When Lawrence Teherani-Ami was a media planner in the late '80s and early '90s, the tools of his trade included thick reference books, grid paper and a 10-key calculator. He combed stats from Simmons Research, the Audit Bureau of Circulations and MRI to help decide where to place magazine ads promoting Nike Women.
Today, he's North American media director for Wieden & Kennedy, and computers scan countless data points with lightning speed to spit out elaborate media plans.
It looks like the recipe for automation to replace yet another tranche of professionals. But marketers still need human media planners just as much as before—or so media executives claim. They just might have a different name, and bring to bear different skills.
Planners today do less administrative work, ideally freeing them to apply intuition and perspective to the conclusions of machines, says Ben Winkler, chief transformation officer at Omnicom media agency OMD.
"Some people have said that technology will be the death of the traditional media planner, and I certainly hope so," Winkler says. "It's evolve or die."
Automation makes time for humans to take on higher-value tasks, Winkler says, like formulating the right questions to ask an agency's data scientists, validating insights around clients' business and customers, and participating in training and development around new media opportunities.
Agency staffers still spend far too much time on work that's invisible to clients and adds little value, he says. Formatting data feeds for performance updates and charting brands' media activity are critical, for example, but easily turned over to computers.
Making people handle this "doesn't grow client business," Winkler says, "and it frankly stifles it."
Products from Tableau Software and Datorama have stripped out "hours and hours and hours of time" that Ali Plonchak once devoted to building data visualizations for brands, she says.
But Plonchak, now managing director for digital at indie agency Crossmedia, says technology has also created more need for talented planners—emphasis on "talented."
"It could render some mediocre planners obsolete, for sure," she says, while also increasing the value of media planners with the analytical rigor, good insight and the creativity to navigate a fragmented and evolving media landscape.
Steven Feuling, president of MDC Media Partners' Assembly, said the job has perhaps outgrown its name.
"I hate the word 'planning' because I think it has moved so far beyond that," he says.
Planners are more connected to driving demonstrable results for brands, according to Feuling. He predicts that shops will increasingly seek "planning" hires from areas like data and analytics.
Feuling himself has a nontraditional background for the ad world: He was an engineering undergraduate.
"Those are the kinds of people who will probably start to be interesting" for agencies to employ, he says.
Marketers, no less than any other professionals presented with hyped-up technology, are tempted to entrust a great deal to algorithms and artificial intelligence, executives say.
"The application of technology is intended to make things easier through automation," says Thuan Tran, exec VP for partnerships and enterprise strategy for PM Precision at Publicis Media. But "as an industry, we put too much value on the idea that technology will solve all our marketing challenges."
Technology uses historical data for media optimization, for example, meaning clients are looking into the past to make decisions about the future. That doesn't take into account fresh shifts in the environment or new consumer preferences, Tran says.
People also bring the human understanding and empathy that are necessary to build relationships with consumers, according to Tran. "There are many circumstances in which advertisers will decide on prioritizing human value over business needs," she says. "Only a human can tell you that."
OMD's Winkler agrees. "I have never seen any technology deliver a searing, business-growing insight on its own," he says. "And I doubt any ever will."
IPG Mediabrands' UM worked on a program to promote the FitBit Charge 2 last year, based on data showing a high concentration of its male fitness target was watching TNT's "Inside the NBA." The agency decided to do a nightlong step contest among the show's hosts Shaquille O'Neal and Charles Barkley, and its production staff.
Data can provide a starting point, but effective marketing can't come together without creativity and a human relationship with media partners, says J.P. Aguirre, executive VP, managing director and global managing partner at UM.
The same goes when talking about AI.
"Most clients assume that AI comes preprogrammed to be intelligent on their behalf," says Scott Hagedorn, CEO of the Omnicom media agency Hearts & Science. "That's what they've been told by various sales teams. They don't know that it's more of the pupil than the teacher, and that you have to teach it well to have it perform well on their behalf. I've been in multiple situations where direction has been given from AI that makes no sense as it hasn't learned all the variables to be predictive."
Sean Corcoran, executive director for the Americas at MullenLowe Mediahub, says automation can actually require more work at an agency, because a lot of systems don't "talk" to one another seamlessly. Data can be quite fragmented, especially when it comes to the "walled gardens" of Google, Facebook and Amazon.
The media agency Wavemaker, part of WPP powerhouse GroupM, uses software that lets media planners input certain goals for given marketers and get back suggested budget allocations on a given platform.
But the agency's U.S. chief strategy officer, David Gaines, notes that it's only a suggestion. A planner has to use his or her own discretion when making those final decisions.
An algorithm might be set up to treat special offers like the best tool to generate new customers, for example. A person might realize that it's not taking into account the amount of other interactions with the brand a given prospect has had.
David Stopforth, chief communications design officer at IPG media agency Initiative, says of those types of technologies: "We use all of those inputs, but we don't live and die by them."
Wavemaker's Gaines notes that information needed for planners is still often found across separate PowerPoint presentations, books or PC-only tools that require a lot of digging around for different kinds of information.
The agency is rebuilding all of those tools in HTML so they can be found and easily accessed with one sign-in. But for now, the disparate and disconnected sources could leave information on the table.
"We spend so much money on research and data sources that people don't use because they don't know the passwords or they don't know the link, so they don't bother," he says.
Exit middle managers
If humans' part in media planning remains safe for now, tech is still likely to change the shape of things.