Our US Business Director Victoria Potter explores how the Upfronts format might finally be changing – and why that’s good for advertisers.
How did the pandemic affect the Upfronts format?
A few months ago, I questioned in another of our ECI Thinks posts whether the pandemic would force through seismic changes in the Upfronts landscape. There has been a growing appetite for such changes in recent years, but it takes a lot to change the course of a huge, 60-year-old ship. Then the global coronavirus pandemic came along, and it seemed like the kind of storm that could expedite that change in direction: transforming consumers’ consumption priorities and their paths to purchase, and therefore affecting the media strategies of B2C brands.
But the change in direction didn’t happen as we anticipated. The Upfronts went ahead, and many advertisers bought their inventory. However, there are now indications emerging that some transformation is on the cards. Marketers are demanding changes to help them cope with the uncertain environment:
- Increased flexibility: Advertisers feel more comfortable committing to longer-term deals if there is greater flexibility and more options available to them
- More streaming: Many vendors managed to keep their revenue flat (rather than dropping) thanks to a shift in investment from linear to streaming. Streaming now accounts for one-third of ad dollars invested in TV.
Just a couple of weeks ago Marc Pritchard, Procter & Gamble’s Chief Brand Officer, declared that fundamental changes must happen, and must happen by next year. This is particularly important because P&G is such a key player in the Upfronts, and indeed has been a driver of the ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) that other advertisers experience, and which has been fundamental to the continued existence of the current format. Pritchard said the Upfronts are ‘inconvenient at best’ and that the system must change because ‘a level playing field means planning and negotiating when it fits the business – that’s calendar year for most.’
So, what exactly is behind the desire for change – and the apparently increased willingness of the Upfronts system to accommodate that change?
As Marc Pritchard observed, the Upfronts have long adhered to a schedule that suited the TV networks best, from October to September. Most advertisers work to a calendar-year agenda, so having to purchase TV inventory in a different schedule is disjointed. What’s more, the Upfronts format obliges advertisers to purchase inventory for almost a year away; as pandemic has laid bare, plans can change dramatically just a few months into the future. The old format was therefore driving inefficiency, with the purchase of too much inventory driving frequency and waste.
This year, however, was a buyers’ market, thanks to the deflation in media pricing (see our recent Inflation Report Update for more details) and a lack of content. Buyers could negotiate options that suited them more, forcing TV vendors to introduce more flexibility. Buyers were able to commit dollars by quarter, and to negotiate better conditions such as the ability to cancel a certain percentage in a larger window.
Traditionally, streaming and linear ads were sold in two separate packages, with the former offering more flexibility than the latter. However, vendors are increasingly selling the two as a combined package, again because of advertiser demand. This has resulted in less flexibility for streaming but more for linear – and that benefits most advertisers because the majority of investment is still in linear. It will be interesting to see if and how this changes in the coming years, as streaming becomes increasingly prominent.
Linear TV used to be the foundation of any media plan for the larger advertisers, but TV budgets are now divided across a number of areas, including linear, streaming, programmatic and addressable. Committing spend so far in advance, as per the ‘old’ Upfronts format, limits the opportunity for advertisers and their agencies to adjust to the rapidly changing landscape and optimize their buys.
It’s no secret that the media landscape is fragmenting, and that the most effective ad campaigns are optimized across all channels. Buying advertising separately, at the Upfronts, NewFronts and the podcast upfronts means that optimization is more difficult to achieve. Merging them, as 39% of media buyers favor, would help them to better understand measurement and research across screens, which would intern improve performance. The IAB’s new CEO, David Cohen, pushed for this ‘coming together’ to happen over the summer.
Optimization and measurement are key factors in the combined linear and streaming packages that vendors are increasingly offering at the Upfronts. Viewership is changing dramatically, particularly this year as more and more consumers have subscribed to streaming platforms during lockdown, and this is leading to an increase in streaming dollars at the Upfronts. However, a recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted that measurement problems are holding back advertising in Connected TV. Keeping track of who is watching what, and where, as well as how many times they see the same ads, is becoming a source of frustration for advertisers seeking to move their dollars into the medium. Ad-supported streaming from the likes of Amazon.com and Roku is attracting more and more viewers, but a fragmented media-buying landscape can mean that viewers are hit repeatedly with the same ad. Ad inventory purchased from multiple sellers often shows up in the same ad break; the problem is exacerbated by the fact that there is a smaller pool of advertisers in streaming than in traditional TV. There is a lack of transparency on when and where ads run within streaming platforms and apps; while it is slowly improving, the situation is far from resolved and this is causing significant wastage for advertisers. We’ll be exploring this in more detail in an upcoming post on ECI Thinks.
So, what’s the bottom line?
Advertisers are demanding transparency and that their media buys work together to drive maximum efficiency and effectiveness. The old Upfronts format is without doubt in need of an update so that it aligns more closely with the current media landscape. Furthermore, the vendors have work to do to ensure that measurement is unified and keeps up with the pace of change. The times they are a-changin’, and the Upfronts need to change accordingly.
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