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Imagine you and your spouse are building a new house. You're tre men dously excited about getting this project started because this is, after all, your dream house. You're loaded with creative ideas on what your new home should look like and how it should be built.

So you hire contractors and get them started as soon as possible. However, since the only "blueprint" that exists is how you envision the house in your head, you just tell your team of contractors to buy whatever they feel might be necessary to complete the structure, according to your specifications.

Needless to say, you quickly learn the error of your ways. You find that you have too much of this material and not enough of that, or you can't get exactly what you want. All of this results in a depressing realization: Your sense that the construction on your dream house is being based more on what materials are at hand than how you want your happy home to look, feel and function.

OK, you can stop snickering. None of this is true. Not the house, not the stuff about the contractors, none of it. Except the bewilderment and disillusionment of our unhappy homeowners, that is.

Now, we may be pressing the point a bit here, but anybody who has had construction done on their house can certainly relate to this cautionary tale. Especially people in the advertising business.

The point is this, and it's actually a question: Why in the world does advertising creative still get done before the media plan? It is a process, I suggest, that is analogous to my building-the-house-before-having-a-blueprint fable. You are almost guaranteed ending up with a less than satisfactory outcome.

The process of creating the message before the media strategy is backwards in today's media landscape. And the philosophy becomes a more pronounced problem almost daily as media fragmentation grows and the need to find the target audience becomes more of a challenge to those entrusted with crafting, planning and implementing communications.

In the good old days before fragmentation entered the media planner's lexicon—when planning meant network television, a cloud of dust and a hearty "Heigh-Ho, Silver!"—one could easily get away with using creative as the starting point. After all, most media were targeting mass audiences—think of Life magazine and Texaco Star Theatre (aka The Milton Berle Show)—so creatives already had a good feel for the audience that would be viewing the ad.

This isn't nearly as true today, in an age where there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of media options and more coming online (and offline) all the time. There are often myriad ways, some creative and some obvious, to reach the target audience. Until the media plan is developed, how can anyone possibly determine what creative will work most effectively in concert with each particular element of the media plan?

Logically, the steps in the development of any modern, effective advertising campaign should be:

• identification of the target audience

• identification of the target audience's media habits

• identification of the optimal marketing and media, i.e. the media plan

• development of creative that makes maximum use of the ability of various media to talk to the target.

It all seems logical and simple, yet the old habits and routines of the mass-media world are still with us. Many clients believe that media is a commodity business, just as it was in the days when Life magazine was a mass medium and Uncle Miltie reached tens of millions of Americans every week on flickering, black-and-white TV screens.

Perhaps we can move away from this mindset by calling the media plan something new, like "communications plan." After all, the focus of the plan is on how to effectively talk to consumers. The media are merely conduits.

As we rapidly enter the age of interactive television, wireless advertising, e-mail marketing and other one-to-one contact with consumers, building a blueprint before building the house will not be desirable—it will be absolutely necessary.

Brian McHale is president of Empower MediaMarketing in Cincinnati.