Why Scale Is The Most Misunderstood Media Concept

“Daddy, which number is bigger?  A thousand hundred infinity million or A million hundred infinity thousand?”

My six-year-old and my four-year-old have these contests when we’re riding in the car to see who can think up the biggest number.  Things like this happen when we go on long car trips and I opt to listen to Ozzy’s Boneyard rather than let them indulge in the backseat DVD player.  I try to lend some sense of scale to the conversation.

“Do you know how big a million is?” I ask my son.  “If you counted to a million, counting once per second, it would take you more than 11 days.  And that’s if you didn’t sleep.”

I let that sink in.

And then it sunk in with me.  Increasingly, I’m encountering stakeholders in a marketing effort who seem to have trouble wrapping their heads around large numbers.  Conceptually, they may understand reach and frequency, audiences and demographics, but their tendency is to size a media opportunity according to some other measure.

In many cases, that measure is media spending.  That is, some stakeholders tend to mentally pair off the scale of a program with their size of their media investment.  And that can get scary.

A million dollars invested in prime television, for instance, is going to reach a much larger audience than the same million dollars invested in targeted, contextual inventory within digital display.  The TV money might reach a potential audience of tens or hundreds of millions of people.  The targeted digital display inventory might reach hundreds of thousands or even thousands.  The scale of these two disparate programs are many orders of magnitude apart, even though they cost the same amount of money.

Good media planners intuitively understand this.  It’s part of their nature to understand the comparative scale of any two programs.  But some of the people they work with, from creative partners to vendors to even some clients, might not understand it as well.  And it’s the job of the media department to get all stakeholders to get their heads around it.

Scale plays a huge role in media planning, and not just in the sense of allocating dollars to the right opportunities.  Good media planners also think about scale when they think about driving a client’s business in the future.  It makes little sense to recommend a test with a new vehicle, partner or technology if the opportunity can’t scale significantly after a test proves successful.

Because in the end, the true measure of program scale is whether or not the programs you’ve implemented had impact on the client’s bottom line.

Tom Hespos is the Founder and Chief Media Officer of Underscore Marketing, an integrated media agency focusing on health and healthy brands.