How to make a small media budget go a long way

Mo’ money, mo’ problems…and in media it just means mo’ phone calls.

Having spent over a decade as a media planner at Saatchi & Saatchi and working on a global auto brand, it’s easy to get accustomed to really big budgets and deep pockets. Now, at a full-service ad agency with a range of budget sizes, people often ask, “You are used to big budgets so how will you work with smaller budgets and how will you change your go-to market approach?” Many clients assume an effective communications plan is based solely on how much a brand has to spend. I 100% disagree.

The question shouldn’t be “How much do you have to spend?” Rather it should be, “Who are we trying to reach and what approach will allow us to have a meaningful conversation?” The advertising industry needs to change its mind set by focusing on reaching people, not targets. Reimagine the traditional consumer target audience through humanization: a person who might just want and need the product or services being advertising. This mindset shift ensures that we’re talking with people, not at them.

Smaller budgets aren’t easy. However, if you commit to understanding the human beings you are trying to connect with, the media strategy becomes so clear. Planning can no longer be based solely on syndicated research telling us WHERE people go to consume media. The question of WHY they go there is more important than ever since media fragmentation refuses to slow down. WHY are consumers motivated to engage with a device, piece of content, story or brand, and how do we tap into those intimate media moments?

The experience of an effective planning journey is based on three core relationships:

1. Make a strategist your partner in crime – as a team, make great things happen by personally interacting with the consumer. Spend time with the people you want to talk to: find out what they like, how & why they use media, and what is valuable to them. This is a crucial step in understanding who to reach and how to reach them. Most importantly, engaging in this process minimizes waste and focuses dollars.

One time while working on a media plan for Merrick Pet Care, the strategist and I were debating the consumer profile. Something felt off. We decided to join forces for the enhanced consumer exploration. We interviewed a bunch of people who we thought fit the profile but really spent time with them – for this instance, we went to the dog park to experience their pet relationship in real time. They showed us their apps, gave us insight into what they were watching or streaming, and explained why they interact with media the way they do. It gave us new learnings about the consumer and their media behaviors which shifted the strategy and the media plan for the better.

2. Become best friends with your creative team - Ok, maybe not best friends but talk. A lot. When a brand leverages the creative and media relationship, the message and communication mode becomes more valuable to the consumer. Solving for the content and context equation allows media to serve as the gateway between brand and consumer, and ultimately may cost less to deliver more meaningful engagements.

I have learned if you demonstrate that you have their back, are willing to do what it takes to bring their idea to life and listen without judgment, you can develop a strong and beneficial relationship. It’s not easy to knock down the silos developed over the years but if you do, the benefits for the client are endless. Many years ago, I met with a vendor working on a new outdoor technology that truly embodied the strategy and creative direction. Because I spent time cultivating the creative relationship, I had the permission to walk into the ECD’s office knowing we shared a common belief – creative and media ideas were not mutually exclusive. In that instance, this new technology became the lead innovation for our campaign and the client fell in love with it. It became so much more than just a creative execution and the success metrics substantiated what we did.

3. Be a true client partner – the conversation should always be two ways. Creating trust is important and contingent upon proving success. Think about new ways to allocate the budget: what dollar amount should be dedicated to the tried-and-true media channels vs. test-and-learn opportunities vs. areas to innovate? And don’t spend it all right away. Flexibility is critical and allows for continuous optimization. Clients want the confidence in knowing an agency can address the changing landscape and potential business fluctuations in real-time.

Many times I have presented a plan to clients and recommended not to spend to budget. From a fiscally responsible perspective, they respect that. It’s not about spending ALL the money, it’s about spending the right amount to effectively reach the consumer and deliver on client objectives.

Forming these three kinds of relationships helps to holistically understand the dynamic equation of:

Content (what the brand is saying)


Context (where they are saying it)


Why they’re saying it

Empathetically reaching the whole human being; not just their labels of customer, consumer or target.

Thoughtful planning in reaching the right people at the right time can result in spending less to achieve client goals, and therefore maximized ROI.

Having experienced both, small budgets vs. big budgets it makes no difference. The approach may change but the strategy doesn’t – knowing your consumer, personally. It goes without saying that testing, optimization and flexibility should be part of every plan. Be willing to learn. Be courageous enough to make quick changes, including pulling the plug on a bad bet. Be flexible. Be nimble. Be a problem solver.

Most importantly, be a humble and grateful partner who is committed to success, regardless if your client is spending $2MM or $200MM. Despite the financial incentive, your client partner always deserves your best thinking.

Samantha Johnson is media director at Colorado agency TDA Boulder

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