What comes first, the media choice or the creative idea?

slide15When I started in marketing, way back in the mid 90s, life was a little simpler because the media and the creative were both under one agency roof.  The meetings were simple:  you’d see your various TV script options, give some feedback and then the room would go silent and the account person would say “now let’s look at the media plan” and the media person would take you through a 15 page presentation on where else the idea of your TV script could go. You’d see some magazine, OOH and even some sampling idea.  There was no internet advertising yet.  

Then one day, our media folks from our agency were spun off, had a new name, moved offices and had a new President.  But still owned by WPP.  It now just meant we had two presentations and the Brand Leader now had to make sense of things and try to piece it together. About a year into that new relationship, I was sitting there confused and asked the question: “So what comes first, the media choice or the creative idea?”  The room went silent for about 5 minutes.  Then of course both sides talked over each other, both saying it was them that came first.  

Media is an investment against your strategy and creative is an expression of your strategy.  But both media and creative are only useful if they connect with consumers.  Great advertising must connect through very insightful creative that expresses the brand’s positioning and told in a way that matters to those who care the most. And yet, great advertising must be placed within the consumers’ life where it will capture their attention and motivate them in the expressed desired way to meet the strategy.  So really, the consumer comes first and strategy comes second.  But media and creative need to work to jointly capture the consumer and deliver the strategy.  

The Problem now rests with Brand Leaders.  While one could theoretically argue that if the Big Idea of the advertising is so big, it should work in every medium, that’s just not true in reality.  Some ideas just work better in certain mediums.  And yet the media people could also theoretically argue that if you go for the most efficient and effective media option, the media will do the work for you. That’s also not true. It’s too bad that ad agencies broke apart.  Because agencies could make a lot more money if they continued to answer this question on behalf of their clients. 

Here’s a solution for Brand Leaders 

The three questions you always need to keep in your head at all times:  1) where is your consumer 2) where is your brand and 3) how does the creative idea work? 

1.  Where is your consumer?

You should really understand who your consumer is, and who they are not.  You need to make sure you understand the insights about them, because it’s those insights within your creative that allow you to connect with them.  They’ll say “they get me”.  You should always be mapping out a day in the life of your consumer.  Get in their shoes and say “what does my consumer’s day look like and how will my message fit or interrupt their life?”  Take a “be where they are approach” to your media. 


2.  Where is the Brand?

First thing you have to do is consider where your brand is on the Brand Love Curve where brands go from Indifferent to Like It to Love It and all the way to Beloved.  At INDIFFERENT, it’s about announcement style such as mass media, LIKE IT becomes about separating yourself from the competition while LOVE IT and BELOVED you’ll start to see the growing importance of event marketing to core users or social media as a badge of honor to share with others.


3.  How does the Creative work?

The best advertising should draw ATTENTION, be about the BRAND, COMMUNICATE the main message and STICK in the consumers head long beyond the ad.

  • Attention:  You have to get noticed in a crowded world of advertising.  Consumers see 6000 ads per day, and will likely only engage in a few.  If your brand doesn’t draw attention naturally, then you’ll have to force it into the limelight.
  • Branding:  Ads that tell the story of the relationship between the consumer and the brand will link best.  Even more powerful are ads that are from the consumers view of the brand.  It’s not how much branding there is, but how close the brand fits to the climax of the ad.
  • Communication:  Tapping into the truths of the consumer and the brand, helps you to tell the brand’s life story. Keep your story easy to understand. Communication is not just about what you say, but how you say it—because that says just as much.
  • Stickiness:  Sticky ads help to build a consistent brand/consumer experience over time.   In the end, brands are really about “consistency” of the promise you want to own.  Brands have exist in the minds of the consumer. 

slide16But in the reality of advertising, not every ad execution will be able to do all four of the ABC’S.  When I’m in the creative room, I try to think about which of the two ABC’S are the most critical to my strategy.  If it’s a new product, I need Attention and Communication, if it’s in a competitive battle I need Brand and Communication, and if I’m the leader with a beloved brand, I need to make sure it’s about the Brand and it Sticks.   

What I recommend you do:

I hold off on making any media decisions until I see the creative idea and how it is expressed in a few media options.  With all the potential media now available, I ask for 3 executions of each big idea.  I want to see it in:

        1. Video Version
        2. Billboard 
        3. Long Copy Print

Sounds simple, but once I see all 3, it helps me to know that the idea has legs beyond one medium.  It also enables me to begin matching up creative elements to the most optimized media options on the table. 

The “Video” ask would work in TV, movie theatre, viral video or even on a website.  The “Billboard” could be traditional billboard on on-line billboard, website cover or even on the back of a magazine.  The “Long Print” would help with a print ad, social media stories or even a blog on your website.  

With 3 simple asks against each creative idea, I would cover off most of the traditional media options.  Now I can engage with the Media Agency, knowing how the creative idea would work against any of their recommendations.  I’ve done the work that the agency would have done back in the 1990s before they broke apart.  

Client Media Math

While the media agency owns the media math that blows your mind, here is some simple client side media math.  

  • Your production budget should be around 5-10% of your overall advertising plan.  If you have small budgets, that may creep up to 20%, but that’s it.  Every time you do a new piece of creative, the production dollars go up and the media dollars go down.  I’d recommend you focus on one main traditional media and have only one secondary option.  This keeps your spend focused. 
  • When it comes to social media, keep in mind there is no free media options.  Instead of financial capital, you are now exhausting people capital.  Just like the traditional options, I would recommend one lead social media and one secondary focus.  Do not try to be all things to all people.  
  • The other reason to focus is to ensure you do great executions and not just “ok”.  Pick the media that maximizes the power of the creative.  And don’t exhaust the team by spreading them against too many activities.   
  • Allow 80 to 90% of your media spend be on the highly effective highly efficient media plan.  That means 10-20% of your media spend can now go against high IMPACT creative ideas that you know will break through.  
Ask your creative team to deliver a Video, Billboard and Long Copy Print  


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email-Logo copyABOUT BELOVED BRANDS INC.:  At Beloved Brands, we are only focused on making brands better and making brand leaders better.Our motivation is that we love knowing we were part of helping someone to unleash their full potential.  We promise to challenge you to Think Different.  We believe the thinking that got you here, will not get you where you want to go.  grOur President and Chief Marketing Officer, Graham Robertson is a brand leader at heart, who loves everything about brands.  He comes with 20 years of experience at companies such as Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer Consumer, General Mills and Coke, where he was always able to find and drive growth.  Graham has won numerous new product and advertising awards. Graham brings his experience to your table, strong on leadership and facilitation at very high levels and training of Brand Leaders around the world.  To reach out directly, email me at graham.robertson@beloved-brands.com or follow on Twitter @grayrobertson1


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10 thoughts on “What comes first, the media choice or the creative idea?

  1. Hi Graham:

    I simplify the conflict between the media agency and the creative agency in this way.

    Whatever either might say, I KNOW the consumer is the strongest medium.

    Unless the “creative” is an idea that will make her a good medium, I don’t accept the idea.

    And unless the media plan will help the idea get word-of-mouth, I don’t accept the media plan.

    In that sense, the idea comes first.

    Here’s a way to test whether the idea will be passed on.

    Once the creative agency has presented the idea, video, billboard or print, have someone in your room tell the receptionist in your office. Ask her to tell the idea to anyone else in your organization that she chooses.

    Wait for ten minutes. Trace where the idea went. Who passed the idea on to whom?

    Ask the last person in the chain to come to the conference room and explain the idea.

    If the idea survived and it went through more than five people in those ten minutes, you have a very strong idea.

    By all means use the ABC test on the idea as expressed by the “Chinese Whisperer” that received the idea on the 10th minute. Or whenever you are able to catch up with the person it has reached.

    • Sumit, I’m only half way there with you. It’s a great idea, but I like your idea for Beloved Brands or High Involvement brands. But on low involvement brands or ones that are stuck at Indifferent or Like It, there’s not enough consumer passion or consumer opportunity for the consumer to be doing the work on behalf of the brand.

      • Hi Graham.

        There can be no such thing as a low involvement ‘brand’. If it is low involvement, it’s still a commodity.

        You might think in terms of a “low involvement category” – soaps, shampoos, etc. where ostensibly the risk of trying another brand is low.

        But even in those categories, if your strategic thinking is good, it becomes a high involvement “brand” the moment you discover the “business you are really in”!

        Dove, for example, is now more than a soap or a shampoo. It’s a movement celebrating the ‘real beauty’ in women.

        Could send you more examples from CPG or FMCG categories, whichever acronym takes your fancy.



  2. I suppose it’s no surprise that the answer to the creative or media first question depends on whether one does B2C or B2B marketing, and whether one uses primarily general versus direct media.

    The conversation above seems to reflect primarily a B2C, general media perspective. In a B2B, direct marketing setting (which is the background I come from), the answer’s very easy: list (i.e., media or audience) 1st, offer 2nd, and creative 3rd.

    The common sense logic behind this is that no matter what is offered or how well, if it’s going after the wrong audience, it will fail since no one will care. If the list is right, and the offer is poor, the outreach will also fail since there won’t be enough incentive to respond. Finally, if both the list and the offer are right, creative can have up to a 20% impact on how good the response is.

    I realize it’s risky to try to import direct response tenets into a general media setting, but I often wonder just how well they apply.

    • Hi Prugh.

      In my experience, even for B2B, the idea precedes the medium.

      Especially because for both B2C and B2B, the end user is the best medium.

      I trust you will admit that, in B2B, retaining a customer and getting referrals from that customer is usually more profitable than marketing to a new list.

      (This is true of B2C as well, but most practitioners of B2C find the concept of making the consumer the champion a little alien.)

      But let’s stick to B2B and Direct Marketing: your domain.

      Now it’s possible to have a community of believers in the brand who are drawn together by the cause the brand espouses ….the ‘idea’ that brings that community together.

      Thus, the SAP Users Club is happy to induct new members to its fold because the IDEA of having a more productive enterprise bonds the tribe members together, getting them to want to “spread the good word”.

      So, you see, even for B2B, the idea precedes the medium.

      • Hi Sumit,

        I’m a little confused here. I think there’s a category error in suggesting that the end-user is a medium. It’s always been my understanding that the end user is part of a marketing audience, and the medium is a way the audience may be contacted. Granted, there may be multiple ways to contact an audience; hence, media.

        As an example, when discussing an “idea” that brings a community together — whether it be SAP or soemthing else — the group already exists; i.e., they already own and use SAP. They may not be a community yet, but they’re already there as SAP customers.

        I don’t think we come up with ideas, and then find audiences to communicate them to. Rather, we search for ideas that will enable us to break through to our audiences. Without them, there would be no idea; however, without an idea, they would still be there.

        This is why the audience (list) is given the highest priority in direct marketing, and probably should be #1 in general media marketing as well. Otherwise, everything else we do as marketers really doesn’t mean anything in business terms.

      • Hi Prugh:

        I can empathize with your confusion.

        Traditionally the consumer has never been considered a medium.

        Yet we all know, in our heart-of-hearts, that Word-of-Mouth is the world’s most powerful medium. Very few people make a purchase without peer group approval. Whether it’s a soap or a SAP system.

        Just that Word-of-Mouth can’t be easily bought and I blame it’s exclusion from most media lists because there’s no commission to be earned from it! At least that’s why the agencies seem to forget to list it as a medium. 🙂

        By the way, SAP uses the SAP Users Club not just to address it’s current customers. SAP users are encouraged to present their papers on “productivity” and invite their peers who are not yet using SAP! (A self-generating list, if you like.)

        As a DM expert you’ll know the value of testimonials. In this way, there’s absolutely no doubt that the SAP testimonial is genuine. They get to hear it from the testimonial giver!

      • Hi Sumit,

        I hadn’t thought about word-of-mouth, and in that context, you’re quite right that the audience becomes the medium.

        That said, however, the question remains, although perhaps stated in different terms: Without word-of-mouth, the audience is still there. Without the audience — and, actually, the right audience(s) — word-of-mouth can’t occur. Which is why the audience(s) need to be the #1 priority. Once we’ve got the right ones, we can work on the ideas and techniques to break through to them.

        Going back to the terms of the original question of which should come first — media choice or creative idea — audience primacy dictates media since that’s how the audience is reached. Otherwise, we can easily wind up with great ideas and no audience to communicate them to.

      • Hi Prugh.

        Really good ideas always finds its own medium. Otherwise it’s not such a good idea at all.

        The problem with starting with a “medium” as your choice is that you are less likely to come up with revolutionary ideas.

        We in the brand communication business tend to think of ideas in terms of advertising or PR.

        But actually the idea could quite easily be integrated into the product, packaging, pricing, placement, purchase experience, prosumer policy and profit policy, not just “promotion”.

        Think about it. How did you first get to know about Google or iPad or the Restaurant you last visited or the advertising agency you currently use?

        Do you remember the ad? Or the medium? Or did you just hear about it from a friend?


  3. Hi Graham, Great article! I believe we are likely to see media buying and creative reunited under the same roof and the end of the independent media buying shop. It should be interesting.

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