How Are Media Buyers Still a Thing?

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I always enjoy the segment of “Last Week Tonight” where John Oliver asks the question “How is this still a thing?” He helps us question the relevance of what we accept as “normal” — daylight saving time, Columbus Day, swimsuit issues, pennies — with funny segments that explain why they are actually ridiculous.

I recently had a conversation that begged a similar question. I was pitching our platform to a large media company, and during our discussion, their media buyer kept asking the same question in different forms. He was essentially trying to compare our technology against his current role. It was becoming so repetitive that eventually I just said, “technology has reached a point where media buyers need to find something else to do.” It may sound harsh, but it’s true — humans trying to compete with technology in this way is pointless.

In fact, media buyers were originally tasked with negotiating prices on a scarce resource — television commercials. But media buying has increasingly been commoditized. Sure, you need buyers for inventory not available programmatically. And we still need humans for nuanced scenarios (at least today), like if a new product is introduced and an algorithm de-emphasizes spend because it’s not performing as well as existing top-purchased products. Humans need to override decisions like that. And, yes, agencies are still incredibly relevant and still have a place – just not in front of a screen moving budgets all day.

With today’s technology, what used to take a massive department can now be handled by a lean in-house team. It’s called digital disruption, and it’s not an “if” but a “when” it will happen to media buying. The agency-brand-technology relationship will shift. Machines are outperforming even the best media buyers, buying and moving budgets in real-time. Humans just can’t achieve the same scale, especially across all the channels, publishers, and ad sizes run today. Technology has set the stage for outcome based advertising, where performance is the natural result of machines doing what they do best.

The change is imminent, with evidence that it’s already begun. It’s going to require a big cultural shift throughout the entire industry. The agencies that come out ahead will be those that reexamine their business models and get back to their core value prop: big ideas.

So with technology giving us the ability to buy media at scale more efficiently than any human could, and agencies still offering high value through their creative and strategic expertise, it begs the question — why is the media buyer still a thing? We may have to ask John Oliver about that.

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