In 2007, I started my career as an assistant media planner at an integrated media agency.  In many ways, it was a very difficult year.  Part of the difficulty was financial; my starting salary was just $30,000 per year.  After food, rent, utilities and insurance (expenses which I tracked fastidiously in an Excel spreadsheet) I had just under $20 left each month for discretionary spending.  Rent alone accounted for three quarters of my net income.

The other factor that made my first year in New York difficult was stress.  Media planning is an incredibly stressful job.  I shared my first New York City apartment with four friends from college who all worked in finance.  As they watched the world teeter on financial collapse, I was sweating over media plan presentations, research reports, returning emails, and processing billing.  Objectively, their finance jobs were far more important than mine, yet I was consistently more stressed.

Over the next four and a half years I got to witness the effect of long-term stress on myself and all of my coworkers.  Some of us were able to develop systems to deal with the stress of media planning, but others succumbed to maladies ranging from emotional problems to serious stress-induced illness.

To an outsider, it probably seems crazy to think of media planning as a high stress job.  It’s not particularly challenging from a skill perspective, it’s not very high paying, and people rarely get fired.  So then why is it that media planning is so stressful?

First, let’s think about the definition of stress.  In my view, stress is defined as follows:

Stress is the feeling of unease and anxiety that comes from holding items for a long period of time in your short-term memory.  The greater the percentage of your short-term memory that is occupied with long-term items, the greater the feeling of stress.

Now, let’s think about how that definition applies to media planning.  As a media planner, you have direct control over about 10% of your overall job.  For the other 90%, you are beholden to someone else to do something for you.  To prove this point, consider the following series of media planning tasks:

  • Confirm asset types with creative team (what creatives do we have available from creative shop for the media campaign)
  • Create RFP (request for proposal) document and forward to supervisor for approval
  • Receive 100% complete creative assets from creative agency (banners, email copy, expandables, video, etc.)
  • Receive draft client invoice from finance, check it, and send to the client halfway through the first month of media buy (bill client 1 month at a time, on the 15th of each month for the current month)
  • Issue “request for invoice” to each vendor on the plan (basically ask them to send an invoice for a specific amount based on how much is owed to them)

Looking at the media planning tasks above, you’ll notice that they all have something in common: none are autonomous tasks.  In each case, the person doing the task is wholly reliant on someone else to provide input, give approval, or deliver work.  Another thing you’ll notice is that none of the tasks are particularly hard or lengthy activities – in fact not one of them should take more than a few hours to complete.  Herein lies the problem: the job of the media planner is essentially to do lots and lots of relatively easy tasks, all of which have codependences and rely on input from outside parties.  If you were to look at any one task done by a media planner, chances are it will be pretty easy.  The real challenge comes from managing 30 such tasks at the same time, while simultaneously waiting for 30 different people to get you information you need.

All of these small tasks that make up the job of the media planner lead to lots of partially completed jobs that media planners have to keep stored in their short-term memory.  David Allen would call these “open loops.”  Juggling more than a few open loops at one time can be a very uncomfortable experience, managing dozens of them all the time for several years can lead to legitimate illness.

Two years ago I left the world of media and have worked in a variety of different functions since: analytics, product, strategy, etc.  Each of my jobs over the past two years has been much more challenging, mentally engaging, and had a higher impact than media planning.  But, to this date, I have never had a job more stressful than the job of media planner.

Why Media Planning is the Most Stressful Job
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  • Interesting definition of stress. I’m not sure I agree, but your job as a media planner does sound stressful!

    I’d define stress as when you’re over-committed, such that negative consequences will occur, where there is related uncertainty about time and scope of consequences and no meaningful way to prepare or mitigate the impact of those consequences.

    Perhaps that’s overly specific.

    Dave Allen is a funny guy, but I do like his notion of writing things down to remove them from your memory.