How to buy Advertising Space on Television

How to buy TV airtime

After some weeks of end-of-financial-year spirit, I turn my unfocused eyes to the tricky bit about TV. The bit you can’t fathom or explain. The price of TV ads. And how those selling it smother what is essentially horse trading with a lot of pseudo-scientific rubbish designed to fool 22-year-old marketing graduates.

Keep in mind we are dealing with eyeballs. Putting your message in front of people’s eyes with a moving, hopefully emotional story that gets them to do something, whether its buy a car or donate to a charity or stop beating their kids. TV is just one way to get that message to those people. It’s not a big deal anymore, like it used to be before we got Youtube and Netflix.

Also remember where are dealing with a short-life product. Like oysters out of the fridge, it goes off really fast. They can’t sell an ad on yesterday’s show. Which makes it a very negotiable commodity – no one actually knows what it’s really worth. Airtime has no value other than what someone like you is prepared to pay for it.

Buy on the R&F’s, not tarps.

Tarps, or Target Audience Rating Points is an easy way to confuse a 22-year-old media buyer. He/she thinks multiplying the reach (proportion of the ‘population’; your core target audience demographic, that’s watching the show) by the Frequency (the number of times they see the ad) works. It doesn’t. People seeing something only once or twice is useless. You want 60, 70 or 90% (or whatever proportion of your audience you can afford to hit) of your targets to see the ad at least 5 times. Yes I’m serious, five times – we are overloaded with information so only heavy repetition works.

Frequency is fundamental

Very few customers buy on seeing an ad once. They only buy when the promise is burned into their brains. When in doubt, go for more frequency with a lower reach than the reverse. You have to have absolutely sensational creative to trade reach for frequency. Better to have 50,000 people see an ad 5 times (250 tarps) than 100,000 see it three times, (300 tarps).

Buy Peak and Off Peak

Peak Time gives you heaps of viewers, which means wide reach. Lots of people seeing the ad. Off peak gives you a limited number of viewers whom you can afford to hit several times, which gives you frequency with them. Over a campaign, you’ll find you’ll also pick up quite a few of the peak customers, but slowly. Thus you build up reach & frequency most efficiently over a campaign with both.

Road Block – buy many stations at the same time

On the basis that they’re running the ads at the same time, which is most often the case, if you want to hit everyone you can, it’s a nice idea to book an ad on all the relevant stations to run in exactly the same ad break. Then you know you’ve got at least one solid ‘frequency’. (See Flick Factor)

Appropriate shows

Show selection is critical. You are associated with the content – so if you’re on a stupid show for your target market, they’ll think less of you. A traditionalist will tell you to buy on the shows that best suite your target market demographic and that add something from a psychological or ‘environment’ sense  (ie. The Money Show, for an on-line broker’s ad etc.) Yes, if you can afford to, please do. But it’s not value for money if you can hit the same audience for a third the cost on other shows. Use your judgment and don’t be conned into paying full whack for a ‘key’ show just ’cause your boyfriend likes it. And you don’t need to tell the rep which in your eyes is a key show – better to have the really important shows as almost ‘add-ons’, so they don’t charge you more next time.

Regularly on the shows

If you buy regularly on a show, you become associated with the show. Sometimes nice for credibility. For some strange reason, a regular time-slot works really well.

Buy the Top and the Tail

This is the usual buy with the most seasoned TV advertisers, such as Telstra, the banks etc. Because people channel surf, the best spots are the top and tail of the break. That’s a 30 seconder at the start of the break for those who don’t use their remote to surf the other stations, and the 15 at the other end to remind them and get the message to those who did surf, but saw the first bit of the first ad and see the last bit of the 15. This also works better if they are watching the show on a time warp thing like Tivo, cause while they are running the ads faster, they still see a bit of both of the ads.

Buy the cheapest in the slot.

If you can’t afford to buy the top and the tail in the show you want, buy the cheapest ad in that time-slot, knowing full well that with the flick factor /channel surfing you’ve got a better than even chance of getting the audience anyway – if they surf, they may hit that station. If you’re paying less than the average cost, you’re getting the better deal.

Buy Unsold Time

As the time gets closer, the panic sets in amongst the sales force. If you’ve got ads already running on a station, occasionally you can get them to up the number of ads they run in a particular period, which suits you, for only a very small additional cost – if air-time is not pre-sold, it can be very, very cheap. I’m talking ‘I’ll shout you lunch’ cheap.

Buy Direct

The Stations are prepared to sell slices of time at whatever rate they can get (as long as the big buyer’s clients don’t get wind of it). And the stations will provide whatever research you need. They all get it from the same sources.

Buy Calendar Off -Peak

There are many weeks where you’re not paying to compete with an excess of other advertisers. If you’re in retail and it’s Xmas week, you have no choice, but if you’re building a brand, choose weeks/days which are less full. In all months there are softer weeks. In all weeks, softer times. But people are still at home with their eyeballs open.

Avoid ROS

Run Of Station means Spots We Can’t Sell. Unless you have a product that is wanted by people who can’t sleep or security guards, or stoners, don’t bother with late night, unless it’s ridiculously cheap and I mean only a hundred bucks.

Screw them on price

They will screw you to the wall when you want something, so do the reverse when you get the opportunity. Trade them off against each other and dutch auction rates. By that I mean say ‘they other guys only want x’. At the end of the day, a spot on a show is worth whatever you get it for. And that’s it. They will still deal with you as a buyer next month and they’ll only respect you more if you’re tough.

On length 

TV stations often push buys for large numbers of short length ads (Wow, they’ve offered me 100 x 10 second spots!) on bunnies because the bunnies have heard of the concept of ‘Frequency’ and don’t understand that with no impact frequency means nothing. Unless they are very powerful and simple, short ads do not allow the punters to get the message, (brand, positioning or whatever). Our brains take more time to react than you think. Just cause you can see the logo in the ten second sponsorship, because you’ve seen it in the edit suite 100 times, don’t expect more than a small percentage of your customers to take it in. So don’t be talked into paying for short ads at a pro-rata rate. They are not worth it. They are nice as a value-add gift as part of your buy and to put the brand in front of the public, but have a history of being virtually useless to actually build the brand profile.

If you can, buy a 45 or even 60- second ad. I’ll bet your agency will be able to re-cut the footage you have and it will sell it’s tits off over a 15 or 30 seconder. You can also use this same longer version in Cinema….


You must flight; re-run the ads regularly during the year. Start off with a heavier buy, to build awareness, then flight or run the ads every second week or month or so to keep awareness and sales levels up. All agencies have different theories on how to do this. It does vary dramatically in certain markets, the more competitive the market, the more frequently you need to flight. Run ads when your dashboard says sales may be waning. Don’t wait for confirmation from your stores or warehouse – that often costs companies like yours millions in lost sales.

What to do?

If I was you, I’d decide how I’d like to buy the TV, I’d then get an agency to negotiate it on an hourly rate, and ignore all the fluff the industry tries to use. In the end, you’re buying access to people’s minds. Pay for good advice, not prime time rates at full whack. TV time is not rocket science. It’s simply air time sold to the highest bidder.


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