Media Buying Guide: What It Is & How to Get Started

By Tinuiti Team

Media buying is an important process for almost any business, with paid online advertising, TV advertising, audio advertising, out-of-home advertising and more being crucial aspects of many multichannel marketing strategies. However, online and offline advertising are far from simple, and digital in particular is getting more challenging every year as a variety of platforms struggle to balance effective targeting with privacy considerations.

In this guide, we’ll explore how media buying works today, its importance, how to overcome challenges, and trends to watch out for.

What Is Media Buying?

Media buying refers to the act of procuring ad space or time. Digital media buying occurs when buyers purchase ad space via online ad networks, social media platforms, or directly from website or podcast owners. Offline media buying occurs when buyers purchase ad space or time with television networks, radio stations, or through out-of-home (OOH), including billboards and digital signage ads.

Media buyers will work to manage advertising budgets and optimize ad performance. They must consider factors such as where the target audience is likely to be, the cost of ads of various placements, and how often ads should run. Typically, media buyers are part of the overall marketing team and work closely with other marketing staff.

Media Buying vs. Media Planning

Media buying is different from media planning, although the same people may be involved in both. Discover a bit more about these two critical advertising tasks and how they go hand-in-hand below.

Media Planning

Media planning comes before media buying. The role of a media planner is to conduct research and lay out a strategic framework that the media buyer can bring to life. Some components of a strong media plan include:

It’s important to note that media planning is not a task that takes place in an advertising vacuum. Media planners may also plan other types of marketing, or work closely with teams that are handling social media, email, and content marketing. It’s critical that ad campaigns work seamlessly with these other channels to support overall marketing success.

Media Buying

Once a plan is created, media buyers use various tools to implement the plan. Media buyers are responsible for reviewing the insights provided and boundaries set by the media plan so they know what type of media mix to seek, what audiences the ads are meant to connect with, and how much marketing spend is allowed for each campaign. Much of the value they bring comes through their awareness of the media marketplace, access to unique opportunities, and their skilled negotiation, helping to stretch each advertising dollar for the greatest impact.

Once they understand the plan, media buyers use varied processes to execute it, including leveraging programmatic buys, direct buys, or both. Programmatic and direct buying are covered in greater detail in the section on different media buying methods below.

Why Is Media Buying Important?

The act of media buying is essential if you want to advertise, and advertising is critical for most businesses today. It can be difficult to drive enough organic traffic or engagement to sustain revenue without some advertising efforts. That’s even more true for startups and new product launches, because it can take months for organic efforts such as SEO to have a real impact on traffic and visibility.

Some key reasons to invest in a more strategic media buying effort include:

More informed negotiations

Experienced media buyers keep up with current trends in the industry and are accustomed to leveraging negotiation techniques to get the best deal possible. They will be able to get networks or publishers to agree to added value to enhance the ROI of ad spend, and execute first-to-market opportunities that truly help a brand stand out from the clutter.

Ability to optimize ad placements

Experienced media buyers have existing relationships and connections within the industry that can help them in securing strong ad placement, and in optimizing campaigns as they evolve. Having deep connections with network partners is critical in continuing to collaborate on what is working (or not) as brands look to hit their KPIs.

Options for cross-channel integrated campaigns

It’s important not to think of your media buys in a silo, instead focusing on the right mix to properly support and amplify each effort.

Example: Let’s assume your brand will be airing their first prime time commercial on Black Friday. You’ve put a lot of time, research and money into producing a TV commercial that captures your brand energy, and it will ideally serve as an introduction of your brand to a whole new audience. You’ve also focused on a new product line you’re launching in the ad, which will be appealing to new and existing customers. Simply put—you’ve put a lot into this commercial, and you want to be sure you get the most from your investment.

Now, imagine your total media buy for this holiday launch included only the commercial ad spot—an expensive one-and-done that you were hoping would be impactful enough to carry the whole campaign. That’s neither realistic nor the best use of your money.

In an integrated media buy, that same messaging would be seen before, during, and after the commercial airs. This might include pre-air social media promotion efforts, encouraging folks to tune into the commercial for an exciting brand announcement. It can also include additional linear and/or Streaming TV buys that run surrounding the airing to build familiarity amongst the audience. Whatever advertising channels you have available can be considered in the media buy from the outset to ensure you have proper supporting media planned and budgeted for.

“For tentpole events especially, it’s important to leverage supporting media on the platform itself, in addition to amplifying the message across all other marketing channels. Getting the message in front of the largest number of people possible is only part of the equation; repeating that same message across other platforms with the right reach and frequency helps make sure that big impression sticks.”

Stefanos Metaxas, EVP, Client Strategy & Analytics, Streaming+ at Tinuiti

Quality Creative Matters

Showing up in the right places at the right time for the right audiences is important, but it’s not everything. How you show up matters just as much.

We asked Stefanos Metaxas, EVP of Client Strategy & Analytics, Streaming+ at Tinuiti, to provide insight into what our creative process typically looks like…

Stefanos Metaxas

“Our creative process varies depending on a few key factors. For example, the steps we take for a client who has signed on for our creative services will be different from those we’d take if a client was providing creative work their in-house team produced.

If a client provides us with ready creative, we review it for any straightforward optimization opportunities. We’ll often provide feedback to determine if small edits are possible—such as adding an end card, a logo, or a call to action.

If a client has in-process creative, one of our team members can provide a light review, taking a closer look at the storyboards to ensure everything is buttoned up. Occasionally, we might also submit the creative for approval or prior oversight from the networks themselves if the brand is promoting anything that might impact the networks’ internal review processes. This is rarely required, but a step we proactively take for select industries to ensure our campaigns launch without a hitch when the time comes.

If a brand is looking for a true creative partner to guide them through every step of the process, we’ve got you covered with our creative services arm.”

How Different Media Buying Methods Work

Media buying might sound like a pretty specific task, but it actually covers a wide range of methods. Some businesses concentrate on programmatic media buying, for example, while others focus more heavily on direct buying and offline media. At Tinuiti we employ a mix of all methods, giving us flexibility in aligning media plans with clients’ business goals.

Programmatic vs. Direct Buys

Programmatic buys are orchestrated with help from automated technical tools. Artificial intelligence is used to create programmatic advertising buying decisions that conduct real-time bidding at a pace and scale that is impossible to maintain manually.

Typically, these processes are run based on algorithms that match ad opportunities to campaign profiles set up by your media buyers. The better media teams are at dialing in these profiles and the more clarity provided on the KPIs, the better the outcome.

In contrast, direct buying refers to manually negotiated ad contracts with specific media partners or programs.

When you use something like Google Ads, you’re typically engaging in programmatic buying. If you negotiate ad space with a website owner directly or pay to sponsor an individual podcast, that would be direct buying.

Full-Service vs. Self-Service

When you’re working to set up media buying for your business, you’ll first decide between self-service and full-service buying. Full-service media buying—commonly referred to as managed-service—is offered by digital ad and performance marketing agencies like Tinuiti.

With self-service media buying options, you handle all the work to implement and execute your plan. That includes uploading the necessary information to ad networks and making needed adjustments to campaigns to optimize performance.

Full-service media buying

In a full-service arrangement, a dedicated media buying team negotiates directly with the publishers on your behalf, using their scale to get you better rates than you might going it alone. A good partner will work with you to create the media plan, shoot and edit the right creative, and align (and place buys for) a media plan with your specific goals in mind.

“If you want to go it alone, you can buy whatever network you want, but is it going to align with who you’re trying to reach, when you’re trying to reach them, and actually result in a conversion and/or an increase in brand lift? That should be determined by someone who is an expert in the field. It takes a lot of experience to do so, in addition to our proprietary tools that allow us to design media plans around clients’ goals.”

Stefanos Metaxas, EVP, Client Strategy & Analytics, Streaming+ at Tinuiti

You’ll also want to explore what your partner can offer regarding measurement and reporting. Not every agency offers measurement, and among those that do, some are using a third-party measurement tool that isn’t really built for this particular application.

At Tinuiti, our measurement capabilities—and the resultant reporting and insights they provide—play a pivotal role in the data-driven media buying strategies we execute for our clients.

Our teams provide robust measurement that helps you understand how the media you’re running impacts your business. This measurement helps inform future media buys, so we’re able to constantly refine your campaign for maximum effectiveness and efficiency.

Offline Media Buying

Traditional media outlets are a valuable advertising option for many businesses, often working in tandem with online buys. These include television and radio advertising as well as out-of-home (OOH) media, such as billboards and signs at transit stations. To maximize ROI for these ad formats, media teams must be creative and well-informed about the needs and habits of their target audiences.


Our definition of TV is evolving as most people typically watch both linear TV and Streaming TV on the largest screen in the house—often, in the living room. If you’re working with the right partner, they will work with your budget to plan a media buy that will help you achieve your goals. Agencies like Tinuiti do have campaign minimums to ensure a clear read on results, but both linear TV advertising and Streaming TV advertising may be more affordable than you think—particularly for campaigns designed to test the performance waters.

Radio Networks

Radio advertising is an established advertising medium that enables you to reach wide and varied audiences while they work, commute, exercise, cook and clean, and more.

Radio advertising is broadly broken into two categories—terrestrial radio (traditional) ads and Streaming radio ads. While traditional radio advertising has its benefits, one of its biggest drawbacks is the difficulty in measuring its performance.

At Tinuiti, we typically recommend digital audio advertising as an alternative to terrestrial radio. For Streaming radio ads, we are able to track KPI outcomes, and use those learnings to continually improve our clients’ campaigns.

“Streaming audio is very measurable. Similarly to Streaming video, we use data to measure the impact of impressions across the audio landscape, including podcasts, without relying on HDYH surveys and promo codes.”

Stefanos Metaxas, EVP, Client Strategy & Analytics, Streaming+ at Tinuiti

Out-of-Home Advertising (OOH)

Out-of-home advertising options include an increasingly wide variety of methods and tactics, including traditional billboards and digital signs, transit advertising, experiential advertising, and guerilla marketing. When buying this type of media, it’s important to consider the optimal placement for your message and audience.

For example, if you can quickly convey a relevant message to professional commuters on their way to work via the freeway, a billboard might be ideal. However, if your message is more complex and takes a bit more time to digest, you might fare better with a digital sign at a bus stop or metro station.

How the Media Buying Process Works

Your media buying process must work with your business and marketing goals and integrate well with other processes, such as sales and customer service. But there are some steps in media planning and media buying that every organization should consider.

Set Goals & KPIs

Start by understanding your primary goals, and how you’ll measure performance. This includes considering:

Define Your Target Audience

Every ad campaign should have a well-defined target audience that you’re trying to elicit some kind of response from, whether that’s making them aware of your brand or buying something. Insights into the desired audience help the media buyer optimize bidding strategies to support campaign performance.

Sometimes, your entire target audience is an appropriate audience for an ad campaign. It’s more likely, however, that a segment within the larger set is the best audience for a specific ad, offer, or product. For example, an online bookstore running an ad campaign centered on summer reading would want to target an audience composed of people including parents, grandparents, and teachers.

Research Media Channels

You could simply throw all your ad budget at a single network and call it a day. However, if hitting your goals was that simple, media planners and buyers wouldn’t exist! Instead, it’s important to research a wide variety of media channels to determine how they can align with the target audience and goals for a given ad campaign.

At Tinuiti, our strategic planning team uses tools to determine the optimal mix of channels to reach a specific audience, as well as the budget we should allocate to those channels.

Media channels can include, but aren’t limited to:

Determine Your Required Budget

It’s important to begin by defining your audience and determining where that audience consumes media before setting your budget; these two elements greatly impact how much you’ll need to spend to reach the right audiences in the right locations, and at the right frequency.

Send Requests for Proposals (RFPs) – Self-Service

If you choose to take the self-service route, your process should include sending RFPs to glean more information about ad opportunities. It’s important to be specific in your RFP and ask for the data you need to make the best possible decisions with your ad budget. When you ask for specific information consistently across all your RFPs, you also build a data bank of apples-to-apples info that can be used to make better media buying decisions.

Some information to ask for in an RFP includes:

If you’re working with an experienced, full-service partner like Tinuiti, we would not recommend or require you RFP networks on your own. Our media buying team is already fully versed in the available offerings, and in some cases have pre-negotiated preferential pricing. This can stretch your campaign budget further than the rates you’d get independently might allow for.

Submit Insertion Orders (IO)

Only applicable to direct deals, this is the agreement between you and the publisher about your ad. At Tinuiti, we have a sophisticated interface that generates, sends, and maintains IOs. Because you need an IO for each ad deal, we recommend working from templates to make the IO process efficient and accurate if you’ll be going the self-service route.

Each IO must contain the terms and conditions of the agreement. Large publishers, vendors, and brands may want their terms used for the IO, but there is also often some room for negotiation. An experienced media buyer knows when negotiation is possible and can use tactics to get more favorable terms and conditions for the advertiser.

Launch Your Campaign

Once all your creative and paperwork is in order, you’re ready to launch your campaign. This can take mere minutes, as with small ad campaigns on social media, or days to weeks, as is common with out-of-home advertising.

Measure & Optimize Live Campaigns

Once campaigns go live, the media team’s job is not done. It’s important to regularly measure the performance of campaigns and optimize them when and where possible to keep up with changing conditions, or in response to insights.

Many digital ads can be changed quickly and easily, with updates taking effect within hours if not minutes. Historically, the insights necessary to make these in-flight optimizations haven’t been available for television advertising. Brands would launch a two-month ad campaign and have to wait until it was finished to have any real insights into its performance.

At Tinuiti, our robust measurement capabilities unlock and enable in-flight optimizations that can be quickly implemented, even in traditionally inflexible channels like linear TV.

Review & Analyze the Campaign’s Final Spend

Once the campaign is over, conduct a debriefing. Analyze how much you spent and what results were driven by that spend. Ask the team whether something could have been done differently and better and what lessons were learned from the campaign. If something worked really well, note it for future efforts.

Overcoming Media Buying Challenges

Media buying is a complex process that can come with any number of challenges. If the media plan isn’t well-thought-out, for example, it can leave the buyer spinning their wheels. Or if the audience isn’t clearly defined, the buyer’s efforts are not likely to lead to great success. Here are a few other common media buying challenges.


As previously mentioned — more than once, because it’s that important — you must be able to accurately measure the performance of your ad campaigns. Without the right metrics, you can’t determine what is working and what isn’t. That means you can’t make data-backed decisions to improve ad performance in the future or justify your ad spend. Note that we are defining “performance” as the ability of a campaign to impact KPIs that are important to a brand, whether that is brand awareness or conversions for example. Even in a pure brand campaign, you need to maintain some bottom-of-funnel guardrails to keep the business on track, so measurement is important no matter what your ultimate goal is.

Data-driven attribution that ties conversions and revenue to specific ad campaigns has historically been a challenge in the clickless TV space in particular. As a performance-oriented marketing agency, overcoming that challenge was crucial to our continued success. At Tinuiti, there is no reporting black box. Our robust measurement and reporting helps fuel campaign efficiency and performance while providing our clients with the detailed insights they need.

Ongoing Optimization

The ability to adjust live campaigns in real-time gives you increased potential power over performance; that’s especially true when you have consistent, accurate measurement.

Thanks to our team’s detailed and actionable campaign insights, we are able to regularly optimize campaigns based on up-to-date information. There is no endless loop of “waiting for a campaign to end” to see how it performed, and “waiting for next time” to try something different; we are always measuring and appropriately optimizing.

Ad Fraud

Client hijacking is a form of ad fraud that involves a cybercriminal redirecting clicks on your ad to a different ad. In essence, the scammer steals the click, but you still pay for it.

As a media buyer, it’s important to be aware of this and other issues, and understand the signs that it might be happening to your ads. If you’re eating through your budget, for example, but you don’t see the traffic that the clicks seem to indicate, your ad might have been targeted. You can contact the ad network to report the issue.

Brand Safety

Programmatic advertising presents a challenge for brand safety. If your ads are associated with the wrong words or context by ad algorithms, you might end up with a brand reputation issue. For example, a children’s toy brand doesn’t want its ads showing up next to violent content.

Media buyers can reduce some of these issues with custom keyword lists and negative keywords. You do need to take care with these tactics, though, because if you’re too cautious, you can unnecessarily limit your advertising opportunities.

Examples of Media Buying Platforms

There are many media buying platforms to choose from, and when you’re buying ads to support various campaigns, you may need to work with more than one. We encourage you to put some time into researching which options work best for your particular business, with some summaries for popular platforms below to get you started…

Proprietary Tools

Tinuiti’s product offering includes tools with which our teams can plan, execute, and monitor media buys across a variety of landscapes such as linear TV, OTT, and digital audio. This synthesizes what can be an enormous amount of individual campaigns into a single platform for consistency and ease of use by our buyers, and for viewing performance.

We transact in this platform whether we are issuing IOs directly to partners, or buying these channels programmatically. We have also built and continue to iterate on our internal tools to “talk” to other platforms in the digital marketplace, like a demand side platform (DSP) for programmatic buying.

Google Display & Video 360

Google Display and Video 360 provides end-to-end management for display and video ads on the Google network. As the arguable king of digital advertising networks, Google has a lot to offer, including collaborative workflows and a truly amazing amount of data.

You can customize dashboards to keep an eye on your media efforts and involve your entire media team — from creative to analytics. You can also streamline the audience management process, because your audience insights are accessible in a single location and support all types of ads.

Finally, Google tools are backed by a high level of automation options powered by Google technology, making for easy-to-scale ad efforts.

The Trade Desk

The Trade Desk is a media buying platform that helps you advertise to the right audiences, whether they’re local or on the other side of the globe.

You can use this platform to plan future campaigns, implement and optimize current campaigns, and measure your success. Media buyers who use this platform get access to more than their own data. Premium partners can make use of data from around 2 million segments from other partners, which can help you optimize ads even if your business or product line is very new.

The Trade Desk also has in-house data scientists and engineers that can help develop custom solutions and approaches to advertising.

Amazon DSP

Amazon DSP is a demand-side platform that provides access to ad opportunities on Amazon as well as other locations online. This platform provides exclusive access to Amazon ad opportunities, which can be critical for those with an Amazon Store or products on the platform.

However, you don’t have to sell products on Amazon to use this platform. Amazon DSP also comes in self-service and managed-service options, so you can get the right level of service for your business needs.

Amazon also offers a lot of education and training, providing a path for almost anyone to gain success with this DSP. Agencies and other professionals may want to take one of Amazon’s DSP certification courses to demonstrate their knowledge.


Criteo specializes in connecting advertisers with retailers and publishers. Specifically, it works with businesses such as Shopify and Best Buy, and it helps get your ads in front of retail customers who are primed to make purchases.

A particular strength of this platform is that it relies primarily on first-party data to support automated ad decisions. This helps reduce the impact of the crackdown on third-party data on digital advertising.

Adobe Advertising Cloud

Adobe Advertising is an Adobe product that integrates seamlessly with other offerings from the software giant. This might be a good platform to use if you already use Adobe for ad creative or project management, as you can easily add media buying processes to your workflow.

The AI power of Adobe Sensei helps you forecast ad budgets and automatically optimize ads, and you can get real-time actionable insights that help you drive current ad performance and make better media buying plans and decisions in the future.

Watch These Trends in Media Buying

Digital landscapes evolve rapidly, so it’s important to keep an eye on trends. Some of the most important and stickiest trends to consider in media buying today include:

Apply What You’ve Learned to Your Next Ad Campaign

Take the time to create strong media plans and support your media buying teams. Find out more about optimizing non-click-based media by visiting Tinuiti’s Streaming+ page.

You Might Be Interested In

*By submitting your Email Address, you are agreeing to all conditions of our Privacy Policy.