Industry Preview: Unveiling the Upfronts
19 January 2017 • tvsquared

The TV Upfronts have always fascinated me. Before working closely with advertisers, I had notions about what it entailed – intense negotiations, glamorous, celebrity-filled parties and tons of money. While aspects of those notions are very true, today, my views are based more firmly in reality. But, to be honest, there are still some mysteries surrounding it.

That’s why I was looking forward to the Upfront session at AdExchanger’s 2017 Industry Preview. The panel had representatives from the buy- (Horizon Media and Initiative) and sell-sides (Hulu and Turner) and promised to answer the question: “Do we even need the Upfronts anymore?”

Well, according to the panelists, “yes,” the Upfront is critical, but it’s evolved greatly and looks very different than it did even a few years ago. So, how has it changed, and what can we expect for this year?

  1. It’s no longer simply a linear TV discussion: Advertisers are thinking holistically about video strategies, which certainly include linear TV, but also things like social, VOD and digital. They want to know what assets networks can provide to help achieve seamless and impactful cross-channel video strategies.
  2. It’s one part of a much broader relationship-building process: The Upfronts are no longer the one time per year that networks and preferred partners negotiate and collaborate. Today, this relationship is ongoing and, for some, it even starts at CES in January and continues throughout the year.
  3. It might set the stage for a major TV-buying shift: The panelists said that this year’s Upfronts will be a time to explore whether TV buying will/should become more audience-based. The buyers noted that they’ve typically leveraged TV for reach and scale and used digital for targeting – but this is changing. Will TV buys become more granular? (Of course, we have our own beliefs about how advertisers can use data to make smarter, more targeted TV buys!)
  4. Networks are using data to prove value and fit: Donna Speciale of Turner, said that her company is actively using data to find the “Holy Grail” for advertisers – marrying the right message, with the right environment and the right timing. Peter Naylor of Hulu added that ads can be pleasant experiences for viewers if they’re relevant and restrained. And a big part of making that happen is through data.
  5. Attribution is top-of-mind: Naylor also believes that this year’s Upfronts will be heavy on attribution discussions – how to tie cross-channel media efforts to real business value. Advertisers are no longer looking at traditional metrics, but rather exploring ways to measure media’s direct impact on business outcomes.

While the panel was informative, there was one burning question that wasn’t addressed – and it was around flexibility. I would have liked to hear, from advertisers, what is so appealing about the Upfronts that they’d give up the flexibility to optimize TV in-flight?

Many of the advertisers we work with have taken advantage of more flexible buying options (scatter and clearance) to optimize TV campaigns in-flight, just like they do with digital. Leveraging same-day performance insights to monitor campaigns, they make changes to days, dayparts, programs, network, genres and even creatives to improve the efficiency of on-air spots. With Upfront buys, you’re locked in for the year – and that type of optimization simply isn’t feasible.

This is not a knock on Upfronts. I understand the value of getting high-quality buys, and the subsequent benefits to brand building and awareness that they offer. But as advertisers look at media more holistically, there is also a need for more dynamic options (especially with TV) to ensure ongoing effectiveness.

It will be interesting to see what comes from Upfront 2017!