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What Do Advertisers Want?

2009 August 18

In my years working with different media in different countries there has been no question more common or inevitable than, “What do advertisers want?” It’s a difficult question to answer and sometimes the process can seem totally irrational. However, through understanding how advertisers develop their strategy, you can drastically improve your grasp of what they will be willing to pay you to do for them.

Advertisers often don’t know themselves what they want and even when they do, sometimes the planners don’t let the buyers know about it. (Of course, the client has to know and tell the planner first!). Perhaps most frustrating is the fact that often people who have chosen “communication” as a profession become deaf-mutes when it comes to talking to suppliers. Deciphering what they want isn’t always straightforward.

Nevertheless, there are three factors that go into how a campaign is done (or undone!)

Business Objectives: What the business wants to achieve will drive advertising strategy.

Campaign Objectives: Goals for the campaign need to be established

Procurement: Somebody has to make the buy!

Business Driven Factors that Affect Advertising Strategy

In theory, business reality determines campaign objectives. Here are some important points:

Budget: The amount of money a marketer has to spend, will affect strategy more than anything else. If the budget is big, they will cast a wide net, but if it is limited, they will try to concentrate their efforts. Nobody’s budget is unlimited.

Product Cycle: Some products are bought every day; some have years of lag between purchases. There is probably no determinant of strategy that is more overlooked by media suppliers. This is a long subject, but I’ll give a quick summary:

– Short product cycle (i.e. soft drinks): These are products that consumers buy every day and don’t put much thought or research into. Everything else being equal, the most recent ad will be the most effective. High coverage, “call to action” media are preferred.

– Long product cycle (i.e. cars): Usually there will be two objectives. The first, to build a brand image in order to get on consumers’ “consideration lists” (usually only 3-5 brands in a category will be considered by a consumer). The second objective will be to close the sale and it will be similar to a short cycle product strategy (fast, cheap coverage). Also, the execution is usually highly promotional (come down this weekend and save!).

Sales Force: Products that have a strong sales force (i.e. business services) will mainly be concerned with brand image.

Consumer and Product: Who advertisers want to reach will help determine how they want to reach them. Different consumers vary widely in their media consumption. In much the same way, some products have high differentiation while some are more price sensitive and that will also affect both strategy and implementation.

Market share: Another factor that can be extremely important for ad strategy is relative market share. For instance, a dominant brand might want to advertise heavily in order to drown out their competition (Marlboro does this in emerging markets). Many advertisers employ an “Aggresivity Index” (Ad spend/market share) to help determine budget and strategy.

There is also an interesting Game Theory perspective involving voting models, which predict power relationships. A dominant player might want to promote the industry, as he would benefit disproportionately. A market with a 40-40-20 market share structure could actually leave the smallest player setting the tone and running the show. This type of analysis is capable of incorporating thousands or even millions of competitors (using an absolutely miserable mathematical technique called Combinatorics. Ugh!)

Campaign Objectives Help Determine Implementation

Good advertising strategy matches business objectives with campaign objectives. The following are some examples of what an advertiser will want a supplier to help them achieve:

Coverage:  Everything else being equal, reaching more people is better.   Moreover, the more people you reach generally – the more niche audiences you will cover as well.

Environment: How does the medium position the product? Marshall McLuhan said that media is like a light bulb: Unlike content, it isn’t as important for the information it contains as for its ability to create an environment. Some people would argue this point (and most of them work in TV), but I have a policy not to argue with the ghost of Marshal McLuhan.

Direct response: Some advertisers want a “call to action” to drive sales: generally radio and newspapers are considered “call to action” media. However, TV and outdoor can be quite effective and digital is showing real promise. When terms like CPA, and PPC, are used, direct response is what they want.

Location: Where people are when they are exposed to a message will affect how they consume. Radio and Digital have big advantages by being consumed heavily at work and also close to the point of purchase Proximity advertising looks like it is gathering steam. Watch out for!

Brand image: A strong brand makes everything easier. TV can do the job, but Glossy magazines are the world champions in this arena. Other media can be quite effective with non-standard promotions. Some Radio stations are amazingly good at this and there is a lot of potential in Digital as well (but Digital players really need to get their act together here). Most likely, this is where social media will find its money.

Awareness of Brand attributes: Sometimes marketers might want to emphasize brand attributes because they are new, or they have noticed from research that the attribute is important to consumers. This might make them want to veer from their normal strategy. For instance, McDonalds might want to advertise in a gourmet magazine to change the perception that their food is crap. A change in the attribute promoted can result in a complete change of strategy (and often this is what confuses suppliers the most).

You can decipher the code

As frustrating and opaque as the process can be fore media suppliers, there are some ways that you can figure out what is going on.

MMI, TGI, Scarborough, GfK, etc.: Every market has some kind of target group index research that measures both media and consumer brands on the same survey. Using this data you can come up with some pretty good assumptions about consumer target, market share, etc.

Expenditure databases: One resource that no media company should be without is an expenditure database. There is no better way to gain insight into an ad brief than to see what the client is actually buying. If a client is growing and buys products similar to yours, then they will probably be quite receptive. Conversely, if a client is cutting budgets, and buys products that are completely different than yours, don’t even bother. Also, by comparing the consumer data to the expenditure data you can come to some conclusions about the competency and honesty of the buyer.

Be prepared when you talk to clients and ask good questions: As mentioned above, marketing communication experts tend to lose their communication skills when it comes to talking to suppliers. However, if you come prepared and ask insightful questions, you can often get them to tell you what you need to know. Finally, there is nothing more important than building personal relationships with advertisers. The better your relationship, the more they will tell you.

Good luck!

– Greg

20 Responses leave one →
  1. Ann Eads permalink
    August 19, 2009

    Sorry to be so lame, but how do I get your blog emailed directly to me, like Chris Brogan does?

  2. August 19, 2009


    I’m sorry to be so lame, because I’m still trying to figure that out myself!

    Hopefully, I’ll get it cleared up soon:-)

    – Greg

  3. Vitaliy Gorduz permalink
    August 19, 2009

    Great article!
    I am going to ask my sales people those question right away. Hope they have the answers…


  4. August 19, 2009

    Glad to hear it!

  5. Vivien permalink
    August 21, 2009

    Great article but you should definetely find a way to add our mail to your list so that we can get your posts right away.


  6. August 21, 2009


    Thanks. I’m working on the e-mail thing. I hope to get it set up soo:-))

    – Greg

  7. September 23, 2009

    This question is asked by every body in ad industry.
    Even the office boy is very sensetive about the said question.

    & every body thinks about it in their own way.

  8. Craig Clynes permalink
    September 25, 2009


    As a long-time advertising sales executive, this is a very good piece. I’d like to discuss further this idea of the expenditure database. First, is it simply a list of where the advertiser is placing its media buys (print, radio, TV, electronic, etc.)? Second, do you find that most companies are willig to share this information, or do they even compile it in the first place?

    Thanks and I look forward to your response.

  9. September 25, 2009


    There are media monitoring services that do this. Methodologies differ by supplier, media and market, but the general principle is that placements are monitored and compiled along with published rates.

    I would suggest you talk to one of your agency clients and ask them what they use for competitive monitoring. Competitive analysis is an integral part of media planning so any agency with a decent client list would need to subscribe to monitoring services.

    Another way would be to just Google the information you are interested in and you should find some articles and presentations about the market in which you are interested. Then just find the source they cite for their expenditure data and Google that company. It is not possible to come up with market estimations without monitoring ad placements.

    If you are operating internationally, ZenithOptimedia publishes quarterly Worldwide Expenditure Forecasts quarterly. They cost a few hundred dollars, but it’s a pretty good information source (and the one most commonly used by investment banks so using it is a good idea for anyone doing a media business plan). They list the sources for their analysis in every country in the world.

    I hope this is helpful. Please let me know if you have any further questions.

    – Greg

  10. Stuart Nicholson permalink
    October 6, 2009

    You quite rightly state that advertisers often dont know what they want.
    In the absence of this agencies often get briefs that are unfocused and ask for everything (which clearly is impossible)-
    “Please increase my market share (but i am not going to tell you what it is now and where i want it to be)”
    Also increase awareness (not defined)
    and my sales…..
    The medium will be defined by what creative work i have
    and the budget is…..X

    Clearly what advertisers need is a focus on the core business need that they have and then to work out with their agency on how communications can focus on one or two key areas.For example, awareness might be at an acceptable level but preference to purchase might be low.That possibly links to a lack of involvement, or perhaps not enough information is available at point of need as in the case of high value purchases like cars.So a focus on information platforms(search and magazines) or high involvement (social network)may be the real focus rather than TV.

    Having defined the task the agency can more readily define a budget and a communication plan that delivers the need.Maybe the avilable budget is inadequate for the task.In that case either increase investment or reduce business expectations.
    Also the expectations for advertising need to be addressed in the context of its abilities.Since price and distribution are the main contributors to sales, the metric to be directly accountable should be something that can be more directly attributeable to the advertising (some level of awareness or information intake by the consumer).

    In these ways we can avoid using guesswork to answer a brief and also manage expectations.Thus we will avoid the unfair disapointment by clients when our campaign doesnt deliver the unrealistic aims that the above briefing will produce.

  11. October 6, 2009


    Thanks for commenting. You make a very good point about defining goals. An advertiser who expect his agency to produce results, needs to define the task.

    Crap brief = crap campaign

    – Greg

  12. ibrahim permalink
    November 9, 2009

    Virtual b’ school. Thanks my friend.

    This time I will leave you alone 😉

    but, it will not stop me from asking a question or two. What is you take on Avenue A / Razorfish? They are a kinda mashup of a digital data miner and ad agency. Their “bridge” is the info between the planners and ad placement agents. (At least this is what I am getting).

  13. November 9, 2009


    I really don’t know much because they are primarily US based. I know they have been super successful and were recently bought by Publicis.

    Also, it’s important to remember:

    – Creative Agencies say their business is ideas, but they make their money shooting expensive commercials.
    – Media agencies say that they are strategic, but make their money on TV
    – Outdoor companies say they specialize in ambient media, but make their money on standard sizes.

    Right now, search is the3 “TV” of the internet. It’s the best way to spend massive amounts of clients money effectively. Whatever the PR is, as Maurice Levy will want them to grow billings.

    While there is a big need for an “internet integrator” agency there is inherently the same problem as in 360 degree planning. Every agency thinks that they should drive the process:-))

    – Greg

  14. February 7, 2010

    First time reading a couple of your articles. Like your writing style, and of course the information you provide.

    Not sure how to relate them to my business yet, but I’m sure I’ll find your articles useful since many of us photographers are now being asked to take on roles as advisers in the process of marketing and branding due to many small businesses shying away from ad agencies.

    Never thought I would miss the buffer art directors and account execs put between us and the client. It certainly is a challenging time to be in advertising…very exciting, too!



  15. February 7, 2010

    Thanks John,

    I checked out your portfolio. Very impressive!

    – Greg

  16. Marama Castle-Brown permalink
    April 1, 2010

    Hi Greg

    I have you on my desktop and am often searching your articles for insights. I am working on a fairly major project at the moment and this article is a timely read.


  17. April 1, 2010


    Thanks. I’m glad you’re finding it useful.

    – Greg

  18. August 9, 2018

    It’s funny to read this post from so long ago, and see how so little has changed. Advertising methods might change, but the fundamentals always stay the same. Just read an Ogilvy book if you need proof of that 🙂

  19. August 10, 2018


    – Greg

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