TikTok ad sales rep by purchasing ad space for all of your clients’ annual TikTok ad spaces at once.

Conversely, if your agency specializes in broadcast advertising like radio and TV, you may not have established relationships or bulk ad needs with a platform like TikTok. In that instance, you may have to purchase the ad space closer to the listed rates. 

AGENCY TIP: During ad buy negotiations, you’ll often hear the term “added value” as part of a media outlet’s offering. These are typically one-off remnant spots or lower-impact placements that are included by a sales rep at no additional cost.


Tracking and analyzing placements

The world’s best media plan doesn’t mean much if you aren’t tracking and analyzing performance. You need to constantly measure progress against your client’s goals. By keeping an eye on the data, you can proactively shift investment levels (particularly for digital advertising) during the run of a campaign in order to maximize the overall return. 

Additionally, as loyal readers to this blog will know, past performance data can point to future success. You will, however, need a tool like Funnel to collect data from all your channels. These tools can give you a holistic perspective, allowing you to calculate return on ad spend and even implement advanced analysis like marketing mix modeling.


Tips and tricks only agencies can use

Agencies have a unique perspective on the world of advertising and media buying. As such, they can implement a few agency-specific advantages to stay ahead of the curve. 

Apply learnings across clients

This is one of the greatest advantages any agency has over the experts on the client side. Every day, they work with a diverse client roster that includes different business models and industries. 

That means, in the right scenario, they can gain and apply learnings from one client to another. Now, we’re not suggesting you “recycle” a media strategy from an industrial solar panel manufacturer to a shoe brand.Still, there are broader trends in the advertising ecosystem that you can use to boost performance for your different clients. 

Relationships are the key to success

As an agency, you aim to build long-term customer relationships based on trust in your expertise. Those strong relationships provide an implicit trust to experiment further and push the boundaries of your creativity. Those relationships can also lead to new clients through referrals. 

Don’t forget about your media partners, though. Cultivating those relationships can lead to lasting success for media buyers. For instance, repeat business over time can help you negotiate better rates. You might also get early access to new features (hello, TikTok Shop). 

Plus, you may be able to leverage a strong relationship in the case of an emergency — like last-minute deadline extensions. 

Stay on (the) edge

Your ability to stay at the leading edge of possibility is a large part of what clients are paying you for. 

By working across various clients and sectors, agencies are often the earliest adopters of new technology that can help tell client stories and drive revenue. By learning from your many clients and taking advantage of early access to new features from your media partners, you can rely on the strong layer of trust between you and your clients to push the boundary of advertising. 


When the plan comes together

Media planning and ad buying are an important part of an agency’s work. By striking the perfect balance between client goals, available budget, and the latest strategies, agencies can drive performance to new heights. 

By hitting all of the basic steps above, adding your own special techniques, and incorporating advanced data tools like Funnel, you’ll be on your way to impressing your clients in no time. 


Key terms in media buying

Are you relatively new to the world of media buying? Are you getting confused with all of the industry-specific jargon? Not to worry. We’ve compiled a short, non-exhaustive list of the key terms you’re most likely to hear (along with what they mean).

Inventory: This is how media sales reps talk about the available ad space. In traditional print media and broadcast, there are a finite number of spaces where ads can be placed. The media outlet views those spaces as part of their product that is available for purchase. Hence: inventory. 

Added value: This often refers to small additional ad placements that are added (often for free) to an ad buy proposal. Media companies and platforms offer them as a proverbial cherry on top to prospective ad buyers. 

Return on ad spend (ROAS): This is the rate at which your advertising is driving revenue. This, obviously, should always be a positive number. 

Native ads: These are ads that are designed to look like the content normally found in a given medium. For instance, TikTok advertisers may want to produce ad creatives that look like user-generated content. The underlying strategy is to create marketing content that is actually consumed by your audience, rather than scrolled past. 

Advertorial: This is a hybrid of editorial and advertising content. More typically seen in the realm of print media and TV news, these placements aim to mimic product endorsements from the media outlet’s editorial team. 

Avails: Shorthand for available ad space. This term is mostly used with TV and radio ad space. 

Executions: More generally an agency term, these are the ways an advertising concept is implemented. For instance, one master concept could be “executed” to two TV ads (one 0:15 and one 0:30), one radio ad, two print ads, three billboards, 12 social ads, and more. 

Run of site: Used in digital media ad sales, this means that you are buying an ad that may appear anywhere on the website, as opposed to specific pages (like the home page). 

Spot: Used mostly with broadcast ads, this can refer to the ad space or the ad itself. 

Remnant: These are leftover bits of advertising space that have not been sold or were dropped at the last minute from another media plan. You can usually purchase remnant ad space last minute at a discounted rate. 


Disclaimer: The featured image for this article was created using generative AI.


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