I have often been asked to name the top things to watch out for or avoid as a media buyer. And, of course, the usual suspects come to mind. Things like:

  • Being friends with Reps
  • Accepting Gifts
  • Looking at the wrong numbers
  • Using broad rotators
  • Buying stations as anything other than commodities

But this is a HUGE topic, and while I’m happy to write about a handful of the most common errors, I have to qualify all of what follows with the biggest-by-far media buying mistake…


It’s been said that a man who tries to be his own lawyer has a fool for a client.

And while I wouldn’t say exactly that about business owners trying to buy their own media, the result is often the same.

It’s not you, either. It’s the media buyers.

Not all media buyers are weasels, of course.

But most of them are. And the majority of the ones who aren’t will happily go along with a sales system designed to screw you.

And if you’re trusting a traditional agency to buy for you, that doesn’t mean your buyer isn’t falling for the same traps.

Buyers are traditionally incentivized by media reps through overseas trips, cruises, event tickets, “golfcations,” etc.

And whomever places the buy gets the treats — so even if YOU haven’t been bribed by these things, that doesn’t mean your buyer hasn’t.

Also keep in mind, media sales reps live this stuff.

They sell every day and know the ins and outs of the industry and have all sorts of smoke and mirrors designed to ensure you overpay for an under-performing schedule.

Meanwhile, there’s you. You buy media once a year. Hell, it may even be your first time ever buying mass media.

Who do you think wins in that situation?

Not you — that’s who.

With that settled, let’s cover the biggest mistakes newbies tend to make:

2 Buying Radio As If It Isn’t a Commodity 

There’s only one “right” station — the one that gives you the best deal.

Air time and listenership is a commodity. Buy on price.

Meaning, always work your way from the best deal first and go down the list from there.

But what about the demographics and the audience? 

There’s no such thing as a “Unique” audience.

It’s called mass media because it reaches the masses.

Over 90% of every stations’ listeners ALSO listen to other stations. And if it’s not classical or talk radio, that number’s probably closer to 100%

Any station’s listeners can be found on other stations/ programs. So the idea of loyalty to a single TV or radio station is a myth.

Now, once you stop believing in the wonderful and unique fit between station X and your target audience, you can drive for the best deal.

And that’s when you’ve got to watch out for…

3 Getting Buddy-Buddy with Media Reps 

Did I mention that most media reps are weasels?

Well, I wasn’t lying. Account reps notoriously and dramatically over-promise and under-deliver.

And one of the keys to them getting away with this is becoming “buddies” with their buyers.

Never let the media rep get buddy-buddy with you, or try to pose as if he has your best interests at heart.

That’s the first step to them bamboozling you with false promises.

What I’m trying to say is you can’t trust the data they give you and you especially can’t believe the story the reps will spin from those figures.

And looking at the data with the right amount of cynicism means realizing the rep ain’t your friend.

There’s a saying we live by at Wizard of Ads when it comes to media reps: If you need a friend, buy a dog!

Trust me when the money dries up so does the friendship.

So don’t let ‘em pay for your drinks, give you tickets to events, invite you out, etc.

Then assume that every piece of data you receive from a media rep has been massaged manipulated to deceive you into believing you’re getting a better deal than you actually are.

But let’s look past the obvious stuff and delve into the idea of “Tricky numbers” and false promises.

4 Misleading Data and Three Kinds of Lies 

First, don’t believe that computer generated data is neutral or even accurate.

The software spits out info based on the assumptions the reps program into it, and the reps are… well, not known for honesty.

So you really have to know the half-truths and distortions the reps programmed into the software to create that data to support their sales spin.

And the biggest lie the rep uses in this situation is the notion that they have any influence whatsoever on when spots run.

They don’t.

Unless your contract specifies exactly when your spots run, assume that they’ll run in the worst time slot that they legally can.

Your commercials will go where it’s most advantageous to the station, not you.

This is one reason you don’t want to use broad rotators that give the station too much leeway on when your spots will run.

If the spots can run anytime, all day, they’ll run at 3:00 am most days.

So reps often manipulate the software to display a much better schedule, than you’ll actually get, by having the computer assume ideal spot placement, when you’ll actually get worst-case spot placement.

Or they’ll “bonus” you short-format ads — like 5-second blinks — and include those ads in the software generated reach and frequency numbers.

You really have to look line by line at anything they generate.

And if you catch the spin, the rep will claim an “Oopsy”

Yeah… did I mention most of these guys are weasels? They’ll use all three kinds of lies with equal skill: lies, damn lies, and statistics.

Diary Markets 

Diary markets means that surveyed listeners don’t wear Portable People Meters (PPM) that record the stations that they ACTUALLY listen to.

Instead, the surveyed listeners RECORD which stations they listen to in a diary. This often becomes an exercise in identity politics and popularity, rather than actual listening.

Put it this way, there’s the Netflix Queue you might want to show others, and then there’s the stuff you actually watch. Kind of similar to browsing history that way.

For example, a person might diary, identify with, and “vote” for Rock n Roll, but actually listens to Lite Adult Contemporary.

When reality differs dramatically from what’s recorded in diaries — and it always differs dramatically, as shown by every market that moves to PPM from diaries — it’s the buyer who loses.

The moral of that story is to walk away from the super high priced number one station in the diary market.

And on that score, beware of

Nielsen Numbers for Ethnic Stations 

Remember when I said that numbers change dramatically any time a market moves from diary to PPM numbers?

Well, they do.

And many of the stations hardest hit by that, back when PPM first came out, were ethnic stations.

So much so it threatened to ruin a lot of them.

People of a given ethnicity would self-identify with and “vote” for the stations that represented.

But they actually listened to more mainstream stations.

Nielsen’s answer to this was to “weight” the PPM numbers to help ethnic stations become viable again and “level the playing field.”

So when it comes to Nielsen numbers for ethnic stations, you really have to use some common sense.

Does the ethnic makeup of the community allow for a Spanish or Urban station to truly be number one in the market?

Odds are greatly against it.

If you buy based on those “weighted” numbers, you’ll get screwed. It helps the ethnic station, but it hurts the buyer.

5 Pushback and Shenanigans When You Pull Your Business 

It’s one thing to come into a market fresh and negotiate from no prior history.

But if you’ve been buying radio the way the reps like to sell it, and now you want to play hardball with them, expect some crazy crap to come your way.

Serious. As a media buyer I’ve had this stuff happen almost every time I’ve taken over a clients account.

Reps and even station managers have run to my clients with the most dire warnings of the gloom and doom, claiming I’m ruining their reputation and setting them up for failure.

Sometimes they’ll do that at the event they invited the client out to (having invited them before I could warn them of that trap).

Sometimes it’ll be on the golf course, via a proxy “concerned friend.”

If you’ve been a cash cow for them, and you’re no longer willing to roll over and get milked, they’ll do whatever they can to keep the gravy train rolling.

6 Buying Past The Point of Diminished Returns 

You know what a media rep will NEVER do?

Say no to your money.

So if you’re already heavily invested in radio (either with their station or someone else’s) and you ask if it’s worth buying more, their answer will always be “yes.” But there IS a point of diminishing returns with radio.

A point in which any further ad dollars should be invested in other media: billboards, TV, etc.

And if you don’t know how to calculate that, well, don’t expect a media rep to ever do it for you.

Again, the biggest mistake is not using a professional media buyer.

It’s always gratifying for me to hand an ad budget back to a client and say — we’ve already bought enough. You should either invest this into some other media or your business or just plain put it in your pocket.

The look of shock and gratitude and reinforced trust is priceless.

7 Letting a Media Rep Get Under Your Skin 

Maybe you’ve got the rep in one too many attempted half- truths and “oopsies.”

Maybe the realization of how badly they’ve bilked you in the past has gotten your blood boiling.

And maybe you think it’s time to push some BS yourself, just to see how the other guy likes it.

Worst of all, maybe you’re tempted to make a false threat.

This almost always ends badly for the buyer.

Like any child, an account rep will identify any and all of those things immediately, and then work any “slight” you’ve given them or any telegraphed weakness to advantage.

If an account rep can take the moral high ground from you, he’ll usually turn that into a win.

Always maintain professionalism, even when — especially when — you’re being hard nosed in your negotiations.

Bringing It Full Circle 

We just covered the seven most common media buying mistakes, but if there are seven, then there are 700.

It would take months of training and years of actually buying to get you to the point where you could see and avoid them all.

Which is why the biggest mistake is not using a professional media buyer (who isn’t a typical ad agency buyer).

So if you’d like to avoid that mistake, I’d be happy to help you out with that.

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