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The Future of Excel for Media Planning

By Apr 01, 2013

Even after two decades, eight out of 10 media planners still rely on Microsoft Excel as their default application for campaign management, reporting, and analysis.  Surprised?  You should be.

In an era of big data, programmatic buying and multi-channel media optimization, it is hard to believe that billions of ad dollars are still tracked and analyzed on spreadsheets in a desktop environment. How can this be possible when advertisers are pressed for higher ROI and the cloud is rich with enterprise-class technology for data management, ad serving integration, and operational tools?

One reason might be that much of the marketing budget is entrusted to advertising agencies that operate on a cost-plus basis. To say that these 21st century Mad Men are incentivized for inefficiency may be a stretch, but the initiative to tackle workflow challenges is often a lesser priority when entry-level media planners are the ones getting ‘marked-up’ and feeling the pain.

Another reason for the dependence on spreadsheet solutions stems from perceived requirements for customization, resulting in client-specific media plan formats and templates. Tailoring a media plan for a specific client’s needs is a good thing, but this is often done for a specific channel and limits the opportunities for multi-channel optimization. Media performance should not be evaluated in silos, yet the interdependence of multiple channels is often underestimated or ignored for a variety of reasons.

First, many organizations are still structured in a manner that leverages the core competencies of subject matter experts for each legacy channel, without a central hub for managing the media mix. Second, optimization is easy to talk about and hard to deliver. Effective multi-channel marketing integration and optimization is unlikely to occur on a desktop platform, because there are too many variables to manage without a statistical application that can efficiently process massive amounts of data. The variables include not only the results by channel and the interactions between those variables, but also the external factors related to the economy, seasonality, competition, and more.

With media departments operating independently and the high cost and complexities related to effective multi-channel optimization, it is not surprising that so many planners are still spreadsheet junkies. Furthermore, let us not forget that Excel does have its benefits. As a former Excel addict, still in recovery (at war with my quantitative drives to create another algorithm), I am speaking from experience.

Excel is among the greatest multi-purpose business applications ever created, and it is as easy as 1-2-3; thanks to Lotus, which should be remembered for its origination and early innovation.  Media planners, financial analysts, operations and sales managers are among the millions who use Excel every day.  Here are five reasons why the application has survived and thrived during a time of rapid growth in cloud-based SaaS and high-tech competition:

1.    It’s Easy. Spreadsheet cells are like building blocks, labeled with the same basic classic toy ABCs and 123s. This enables the user to dissect a complex problem or construct a solution one step at a time.

2.    It’s Flexible.  We live in an economic climate of continual commoditization, resulting in a greater demand for differentiation. Custom client reporting has become a commodity in itself and many marketers are realizing that the presentation of the numbers is often as important as the actual results. Excel is an asset for campaign story-telling when used to perform 360 reviews of the data.  Appending data, adding new calculations, and performing metadata analyses can all be done on the fly without a single request to an IT department.

3.    It’s Smart.  Excel provides answers.  Built-in tools like goal seek, solver, and scenario manager provide laymen solutions for decision sciences.  Business owners, financial managers, and marketers can make better decisions and optimize results with “no linear programming experience required.”  If you are unfamiliar with these capabilities, then try using goal seek to optimize for a single variable and you’ll change your “what if” thinking to a “what is” mentality.

4.    It’s Visual.  Excel has charts and graphs for most any occasion, and they can be easily formatted and linked to PowerPoint for client presentations.  This freedom in visualization does challenge the integrity of the presenter from time to time.  For example, a change to the minimum y-axis value can make a five percent revenue growth look like a skyscraper – so be careful!

5.    It’s Portable.  One last benefit of a spreadsheet file is its mobility. The spreadsheet creator can share their knowledge and custom tools with the rest of the world and collaborate online as well. This can be done without the constraints of a secure application, but keep in mind that you’d better be okay with giving your intellectual property away.

For digital media planners with a little VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) scripting support, Excel may be used for campaign flight optimization and effective management of online ad expenditures—but only to a certain point. It has just enough functionality for baseline analytics and pivot tables for data aggregation and analysis on the fly. Even these examples are only touching the surface of what the application can do for those who master it. With all of these actionable benefits, why would there be any doubt about the future of Excel for media planning?

The spreadsheet legacy is likely to continue with direct mail marketing for a while, but new tools for interactive advertising are gaining adoption fast. Just as you would not expect to use Excel to manage your search engine marketing campaigns, you should not expect it to be a long-term solution for planning online display campaigns.  If the advertisement, distribution, device and measurement are all digitized, then it is expected that the process will eventually be programmatic.

This is clearly exemplified by the real-time bidding (RTB) on publishers’ unsold inventory across ad networks and exchanges, where data management platforms and ad serving are fully-integrated for performance-based advertising. However, this venture capital (VC) backed automation of the digital ecosystem was built with a profit motive that does not address the workflow issues related to premium direct-to-publisher insertion orders for guaranteed impression volumes on specific sites and pages. The strategic objectives of a brand marketing campaign are most often outlined in the RFP document (agency), and the winning proposals (publishers) are transferred into the media plan – you guessed it – in Excel. These premium direct-to-publisher transactions account for nearly 80% of the online display advertising revenue, although much less in terms of total impression volume.

So why is all of this work still being done in spreadsheets, where the estimated labor cost of creating and executing an online display campaign exceeds $40K?  It should not be surprising that workflow automation and partner integration are the leading subjects for 2013, with conferences and committees that are fully committed to process improvements and innovative technologies. Software as a Service (SaaS) companies have been investing in this area for years and their efforts are now getting attention from digital media buyers and sellers.

Being compensated for inefficiency (due to a cost-plus pricing model) is temporary as brand marketers continue to pressure agencies to lower costs and improve performance. Predictably, the agencies that embrace systematic approaches and new technology for improving workflow will be unshackled from the labor intensive spreadsheet solutions that rob interactive media planners of their creative time and strategic thinking. As for those highly customized client spreadsheets, their creators will not go down without a fight or at least some resistance.  Media planners should not expect any SaaS solution to mirror their current process, when re-engineering may be required to effectively migrate to a more reliable and scalable platform.

With all of these practical considerations and business cases for change, the emotional connection between the media planner and his or her spreadsheet is the hardest to break – especially when the user is also the creator.  This may be overcome by asking the media planning process owner to lead in partnership with the chosen third-party SaaS provider, and by incentivizing his or her team based on a successful platform migration.  Expect to see fewer plans created and managed on spreadsheets, as technology enables more efficient digital media planning and buying. The resulting role of tomorrow’s digital media planners will add greater value to their clients, and will fuel the creativity for effective interactive advertising that engages the online community. This will occur with a shift from:

  • Scattered spreadsheets to scalable solutions
  • Data entry to data integration
  • Copying and pasting to asynchronous ad serving
  • Custom reporting to real-time optimization
  • Cells and calculations to cross-channel ROI analysis
  • Administrative overhead to creative execution

The gears are already in motion and the changes are inevitable.  The year for programmatic planning and buying is 2013 and the time to change was yesterday.

Chris DeMartine is director of business development at NextMark.