The iMedia Agency Summit gathers some of the brightest minds in digital media. At last December’s semi-annual gathering in Scottsdale, Arizona, I asked a group of about 75 media executives which tool they use for creating their digital media plans. 86% responded they still use Microsoft Excel despite the availability of purpose-built media planning systems.

Although this was not a scientific survey, its results are consistent with a more rigorous Digiday State of the Industry survey conducted in February 2013, which revealed that 76.1% use Microsoft Excel to make their media plans.It’s well known that media planning is a complicated and expensive process. Creating and executing a media plan is a 42-step process typically costing more than $40,000 in labor. Manual processes and Microsoft Excel are often identified as root cause of this inefficiency.  Unsurprisingly, The Digiday survey also revealed that 59.4% are dissatisfied with their media planning tools. Media planners know that Microsoft Excel is not an ideal tool for the job, but they keep using despite the availability of purpose-built alternatives.

iMedia members aren’t a group of Luddites. These guys are on the cutting edge of digital advertising and constantly trying the latest technologies and advertising techniques. So, why do they stick with Excel when other options exist?  Here are reasons they gave at this Summit gathering:

Don’t Have to Worry about Training

“When I hire someone new, I don’t have to worry about training them on a complicated system. Everyone knows Excel. They can be productive right away.” The media planning role at agencies is a revolving door, with as high as 30% turnover per year at some agencies. As such, it’s important to bring new hires up to speed quickly. Because of Excel’s widespread use, most new hires arrive with previous experience even if they come from a different industry. In contrast, very few applicants are trained on purpose-built media planning tools.

The perception is that purpose-built planning tools are difficult to learn and new employees cannot be productive without a significant training investment. Excel, on the other hand, requires no training.

Handles Every Situation

“I never have to worry if I can put it into Excel. I can always add a row or a column. It’s very flexible.” When a new advertising medium or vehicle comes onto the scene, there’s never a concern that Excel won’t be able to handle it in a media plan. Experience using traditional media planning tools to plan digital media is “like trying to but a square peg into a round hole.”

The perception is that purpose-built media planning tools put you into a box. In their effort to streamline the process through standardization, they limit the options and creativity that a media planner requires to do their job.

Plays Nice with Other Systems

“We use a bunch of different systems at our agency. None of them talk to each other. However, they all export to Excel.” Excel is a least common denominator that planners can count on. Agencies need to use new systems to keep up with fast-paced media marketplace. But since the principles and process of media planning stays constant over time, they need a consistent planning tool.

The perception is that purpose-built planning tools limit the other tools you can work with. Some monolithic tools make it difficult to work with any other systems and lock you into a very limited set mediocre tools.

The Elephant in the Room

Although left unsaid in this particular meeting, agencies who bill on a cost plus basis (as most do) have traditionally had a perverse incentive to be inefficient. This “Elephant in the Room” was discussed at a previous gathering and here on The Makegood. Although everyone agrees that the planning process is terribly inefficient, when you get paid hourly to do the work there’s not much incentive to be more productive. (The threat of Programmatic buying is changing this attitude, but we’ll save that for another column)


As a provider of media planning tools, replacing Excel as a media planning tool is one of our key measure of success. Over the past decade, a bunch of great companies and people have tried and failed to replace Excel. Although we are the newest challenger and I like to believe we taking a better approach, I wonder if this is Quixotic self-delusion? Can Excel really be overthrown?

The experts at iMedia taught me the importance of providing a system that’s easy to learn, can handle every planning situation, and works well with other systems. Despite all the shortcomings of Excel, until someone delivers a system with these characteristics, Excel will remain the top tool among media pros. And media planning will remain incredibly inefficient.

This article originally appeared in The Makegood.