3 Steps to Negotiating

I developed my first media plan more than 15 years ago and as I was shifting from my role of Media Planner (who tells the client where the budget should be spent) to Media Buyer (executing the approved tactics), I learned there was a game to it.

Negotiating is a skill, plain and simple.

People who are great negotiators (like myself, I say humbly) see high ROI for their clients and their work is often rewarded (I have been nominated for four Effies and won one). People who are learning (where the best of us start) just need practice (remember, like anything you want to master it takes time and it takes work). And then there are the people who refuse to negotiate. They don’t see the point and, besides, it’s a lot of work. For the life of me, I don’t see how these people can look their client, and the agency they represent, in the eye.

If you do not negotiate you are leaving money on the table. Period.

How can you hone your skills, get up-to-speed faster, or even get started?

Here are the 3 steps that I teach those joining my team:

1. Never Negotiate A “Must Buy”

This is a killer. A client comes to you and says “I have a two-month budget of $100k and it has to be on/in (insert name of very specific media here – like The Voice or Bon Appetit magazine)”. The client isn’t open to research, insights, strategies, tactics, nothing. They have no idea how much ad space actually costs, but there is no dissuading them.

They absolutely must be on The Voice. And now it’s up to you to make that happen, with their budget and within their timeline. After a bit of research, you learn that a :30 spot on The Voice costs $213k. For one commercial. One :30 commercial. And your budget is $100k.

This is a no win situation and happens much, much more often than you think.

If the client wants something they can’t afford, they inevitably blame the agency. This most often occurs when a vendor goes directly to a client and gets them jazzed up about (insert tactic here) and the client blurts out “I’ll take it! Just follow-up with my agency!”

Sometimes it isn’t even a vendor making the media decision. Sometimes it’s a client basing his/her decision solely on what he/she likes or what he/she thinks their audience likes.

When any of the above happens, you – as either the Account Executive, Media Planner, or Media Buyer – have to step in and speak up. This is the part that no one wants to do. It isn’t pleasant, but it is vital. I call this, very respectably, saving the client from themselves.

But, 100% of the time that I have had these difficult conversations, the relationship deepens between me and the client. They know that I hear them, value their input, and will do the due diligence to ensure the plan that I place before them is the best possible spend of their advertising budget.

I experienced this with Guylian and wrote a blog about it. To see how this was overcome you can read about it here.

2. Always Start From The Open Rate

When you first begin pricing out the approved tactics on your media plan, find out what the cost is for each tactic. For example, knowing that a :30 spot on The Voice – the most expensive network reality television program – is $213k, you now have your baseline.

This will save both you and the client a lot of time because you will nip The Voice in the bud before it ever begins. You will provide the rationale that the funds simply aren’t there and the client will do one of three things: 1. belabor you with how you should be able to get his/her brand on that program; 2. he/she will cut the campaign altogether because he/she realizes that $100k over two months is not enough to spend to hit the numbers outlined on his/her P&L; or 3. he/she will increase the media budget.

3. Be Columbo

Be… who?

Columbo is an older television show about a Los Angeles homicide Detective Lieutenant who uses his humble ways, ingenuous demeanor, and constant state of utter confusion to solve well-concealed crimes.

Now for those of you who haven’t heard the name Columbo, can’t for the life of you remember what he looks like (since its final season was in 2003), or are unfamiliar with the actors of fictional characters, this might ring a bell. Here is Columbo, a.k.a. Peter Falk:

And for those who have never seen nor heard of Columbo, as a last ditch effort to engage, you might remember Peter Falk as the grandfather who read The Princess Bride to the young and adorable Fred Savage.

Lastly, for those of you who haven’t seen The Princess Bride, stop reading and go watch The Princess Bride. I’ll wait. Seriously, I’m not going anywhere.

OK, now that we’re all level set on Columbo, let’s move on.

The thing about Columbo was that he had charisma and great follow-through. Just when a person would think that the crime could never be solved and he/she was forever off the hook (convinced that the daft man in a trench coat was too unsophisticated to unravel his/her scheme), there would be a hesitant knock at the door and it would slightly open, just enough for Columbo to stick his head in and say, “I’m so sorry I have just one more question, don’t you own a pair of brown oxfords size 12?” and BAM! case solved.

I was given this moniker by one of my all-time favorite bosses, Rick Vosk. He and I worked together when I was at Carat USA, Incorporated. Rick would laugh that I would go back to a vendor 5-6 times trying to get more value for my clients. It was when I said, “I’m sorry, I was just about to sign the agreement order when it dawned on me that you have great internet presence! If we could also include a digital buy (as added-value/free of course), that is the one thing that this plan is lacking. If it had that, I could sign and send this agreement over within the hour.” They would. I did.

How did I get there though?

Going back to Step 2, once you have the open rate cost, your goal is to get as much value for your client as humanly possible (this is the game aspect I referred to earlier). How you get to those end results and what that looks like is up to you (and is heavily based on the client’s goals and the campaign’s objectives). The only hard and fast rule is that you never (and I do mean never), pay the open rate (which, in our The Voice example, is $213k).

But it can be so much more than that.

Get creative. Develop a partnership. Have the coaches talk about your product or use it on-air (there’s no coincidence that they are drinking from Starbucks cups). Make a connection with your demographic not only through a commercial on the show (and with only enough money for just one commercial, let’s hope your shoppers don’t have to use the bathroom, grab a drink, or put their child back to bed for the tenth time), but also become a digital sponsor on The Voice’s website. If one of the contestants is from your home town, cheer him/her on across your social channels (engagement marketing). By the way, that’s the magic in this scenario – you make a connection and your brand becomes relatable. You aren’t selling to them, you’re talking to them. You’re real. A real person and not a “mindless corporation” that has innate distrust embedded into it. Create a sweepstakes that runs the length of the season with the winner getting a free trip to Los Angeles and Universal Studios to be front and center at the finale. Throw in backstage passes to meet the coaches. As cliche as it sounds, the possibilities are endless.

A great example of this is in a blog I wrote about negotiating a partnership between McDonald’s and their local colleges. That blog can be found here.

My main goal is to get the vendor as excited about the program as I am. Get them emotionally invested. I always tell them that I know my client like no one else and they know their product. They know which pieces will connect with our consumer and the tone we need to have to make our connection with them standout and matter. It is in this shared commonality for success that we all step up and do our best work. And constant communication makes everyone accountable.

Better yet, see the fun in it.

It is a game. How much can you get? How far can you push those boundaries? How awesome is it going to feel to present your work to the client? To see them not only appreciate the hard work that went into the Media Plan, but to see that look in their eyes that they didn’t even think that what you recommended was even possible.

Never be afraid to play hardball. Stand your ground. And remember, drawing a line in the sand isn’t being “mean” (or another adjective used when women are assertive). It’s knowing the value that your client deserves. Vendors aren’t doing you a favor. In fact, it’s the other way around. It helps vendors when they can use your brand’s logo on their list of clientele. If I speak with a vendor and they absolutely refuse to budge, I say, “I’m sorry to hear that. Should you change your mind you have my number” and hang up. 90% of the time, at least, I get a phone call back.

And if not, walk away.

It also has a lot to do with your vendors. My reps know that when I present back to the client, I use the vendor’s name when I speak about their tactic. The client knows that I didn’t start a second job at NBC, but (through me) they do know that Kerry works at the station and that the two of us created the best partnership that the channel has seen in years, if ever.

Never under-estimate the value of your vendors. They truly are your partners. They not only see your vision, but they adopt it and make it even better. Because they’re all-in, you also have the confidence that the campaign is setup for executional excellence. Because of this, you want to make sure that you only work with the very best people (but that’s a blog for another time).

I’ve devoted my career to negotiating the best packages for my clients and brands. From my first campaign with Disney to the last campaign that I executed for Zekelman Industries in which I negotiated $318k in added-value, a 37% increase over budget.

Media planning and buying are a lot of fun. It’s a game and a puzzle. Making that connection with a shopper is my passion. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning and what drove me to create my own engagement marketing company. Reach out, I’d love to tell you more about it.

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