How to Buy TV Advertising, Get Results, and not Waste Money: Part 1

It’s not hard to buy advertising, anybody can do it. You don’t have to work with an ad agency, and you don’t have belong to any exclusive club. All you need is money and a desire to buy. In fact, the buying part is the easiest part of a marketing strategy — It’s like finally playing the game you’ve been practicing for.

In previous posts I’ve pointed out how important it is to have a merchandising infrastructure to ensure leads are maximized, whether it comes through the front door, phone or website.

And you must develop a unique selling point or your advertising won’t produce results. Call this required practice so you can win on game day, or when your purchased advertising actually runs.

The key to buying is focus and repetition. Just like in the stock market, if you spread yourself too thin your returns will suffer. But if you focus on a few winners and tolerate a bit more risk, your returns will be exponentially higher.

From 2014 to 2016 I worked as a media director at a large marketing firm based in Dallas, TX. My first assignment was to develop a TV media strategy for the Albertsons grocery chain. They had a budget of $10 million, and the idea was to promote a “stock-up” sale over a two-week period featuring aggressive discounts on soups, snacks, and soft drinks.

Albertsons is one of the largest grocery chains in the U.S., and they own multiple grocery brands, including Safeway in California, Jewel in Chicago, Shaw’s in Boston, and Tom Thumb in Dallas. A great thing about the grocery business is they get a significant amount of co-op funds from their vendors, and for this campaign, vendors were funding most of the advertising budget. 

$10 million dollars may seem like a lot of money, and it is, but when you operate in major cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, any size budget can evaporate quickly. We made some key decisions early on to focus the investment for maximum impact. 

First, we decided to target the spend in only their top 10 markets, which accounted for about 80 percent of their sales. With this approach, we were able to purchase a dominant share of media in each market, rather than less media sprinkled across dozens of markets.

Then we decided local broadcast television provided the greatest potential return on investment. Albertsons had dozens of stores in each market, and their products appealed to a large portion of the population. Also, they wanted to flex their creative muscles and show off their newly remodeled stores — a perfect candidate for high definition network television. 

We continued our focus by choosing only the local news and syndicated programming (e.g., Ellen, Wheel of Fortune, Dr. Phil). Both programming types offered an engaged, brand-safe environment with fresh content every day. This reduced the chances our commercials would be skipped by DVRs— typically — viewers don’t record live news and syndicated programs because there are no continuing storylines or plots. Each day is a new day, and a reason to tune in. We further focused our budget to the days when most people do their grocery shopping, Thursday through Sunday. 

Our focused efforts allowed us to air more commercials than any other advertiser in the programs we purchased. In every one-hour program, we bought three commercials. In every half-hour program, we bought at least two commercials. We did so for two reasons: viewers of news and syndicated programming tend to cycle in and out every 15 to 20 minutes, plus we wanted as many viewers as possible to see our commercials at least six to nine times every week. 

The chart below shows what a 30-minute program looks like in terms of programming vs. commercial time. Stations also run their own commercials, called promos, usually at the top and bottom of every hour. For example, two commercials may seem like a lot over a 30-minute program, when actually, it’s only 60 out of 1,800 available seconds.

We started with the highest-rated programs and stopped buying when we ran out of money. In some cases, we maxed out all our broadcast opportunities and had money left over; in those rare instances, we supplemented with cable. 

Our TV campaign resulted in double-digit sales and customer traffic gains for Albertsons. We had aggressive pricing offers on popular national merchandise (unique selling point), we focused our spending for greater impact (math), and the in-store displays, signage, and a well-trained team made it easy for customers to spend beyond the advertised items (merchandising).

Our two-week schedule absolutely dominated the airwaves in 10 major cities across the United States. We even had customers complaining on Facebook about seeing the commercials too often. Generally, if customers are complaining about seeing your commercial too much, you are doing something right.

We probably received a few hundred complaints out of more than 10 million viewers reached. I believe these complaints influenced Albertsons to try a less-focused strategy the following year, which I was not a part of, and they did not experience the same growth in customer traffic or gross sales. 

Now, I know you probably don’t have a $10 million dollar budget so how does a smaller business use a powerful medium like broadcast TV or even cable TV without getting burned? Check out Part Two of this series.