1995 May 01

Media-Buying Systems
David M. Raab
DM News
May, 1995

Every so often, someone asks about software to track and evaluate promotion results. A stand-alone product for this task doesn’t seem to exist, and probably doesn’t need to–a spreadsheet with columns for mail quantity, cost, responses, and a few simple calculations will do quite nicely, thank you. Companies with really large volumes might want the information in a database, but even those firms will probably be better off writing a simple custom system in Microsoft Access or Lotus Approach than buying a package that can never do things precisely the way each buyer wants.

One exception does exist: media purchases for direct response TV. At least two software packages exist for this particular purpose. TV marketers are exceptional because they must react almost immediately to results at different stations and time slots. They also require an accounting function–tracking the exact billing for each individual placement–that is more demanding than other types of direct marketing. The complexity of the scheduling and accounting, rather than response analysis by itself, may be the real reasons these packages exist.

Catalyst Air Date Management System (Catalyst Computer Services, 800-659-2267; 310-836-5755) has been around since 1987, and now has more than 30 installations. The system has a character-based, menu-driven interface that looks distinctly dated. The character mode limits the amount of information that can be placed on a screen, resulting in some very crowded displays, and the system lacks modern ease-of-use functions such as on-line help and pick-lists of values when a choice is required. Still, the screens are easy to understand and navigate, and the system runs quickly. The low-tech interface–written in Clipper and running the dBASE III engine–also lets CADMS run on a 286 PC or better, which includes just about anything you are likely to see outside a museum. It can also run on an Apple MacIntosh and use almost any local area network.

Like the old Volkswagen Beetle, CADMS has been continuously improved beneath a deceptively stable exterior. The system links air dates directly to stations, products and videotapes, and can also handle billing through brokers, store information on market characteristics, and assign specific media buyers to stations or markets. It does a particularly good job dealing with time zone differences, assigning a zone to each station and translating back and forth into standard time when appropriate.

Security relies primarily on the underlying network to limit specific users’ ability to change particular files, but the system does store all transactions that drop an air date or transfer a date from one product to another. It also displays the name of the last person to edit each air date record, although it does not keep a log of these changes.

The only major missing data element is rate cards for each TV station, which means that the price of each air date must be entered manually. This may not matter much for infomercial time, which is mostly purchased through negotiation. Air dates are entered individually, but can easily be copied if the same slot is purchased over several days. Users can also add multiple spots in a single entry when no specific time is assigned to each. The system does not explicitly allow air dates to be placed in an unassigned “inventory”, but can achieve the same result through first assigning slots to an “inventory” product and then reassigning them to actual products as needed. A transfer function allows such reassignments to be done quickly.

CADMS maintains a list of available videotapes and tracks which is at each station. It will warn if the same tape is assigned to two places at the same time and can produce a report of stations where a tape is needed. It can also produce letters for tape traffic and air date confirmation. It does not count the number of tapes needed at any given moment, however, and will not prepare a traffic plan suggesting which tapes should be assigned to which station–functions which users have evidently not asked for.

Once orders are received, results can be entered manually into the system screens or downloaded by modem from a telemarketing agency. CADMS includes templates for several formats from Matrixx and West; additional formats must be added by Catalyst rather than the end user. Each air date can include one primary product and an unlimited number of “upsell” items, which are recorded separately but lumped together in reporting. Only primary products are entered into the system’s product table and used in reports and analysis. The air date screen shows cumulative primary and upsell orders for each ad, and calculates a profitability ratio based on several options (gross vs. net cost, total revenue vs. profit contribution, etc.) selected by the user.

The system distinguishes orders received within 24 hours of an ad and those placed later, but does not track time in finer detail. It does have a powerful “autosource” module that attempts to match unidentified orders to the appropriate air date, using variables such as time, station code, market, 800 number and so on. Ambiguous cases are presented to the user for manual resolution.

CADMS provides a very powerful and flexible set of media accounting functions. On client invoices, users can apply discounts at the product, air date or campaign levels; use standard or special broker commissions; charge gross or net amounts; and automatically include adjustments and miscellaneous charges. Defaults for these items can be overridden at several stages in the process. Payments can be selected by air date, station, program or other variables, and then reviewed individually before release. The system will print checks and send them to either a broker or a station, and can automatically apply credits when available. It can also prepare aged accounts receivables, track cash advances, and store budgets for each project. It will not warn the user when budgets are exceeded by scheduled air dates, however.

The system assumes that air dates are generally prepaid, and does not currently provide calculations for Per Inquiry arrangements. It includes dozens of standard reports, which can be printed or output as ASCII or dBASE files. Users can purchase the vendor’s own custom report writer, or third-party products that read dBASE files.

Pricing of CADMS is broken down into modules. The base system costs $4,995 for a single user or $5,995 for five network users; there is an additional $250 per user beyond five. Additional modules for Accounts Payable, Accounts Receivable, spot buys and “auto sourcing” cost $2,495 to $3,495 each, depending on the module and number of users. Toll-free technical support is included for the first two months and then costs $75 per month for a single user or $95 for five users. A free demonstration diskette is available.

WinBuy and WinPI (Direct Response Media Analysis Systems, 212-481-6960) are new competitors in this market, introduced just over one year ago. The systems have five installations, with 20 to 30 users each. WinBuy is aimed at traditional pre-paid arrangements, while WinPI works with Per Inquiry deals.

Both systems share basic file structures, interface, response posting and reporting capabilities. They are written in the C/C++ programming languages with dBASE-compatible files, and run on Microsoft Windows with a mouse-driven, graphical interface. The interface allows the user to move around easily and supports some useful functions, such as picking dates from calendars and scrolling through existing schedules. But, because the environment is less structured, it can take a little longer to learn how to do things.

What the user gets in return for the added effort is an overview of the entire relationship between all products and each “vendor”, where a “vendor” is a TV station or broker (the system doesn’t distinguish). Air dates are entered on a vendor worksheet that can schedule multiple products, be organized by day parts and extend up to thirteen weeks. Schedules are actually entered one week at a time, and can be copied from one week to the next.

WinBuy schedules are built from rate cards, which can be created for both vendors and clients. A vendor rate card typically includes rates for an actual TV station, while the client rate card generally shows mark-up or commission rates. The two types of cards can be used separately or together. The system can allocate time from an inventory, priced at rate card plus mark-up, or can price non-inventory air dates directly from the rate card.

WinPI schedules look similar, but the system bases its calculations on actual responses. It can store separate payment rates for the agency and the station, for one primary product and two upsells. The system generates PI statements automatically, tracks station and agency payment accounts, and monitors cash and trade balances.

In addition to the air date schedule itself, the vendor worksheet shows cumulative cost per order and order counts (broken down by credit card, COD and mail), plus orders by day. Although multiple products are shown on the worksheet, there is no one-step process to reassign an air date from one product to another. The systems can track exact air times if desired, and will add time zone translation features in the near future. WinBuy will keep a total of cumulative cost, and warn the user if the scheduled frequency is exceeded.

Security in the systems is limited to underlying network functions. They do not track changes made to air dates, or allow buyers to be assigned to specific markets or products. There are no separate files for brokers or markets, although a vendor may be assigned to a specific ADI or DMA.

The systems can maintain a videotape inventory, report on the current locations of all tapes, and show which tapes are used in which schedules. But they will not prevent the same tape from being scheduled in two places simultaneously, and do not help plan tape movements.

Orders are entered on the vendor worksheets, either manually or by file import from West. DRMA is adding formats for Matrixx and BDS, and plans to give users a tool to define new import formats as needed. Orders can be stored in one-hour response segments. The system does not have automated processes to match orders to specific placements.

The systems can generate vendor statements and client invoices, but do not track actual payments, cash advances or other functions. DRMA is planning to add these features in an accounting module due this summer. The system has a dozen or so standard reports and lacks a custom report writer, although the files could be accessed with any dBASE-compatible tool. WinBuy is priced at $4,620 for a single user version or $7,500 for unlimited network users, while WinPI prices are $3,500 and $6,750. WinAP is expected to cost $2,400 for a single user and $6,450 on a network. The systems can also be leased by the month. Technical support is free for two months and then costs $1.95 per minute. Free demonstration versions are available.

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David M. Raab is a Principal at Raab Associates Inc., a consultancy specializing in marketing technology and analytics. He can be reached at draab@raabassociates.com.

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