Media Buying 101: What It Is and How It Works [+17 Platforms to Use]

Download Now: Free Media Planning Template
Martina Bretous
Martina Bretous



Ever wonder who is behind those banner ads on the sites you visit the most? Or the Super Bowl ads we talk about for weeks after they've aired? The answer is media buyers.

media buyer identifying publishers

When a brand gets a marketing budget, a portion of that typically goes to paid advertising. That's where media buying comes in.

Access Now: Free Media Planning Template

It doesn't get much buzz in the marketing industry, but this process is responsible for the targeted ads we see today.

Let's dive into this process of which so many of us are on the receiving end.

Whether they're watching a TV show or scrolling through a website, media buyers get brands in front of their target market.

It's not like social media where users come and find you. It's an outbound strategy that is only effective if you have a well thought-out strategy. Rex Gelb, director of advertising and analytics at HubSpot, says one of the biggest mistakes brands make is not thinking through their marketing goals.

Free Paid Media Template

Track and organize your media planning and media buying with this free paid media template.

  • Organize your paid media placements
  • Easily calculate total spend
  • Analyze performance and revenue
  • And more!
Learn more

    Download Free

    All fields are required.

    You're all set!

    Click this link to access this resource at any time.

    "Some ad placements might be good for one set of goals, but bad for another. Let's say you're an airline and your focus is impressions and awareness, rather than an immediate sale, you can buy a placement that is known to get cheap impressions," he said.

    Gelb continued,"Now, let's say you're a CEO who wants to promote a 'letter to our customers.' In this instance, what you'll care about is cheap clicks. Buying cheap impressions, which made sense in the previous example, no longer helps you accomplish your goal."

    That's why media planning is such an important step, as it helps you get the most out of your ads. 

    Nowadays, media buying is done in one of two ways:

    • Direct buy – Media buyers forge relationships with publishers to negotiate ad inventory, e.g., working with a newspaper to have an ad placed in the upcoming issue.
    • Programmatic buy – The buying process is done using automated technology.

    Media Buying vs. Media Planning

    Media buying and media planning fall into the same category but are two different processes. While media buying focuses on getting the most impressions from the right audience at the lowest cost, media planning focuses on the strategy behind the campaign.

    During the planning phase, you determine what media will be most effective to reach a particular audience. So once media planning is complete, media buying follows. It's also important to note that media planning isn't solely for advertising, it's for any media a brand puts out there.

    However, in a small to medium-sized business, the job may be done by the same person or team.

    How Digital Media Buying Works

    With digital media buying, or programmatic buying, buying impressions is automated. The negotiation still technically happens but it's done at a much quicker rate through open and private marketplaces.

    The traditional approach, on the other hand, involves negotiations and relationship building with publishers.

    There are three components to this automated buying structure:

    • Demand-side platforms (DSP) where advertisers and ad agencies set up their campaigns, bid on ad inventory, and optimize their ads based on performance.
    • Supply-side platforms (SSP) where publishers sell their ad inventory. It's the publisher version of the DSP.
    • The ad exchange marketplace where advertisers and publishers buy or sell ad inventory through real-time bidding (RTB).

    RTB is not the only way to purchase impressions, you can also use private marketplaces, in which publishers limit who can participate in the auction. Another option is called programmatic direct, in which ad inventory is sold at a fixed cost per thousand impressions (CPM) with no bidding.

    So what about ad networks? Well those platforms aggregate ad inventory from various publishers and match them to advertisers' needs, serving as intermediaries. Think Google Adsense and Facebook Audience Network.

    Digital media buying can be more cost-effective and allow teams to focus on ad performance instead of back-and-forth negotiations. However, with the latest restrictions on cookies and Apple's AppTrackingTransparency (ATT) rollout on iOS 14, it's unclear how that will affect the media buying space.

    "With the upcoming release, Apple will be asking all of its users for permission to track when they open an app, and big ad networks like Facebook won't be exempt," said Gelb. "Needless to say, a lot of iOS users are going to opt out, which will have negative implications in terms of targeting and conversion tracking."

    "Nobody knows exactly what the impact will look like yet," he added, "but we, in the industry, are crossing our fingers and hoping for the best."

    For more insight into why your business should consider investing in programmatic buying, here is a video covering the top five paid marketing trends.

    Media Buying Tips

    1. Strategize.

    Before you launch your ad campaign, you'll have to figure out a few things.

    The first question is, what's the goal of your campaign? Do you want more website traffic, brand awareness, social engagement? Aligning your team on one goal will help focus your efforts and better track your campaign's success.

    This leads us to key progress indicators (KPIs). You'll need them to monitor your campaign and determine if any adjustments need to be made. Lastly, your campaign will need a budget. If it's a long-running campaign, you may set a daily budget.

    These steps are typically completed during the media planning phase. However, in some cases, media planners are also responsible for buying ads as well.

    2. Identify your target and where to find them.

    Your next step is determining who the campaign will target and which networks will be most appropriate to reach them.

    For instance, let's say a health-focused vegan dessert company wants to run an ad campaign next quarter and they want to target health-conscious, vegan consumers. The marketing team may want to advertise on YouTube videos with vegan-friendly content, fitness and nutrition websites, or even cooking and recipe pages.

    When buying media, you can target audience by device, location, behaviors, interests, web browser, and more.

    Free Paid Media Template

    Track and organize your media planning and media buying with this free paid media template.

    • Organize your paid media placements
    • Easily calculate total spend
    • Analyze performance and revenue
    • And more!
    Learn more

      Download Free

      All fields are required.

      You're all set!

      Click this link to access this resource at any time.

      3. Set up your campaign.

      This step will vary depending on which media buying platform you are using.

      However, when typically using a DSP, you will input your campaign details, such as campaign type, creative assets, budget, target audiences, and bidding strategies. So, once that process is complete, all there is to do is launch and wait for results to come in.

      If you're taking a direct approach, this will likely be a collaborative process between your team and your publisher's account manager.

      4. Track the results and optimize.

      The most exciting (and possibly scariest) part of launching an ad campaign is tracking its performance.

      As soon as it launches, you can start gathering data on how your ads are performing. In this stage, it's important not to make decisions too quickly. You'll want to gather enough data to get a full picture before switching gears.

      Using the same vegan dessert company, let's say they launched an ad campaign through Google's ad network. They are using two static image ads and one video ad. After one week, they notice that the video ad is significantly outperforming the banner ads. The media buyer can decide to reallocate funds to that ad type and placement as it is generating better results.

      A media buyer's job is to maximize ad potential while staying within the budget. As such, if the ad isn't delivering on expectations, adjustments can and should be made during the length of the campaign.

      1. Google Display & Video 360

      Inside the Google Marketing Platform, you'll find Display & Video 360. Originally DoubleClick Bid Management, DV360 integrates seamlessly with Google Analytics and other Google products. So, if your team is already using those tools, this may be the right media buying tool for you.

      There are five modules in DV360 to build your campaign, manage your audience and creative assets, analyze your data, and access ad inventory from top publishers. It also offers automated bidding and custom targeting using first and third-party data, making it easier to reach the right audience.

      Lastly, the platform allows advertisers to not only reach users on websites and YouTube but also TV.

      2. The Trade Desk

      If you want access to premium publishers, the Trade Desk is one place you'll want to look.

      The platform has ad inventory from some of the biggest publishers, including Spotify, ABC, Wall Street Journal, and ESPN.

      One of the platform's key features is the AI-driven "Koa," which uses data from over 600 billion daily queries to determine the smartest and most cost-effective way to run your digital campaign. The Trade Desk also has cross-device targeting capabilities to optimize your campaign's reach.

      3. AdColony

      AdColony helps brands reach mobile app users on both IOS and Android.

      The platform offers multiple video formats and placements, including full-screen, interactive, banner, and interstitial. This allows marketers to test various formats to see which garners the best results.

      AdColony also has over 90K direct app integrations and a reported 450 million supply of app users.

      4. Amazon DSP

      Every time you think Amazon has capped, it comes out with another vertical.

      Amazon DSP is one of the most used DSPs by brands and ad agencies, according to an article by Ad Exchanger. With this DSP, you can reach users on Amazon-owned websites like Audible and IMDb, and other Amazon partners.

      They also make brand safety a top priority to ensure ads don't appear in risky or unsuitable environments.

      5. Wallester

      Wallester Business simplifies campaign expense management through its user-friendly platform and application. The service enables you to create virtual and physical cards via separate accounts with customizable daily/monthly limits. You can also generate expense reports in CSV, Excel, or PDF formats, add colleagues to your account, and assign them to specific cards or campaigns. 

      With Wallester Business, you can avoid failed transactions on popular platforms like Meta, TikTok, Google, Twitter, Mailchimp and more. New users can try the platform by creating the first 300 virtual cards at no cost. 

      6. AdCritter

      AdCritter is a DSP made for small to medium-sized businesses.

      The platform has an ad builder and a library of pre-designed templates for businesses that may not have their own creative assets.

      With AdCritter, media buyers can even hand-select the websites they'll appear on to ensure their ads reach their intended audience. They can also reach consumers based on demographics and behavior.

      7. Adobe Advertising Cloud

      In 2017, Adobe launched a powerful DSP to tie with Adobe Audience Manager and Adobe Analytics.

      Similar to Google, Adobe's platforms integrate seamlessly, which makes collaboration easier and cross-data analysis simpler.

      Adobe also has powerful performance optimization features to maximize return on ad spend (ROAS).

      8. Verizon Media

      If you're like me, any mention of Verizon automatically brings "Can you hear me now?" to mind.

      Well, turns out, Verizon does offer way more than just cell phone coverage. In 2019, they reported that their DSP generated a 71% higher average conversion rate from campaigns compared to third-party segments.

      Free Paid Media Template

      Track and organize your media planning and media buying with this free paid media template.

      • Organize your paid media placements
      • Easily calculate total spend
      • Analyze performance and revenue
      • And more!
      Learn more

        Download Free

        All fields are required.

        You're all set!

        Click this link to access this resource at any time.

        Their platform uses omnichannel strategies to engage consumers, such as digital out-of-home ads (i.e. billboards and on-car ads), audio streaming platforms, and connected TVs.

        9. Criteo

        This platform has access to a large network of premium retailers, making it a great DSP for brands who want to reach online shoppers. Think Best Buy, CVS pharmacy, Macy's, and Kohls.

        They rely on first-party data, instead of third-party cookies, to optimize ads and determine the right time and place to engage shoppers.

        Criteo's flexible attribution models also make data analysis easier for teams.

        10. StackAdapt

        If your brand is in the alcohol, cannabis, gambling industry, it can be difficult to navigate ad regulations and compliance guidelines. StackAdapt helps brands strengthen their messaging and maneuver around those challenges.

        Some of their key features include dynamic retargeting, machine learning optimization, and cross-device capabilities.

        11. AcuityAds

        AcuityAds's best feature is its intuitive interface.

        With this DSP, your team can build an ad storyboard for any campaign and visualize the customer journey.

        There is a drag-and-drop feature that streamlines the media planning process. AcuityAds also has a journey map that allows brands to quickly visualize how a campaign is performing.


        Some DSPs offer pre-segmented audiences for ad campaigns, which can be limiting depending on who your team wants to reach. offers custom targeting options to guarantee accuracy.

        The platform also promotes cost and analytics transparency. Marketers can see a detailed breakdown of where their ad dollars are going and how much of it goes toward platform fees.

        Another standout feature in is the localization capabilities to reach audiences at the most granular level.

        13. Adelphic

        If customer support is important to your team, consider Adelphic. This omnichannel DSP reports consistently having a client satisfaction rate above 95%.

        Unlike other DSPS, Adelphic offers a flexible pricing model, offering a subscription-based structure. This means media buyers pay one set monthly fee for unlimited media.

        Additional features include advanced reporting tools and data integrations.

        14. Amobee

        With Amobee, you can design digital campaigns on various platforms and across multiple browsers and devices.

        This DSP identifies potential consumers on a person-by-person level using their proprietary identity graph called "Amobee ID." Using this tool, brands can forecast their campaign's performance across multiple devices and channels.

        The platform can also access APIs from social channels, such as Facebook and Instagram, for social campaign automation.

        15. Basis by Centro

        With over 9,000 vendors and 11,000 contacts, Basis has one of the largest inventories in the market.

        Its artificial intelligence (AI) tool can also review over 30 campaign parameters and make optimization suggestions to get the best results. Basis also has scalable features, catering to both small and large businesses.

        16. Xandr Invest

        Zandr Invest specializes in reaching audiences through connected TV advertising.

        The platform is built on AT&T's first-party data, giving brands unique insight to deploy targeted campaigns. Marketers can segment users by lifestyle, interest, intent, demographic, and viewership.

        Xandr also offers a sleek user interface to plan, launch and track campaigns.

        17. AdRoll

        If your website has a shopping cart or a sign up button, you'll want to check out AdRoll. You probably know them as the leader in retargeting, helping over 120,000 brands over the past 15 years turn website visitors into customers. But to meet the demand of e-commerce merchants, AdRoll has expanded their offering to enable brands to engage with both known and unknown contacts across display ads, social media ads and email — the only platform to do so.

        With the AdRoll HubSpot integration, you can even sync your HubSpot email lists directly from your account to AdRoll, matching your contacts to anonymous site visitors and creating targetable audiences.

        AdRoll also has integrations with all of the big e-commerce platforms like Shopify, BigCommerce, WooCommerce and Wix, making it really easy to get campaigns up and running quickly by instantly pulling in your product feed to create dynamic ads and emails and help you identify high-value visitors to target.

        When buying media, no ad placement is accidental. It does involve some trial and error as you get started and the optimization process will last throughout the campaign. However, once you have a strategy to follow and an intuitive platform to track performance, this will result in effective ads that meet your marketing objectives.

        paid media template


        Topics: Media Planning

        Related Articles

        Track and organize your media planning and media buying with this free paid media template.

          Marketing software that helps you drive revenue, save time and resources, and measure and optimize your investments — all on one easy-to-use platform