June 23, 2021

Media Buying: Essential Guide

The Wrapbook Team
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Media buying is a critical step in connecting advertisers to audiences.

But how does media buying work? What does a media buyer do? And why is it all so important?

In this post, we’ll answer those questions and more, as we unravel the mysteries of print, broadcast, and digital media buying to help you prepare for your next media purchase. So whether you’re a first time agency owner, a producer looking to advertise your film, or an all together newbie on the subject, we’re here for you. 

Let’s get to it.

What is media buying?

Media buying in advertising refers to the process of negotiating and purchasing ad space on one or several marketing channels. The purpose is to find the right spot, time, and context to deliver your content to the right audience.

If you’re a film producer for example, your marketing strategy usually involves a media buy in the form of trailers and billboards across the country and in the online space. Your goal is likely to make people aware of your movie and hopefully, have glorious box-office success. 

Most of us have some awareness of TV media buying, the process by which advertisers purchase time to run their commercials, but the media buying definition covers a much wider spectrum of media purchases than even that.  

Types of media buying

At this point, the most common type of media buying is digital. 

So we’ll start there. 

Online media buying

If you’ve ever seen a banner ad on your favorite website, or video ads on your social media, you’ve stumbled upon an advertiser’s digital media buying process. Learn more about this below. Though, we will expand on this in much more detail in the next few sections.


If you’ve ever seen a commercial in the middle of your favorite television show, you’ve witnessed the end result of an advertiser’s TV media buying process. 

Another example- say part of your film’s marketing strategy is to participate in media buying, you might place a 10 or 15 second TV spot across channels featuring a shorter version of your movie’s trailer. This version would probably have a few key takeaways and the release date. 

Take a look at the Jason Bourne trailer.

There’s a 5 second teaser before the trailer itself.

It’s an ad for the film when the full trailer can’t be shown and also acts as an intro for the trailer. 

Marketing, man. 

“Out of home” 

If you’ve ever driven past a billboard, or a bus with a big movie poster slapped on its side, you’ve also driven past a classic example of a paid media buying process. This is sometimes referred to as “out-of-home” or (OOH).

Media Buying - Movie Billboard Ads - Wrapbook
Billboards are still one of the most common ways to market films.

If you’re a producer with a bigger budget, billboards on Sunset Ave., might just be the money-maker. 


Regardless of online platforms, print ads like newspapers and mags are still read. They can be a great way to promote your brand or your creative project. 


Radio, or even more recently, podcasts, can be a super effective media buy. If you’re a small business, local stations are a great way to reach new and pre-existing customers. Indie films may also have luck purchasing space on local radio stations. 

Live events

During a big music festival, there might be an LED screen playing ads in between bands or elsewhere in the venue. Brands might purchase these specific spots if relevant to their goals. 

And this list really and truly goes on and on.

Basically, if you’ve seen any kind of advertisement anywhere in any form, it’s probably safe to assume that someone engaged in paid media buying to put it there.

A few terms to know

Before we move on to our breakdown of the media buying process, let’s take a moment to check out some terms with which you might want to be familiar before diving into your next paid media buying venture.

Keep in mind that the traditional and digital media buying landscapes are constantly shifting, so the following list should by no means be considered exhaustive.

Media mix

The term “media mix” refers to the blend of marketing channels that an advertising campaign will utilize in meeting its objectives.

It describes how much of a campaign’s focus and budget will be allotted to each channel (i.e. how much time or money will be allotted to television commercials versus billboards versus radio ads versus website banners, etc.) and how the individual channels will synergize with one another to achieve the campaign’s overall goals.

Manual bidding, programmatic media buying, and direct buying

Manual bidding is the practice in which a marketing team bids on ad space directly on a space-by-space basis and without the involvement of a third-party service.

Manual Bidding is often facilitated by digital media buying platforms that eliminate the necessity (though not necessarily the advantages) of a middleman.

Programmatic media buying is an automated form of media buying that purchases ad space through the guidance of algorithms and artificial intelligence.

Programmatic media buying represents a modern, data-driven approach to traditional media buying, but it requires careful monitoring and adjustment to keep up with a campaign’s evolution over time.  

Direct buying is the practice of negotiating ad space directly with a given advertiser.

When engaged in direct buying, a media buyer reaches out directly to a specific publication, website, or other advertising entity to hash out the price and other details of their desired ad placement. Direct buying can, therefore, be more customizable than other methods of bulk or targeted media buying in advertising (like programmatic media buying), but it can also be significantly more time-consuming.

How does media buying work?

Now that we’re familiar with the basics of media buying, let’s take a look at how to do it.

Let’s divide the media buying process into three major stages.

Stage 1: Research and prepare targeted strategy

The first stage of media buying is all about research and planning. It’s generally about getting your ducks in a row. 

To understand how media buying begins, we have to realize that all media buying- whether it be TV media buying, or even buying up live event space, (whatever it is), is targeted.

As the buyer, now is the time to really know who your target audience is and where is the best spot for that audience to see and retain the ad. 

If you’re an owner of an agency, the same is true but you’re spending a lot of time connecting with and listening to the client to ensure you are getting them the best possible result. Knowing their target audience, and the ins and outs of their product, service, or even film, is vital. 

This all happens through an intimately connected but technically separated process known as media planning.

Get to know media planning

It’s exactly what it sounds like. 

Media planning is the process of clarifying a brand’s marketing goals and developing a plan to achieve those goals in the real world. 

It’s the reason toy commercials play during cartoons and beer commercials play during football games, instead of the other way around.  

Though they may seem different, the practices of media planning and buying are connected on a fundamental level, so much so that the process of media planning could be considered the first and arguably most important step in the process of media buying itself.  

To simplify for our purposes, you could say that media planning is, in part, a way of developing a targeted media buying strategy. It’s the practice of market research and brand development through which advertisers figure out when, where, and how to reach the audience for their ads.

In other words, if the media buying definition encompasses the entire process of purchasing ad space, the media planning definition would encompass the entire process of selecting which ad space to purchase.

Navigating the intersection of media planning and buying to develop a strong targeted media buying strategy is the key to unlocking the paid media buying process itself. Equipped with the right information, you’ll have the exact tools you need to overcome virtually any challenge that traditional or digital media buying throws your way.

And once you have a solid media plan in hand, it’s time to move onto the next logical step:

Putting that plan into motion.

Stage 2: Execute on strategy

While the media planning and buying processes are intricately connected, the latter is, fortunately, far more straightforward than the former. In fact, under ideal circumstances, the physical practice of either traditional or digital media buying should be as easy as making any other negotiable purchase you’re likely to encounter.

Your targeted media buying strategy outlines who your target audience is, how you want to reach them, where you want to reach them, and when you want to reach them.

With that in mind, your goal in buying the media is to simply purchase the ad space that best meets those needs at the best price possible.

Sounds easy, right?

Of course, actually accomplishing that in the real world means communicating and negotiating with sales associates, account executives, and other media representatives. It means doing tons of research, knowing what prices are reasonable, knowing what prices aren’t reasonable, and figuring out who the heck to call about it in the first place.

And if that sounds like it should be a separate job unto itself, well…

…It is.

They’re called “media buyers.”

Time to bring in a media buyer

Media buyers are professionals who specialize in navigating the buying process. They have the specific networks, skill sets, and experience to meet the needs of a media planning team with minimal hassle. They’re also experts who can adjust a paid media buying strategy mid-stream if an initial ad placement plan is failing to achieve its intended goals.

And modern media buyers come in many forms. There are large media buying agencies, small media buying companies, and even online digital media buying platforms designed to facilitate direct media purchases by brands or advertisers.

Expert media buyers like Ezra Firestone (CEO of Smart Marketer) know the importance of buying traffic for online media buys. Watch as he chats with digital marketer and educator, Molly Pittman.

The question of which type of media buyer is right for you or your brand depends entirely on your unique circumstances, but the basic idea of media buying always remains the same:

Buy the ad placement that meets your marketing goals.

Speaking of goals, what if hiring a media buyer isn’t aligned with those goals?

Do I always need a media buyer?

Depending on if you’re a first time agency owner or someone with ample spend, your goals and processes will likely be very different. And so hiring a media buyer may not always be an option. Or, at least, not an option yet. 

But there are some golden standards to consider that have no bearing on your wallet at all. 

Before you decide to hire a media buyer, ensure these universal goals are met. 

  1. Always strive to get the best results for clients. 
  2. Ensure profit margins are sizable for you as a business owner.
  3. Create standard practices around what is and isn’t working.

These goals can act as your north star when trying to determine if you should hire out or do it yourself.   

Here’s a quick scenario to show what I mean:

If you’re reading this post, you may be new to media buying, but there might be a chance you’re at least somewhat familiar with buying ads. 

Use this ad knowledge.

Maybe you’re a new agency owner. You have this ad knowledge and only have about three to four clients. Why not keep profit margins sizable by buying the ads yourself? Why not really focus on each client?  Being devoted to only three or four clients gives you the time and space to really learn from each client and ultimately deliver the best results.

Once you feel more comfortable with the process and are creating better results consistently, it might be time to hire more people. And as you add a few more hires and take on a few more clients, that’s when hiring a media buyer might make sense. 

Likely somewhere in between you having a few clients to you being in a position to hire a media buyer, you have created standard operating procedures (or SOPs) that you can scale as your company grows. This can include processes that can make your employees even better at their jobs. These SOPs can be basic protocols that you learned from writing bad copy vs copy that actually converted.  

Once you bring on a media buyer, you can get them acclimated to your SOPs and continue to scale to reach even loftier goals. 

But that brings up an important question.

Once you do make a media purchase, whether with or without a hired-out media buyer, how do you know if you’re reaching your goals? 

Stage 3: Reflect on effectiveness 

The final stage of the media buying process is all about determining whether or not your media buys are working. To know if your hard work was worth it, you need identifiable results.

Track metrics

Once you’ve purchased your placements and sent your advertisements off into the wild world of consumers, it’s time to start tracking the stats. You’re going to want to keep an eye on impressions (total number of times an ad is seen by audience), net reach (number of individuals who see a given ad at least once), and click through rates and any other numbers that are relevant to your unique marketing goals.

The combination of these relevant numbers will offer a clear determination of the success or failure of your ad placements.

But judgment is not all that the stats have to offer.

To the diligent, they can also offer redemption.

Take the time to keep an eye on the cold hard stats. This affords media planners and buyers the opportunity to change their media buying strategies mid-stream, so that they may be able to correct errors in their initial plans before too much damage is done.

With just a little reflection and adjustment, a not-so-great initial media buy could be leveraged to create an incredible media buying strategy in the long term.

Understand where you’ve been to know where you are going

See, the final stage of the media buying process isn’t as “final” as you might think. Advertising campaigns are evolving all the time, and media buys should be evolving right alongside them. Continuous research on the latest trends should always be part of your process.


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Tips for making and negotiating media buys

Now that you understand the media buying process in broad strokes, let’s review a few specific takeaways. 

Here are five tips for making and negotiating the right media buys for your next ad campaign.

1.    Have a clear goal in mind

The first key to choosing the best media buys for your campaign is to know what you want each media buy to achieve.

Having a clear goal in mind to begin with will help you target marketing channels and avoid pitfalls. It will also give you a baseline for determining whether or not your media buys were successful later on.

2.    Be cognizant of your context

It’s critical to be aware of not just the contents of your campaign, but also the context of your campaign. You need to keep one eye on what’s going on in the cultures that live around your advertisements.

Doing so is obviously important in optimizing your campaign and avoiding errors, but it will also grant you a more comprehensive perspective on your media mix, which will in turn be a direct benefit to your individual media buys.

3.    Mix it up

In most cases, an ad campaign should not be limited to a single marketing channel. The most important question is not, “How does TV media buying work?” or “How does digital media buying work?” but “How can media buys work together?”

If you mix up your individual media buys, they’ll be better able to support one another as a “team” working to achieve the goals of your campaign. A healthy mix of media buys will provide a wider range of strategic buying options, which should also put you in a better position for individual negotiations.

4.    Be budget conscious

Whether you’ve worked as an account representative or are used to building AICP bids, if you’ve worked in any corner of the advertising industry, you already know the importance of minding the till.

When making media buys, it’s important to know your price points and to start your negotiations well below them. The only thing worse than an ineffective media buy is a media buy that blows up the budget.

5.    Get what you pay for

Once you’ve made a media buy, it’s crucial to make sure that your marketing channel is providing the agreed-upon services.

Contracts are both the unsung heroes and sneaky villains of media buying. When signing a contract for a media buy, be sure that its language clearly states the conditions that you’ve agreed upon for the purchase. Doing so early on will protect you before, during, and after your advertisement is put in place.

Media buying companies

Finally, before we wrap up, here’s a quick list of some of the biggest digital media buying platforms active today:

-       Google Marketing Platform

-       Adobe Advertising Cloud

-       Verizon Media

-       Amazon DSP

-       AdCritter

-       AdColony

-       The Trade Desk

-       Adelphic

-       Criteo

-       Simpli.fi

-       Centro

-       Xandr

-       Acuity

As stated above, you don't need to outsource a media buyer, but if you do, it's always good to know where to go.

Wrapping Up

The landscape of media buying is constantly evolving. Innovative media buying practices in unique marketing channels (like the immersive marketing tactics of HELO or Stripe’s sponsorship of the de-extinction documentary, We Are As Gods) are increasingly common.

However, the fundamental goal of media buying will never change.

A good media buy exposes your brand to the right people at the right time in the right place and in the right light. It helps make a meaningful connection between a brand (or creative project) and its audience.

Last Updated 
June 23, 2021


At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

About the author
The Wrapbook Team

The Wrapbook Team consists of individuals who are thrilled about building modern software tools for creators. We’re a team of compassionate and curious people dedicated to solving complex problems with sophisticated solutions. You can find us across the U.S. and Canada.

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