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Working parents, why not tackle the school year like a media plan?

The challenges for parents of school-aged children have hit a whole other level. So what’s the answer? How do you stay organized? How do you create structure? You could simply treat it like a media plan, says 360i’s Leah Meranus.

Back-to-school has always been an exciting and hopeful time of year. New beginnings, new supplies, new clothes, and sales. Lots of sales. On the agency side, we relish this consumption alongside our clients, ensuring every promotion and every message gets to just the right person. It’s a busy time, but there’s optimism – especially for parents seeing their children tackle a new milestones. But not this year. Working parents are barely surviving with around-the-clock obligations at home and work, not to mention managing remote or hybrid learning for the kids.

Over the past few weeks, first-day-of-school pictures from across the country have cluttered our social media feeds with images of children behind masks or sitting at their newly decorated ‘home desks’. How are we going to survive this season of back-to-school? Well, like any well-designed media plan – with a clear objective, proper flighting, flexibility, creativity and accountability.

Define your objective as a working parent

A great media plan begins with a clearly articulated objective. We define objectives to help us prioritize efforts, manage resources and measure success. According to a 2017 guide published by the Harvard Business Review, parents should “have a vision of what they want working parent life to be — and lead to”. Given current challenges, this working parent vision is even more critical.

With so much uncertainty still ahead, we should articulate short- and mid-term objectives, quantifying outcomes where possible. ‘Win the new business pitch while never missing dinner with the kids‘ and ‘improve employee morale and client satisfaction while spending two hours a day on remote learning‘ are intentions that can give us direction and guide our daily decisions.

Apply a flighting strategy to your day or week

Flighting is a media scheduling tactic used to maximize advertising exposure during optimal times and to manage resources. A sound lesson for how we should approach our working parent days and weeks. Know the critical times that you are most needed – at home and work – and be fully present then, whether these are meal times, team meetings or your partner’s important client presentation.

In the moments you need to be on, communicate openly with your people – your network, your partner, your team, your peers – to ensure you have the space to deliver. And remember that for every ‘on’ flight, there must also be a period when media is off. Likewise, we need to schedule our own off moments to nurture ourselves and our personal relationships. Build in the time to exercise, have a virtual happy hour with friends or watch the latest binge-worthy show.

Also, importantly, remember to schedule time for yourself. Whatever you choose to do with that solitude, it’s that time that enables you to unwind, reboot and ultimately be more productive.

Proactively manage your flexible time

Flexibility in a media plan is about the ability to move or cancel commitments. While we can’t move everything in our day (see aforementioned ‘critical’ times), we can and must build in some flexibility. In remote working terms, I’m talking about meeting management. Schedule meetings that matter, make them efficient and prioritize those needed to accomplish your working parent objectives.

Outside of those, be OK when plans do change (which they inevitably will) and don’t be afraid to cancel appointments if it means managing your sanity. Some helpful tips I’ve gathered over the past six months: block ’no-meeting’ times each week; hold virtual office hours in place of 1:1s or team statuses; move from 60 to 45 minute meetings and 30 to 20 minute meetings; don’t schedule meetings from 3pm to 6pm on Fridays; and set designated times each week for non-critical meetings – if you can’t fit it in this week, be flexible enough to move it out a week or two.

Make room for creativity alongside efficiency

Efficiency is a requirement of most current media plans: make more with the same or less. But efficiency without creativity is undifferentiated, uninspiring and not always adequate. It’s easy to get caught in the efficiency game in our working parent lives: how many meetings squeezed in, how many emails got out, how many items checked off the to-do list. It makes us feel productive but not always accomplished. It also leads to burnout. Digital anthropologist Rahaf Harfoush reminds us that burnout makes us less creative: “We aren’t machines, and it’s time we stopped working like one.”

Creativity, the ability to find or generate new ideas or solutions, is critical to our business, clients, wellbeing and role as parents. Working and parenting from home can be very productive with some organization, but don’t confuse more work with better work. Focus on getting meaningful work done rather than just more and, at the end of each week, take note of what you’re most proud of. If it’s about checking more boxes, remind yourself of why you got into advertising in the first place.

Be accountable and optimize as needed

Once a media plan is launched, we track its progress and success alongside pre-defined objectives, learning and optimizing as we go. Those working parent objectives we defined are not only important to give us direction, but also to keep us accountable and to remind us of our successes. We deserve to recognize our wins while we manage the additional burdens of this back-to-school season. And when things are not going as planned, we course correct, ‘optimizing‘ behaviors, schedules and relationships that are most productive and satisfying while changing those that are not or that cause additional stresses. As part of these learnings, it’s OK to ask for help and even to say no.

While we can make parallels between media planning and preparing for this year’s back-to-school season, we know the new reality has no benchmarks and no precedent. Like any well-designed media plan, there will be unforeseen changes and necessary pivots. We know the coming months won’t be easy, but as parents, marketers and leaders, we will do the best we can. And we’ll all deserve an award once this case study is finished.

Leah Meranus is the executive vice-president and managing director of integrated media at 360i.

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