Media Buying Briefing: How the upfront has changed over the last 30 years

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As the cable reporter for now-defunct Mediaweek from 1993 until 1998 when I became an editor, I learned about the TV ad marketplace down to a level of granularity I had no idea existed. It’s when I first heard the term “upfront” used in a way that had nothing to do with where I stood at a concert or in line.

In those days, hardly anyone knew what the Internet was, four broadcast networks dominated the upfront marketplace, and syndication (remember that?) and basic cable networks scratched out revenue totals that barely added to half a billion dollars — less than Google generates in less than two weeks today.

There was no programmatic selling — it was all about relationships between the ad sales chiefs and their teams, and the titans of the media agency world (when the likes of Irwin Gotlieb and Jon Mandel made or broke the business). And each of the sales teams had their own style — where the MTV Networks sales team in the late 1990s resembled a family straight out of “The Sopranos” central casting, the Turner sales team felt more akin to “Mad Men.”

CMOs didn’t have the high visibility or rock-star status that a Marc Pritchard possesses today — but of course they always had the clout, being the holders of the purse strings.

Today, tech rules

Last week, every single upfront presentation trotted out advances in technology that not only embrace programmatic buying in a relationship business, but emphasized the value of letting artificial intelligence scrape the content treasure chests of the programmers and find contextual relevance for advertisers.

Netflix, a relative newcomer to the ad-supported video landscape, impressed those attending its upfront with a bristling array of ad-tech tools and partners beyond its main back-office ally in Microsoft. It’s also introducing its own ad-tech, which will be tested in Canada at first.

Ironically, there’s so much inventory for media buyers to sift through that sellers now have to find ways to create scarcity — and YouTube sits at the forefront of those efforts.

The beginning of the end?

So, has the upfront finally reached a point where it’s no longer worth the effort? It’s a question that has kicked around this industry since I first started covering them 30 years ago.

The first part of the upfront — the presentation of content to throngs of media buyers, planners and clients — is likely to never go away. Everyone likes a show — and the parade of stars, celebrities, singers and athletes that graced all the upfront stages last week offer a rare opportunity to enjoy this business — which has become so much more of a complex business.

“It’s really important for not just the ad community but the investor community and our clients to understand what’s happening and where the big bets are being placed,” said Mike Law, CEO of Dentsu’s Carat. “We spend a lot of the year talking about data, connections, cultural relevance — all the business aspects. This is about a showcase of the star power and talent of what video and TV is today. It’s a PSA for the industry. It shows the excitement and scale that helps brands reach consumers.”

But the need to commit something in the neighborhood of $20 billion in ad dollars within a span of weeks that invests from Q4 this year through Q3 of 2025? That’s becoming far less important, as clients seek more flexibility, and the reality that, besides a few live sports events, no content is a must-buy anymore.

“The idea in the entertainment space that you need to book it all now — those days are gone,” declared Geoffrey Calabrese, chief investment officer at Omnicom Media Group. “It’s a lot to try and package together.”

Added Law: “Decades ago there was a really defined window of time. Now it’s about frameworks of partnerships and how we build to do some of the great stuff we’re seeing onscreen. All the upfronts highlighted a lot more of the client partnerships and the ways brands actually integrated. That doesn’t happen in two weeks or even four.”

And that’s not even taking into account another major headache that lingers over the video industry: measurement, or rather the lack of coherent measurement. As OMG’s Calabrese put it, “You run into a space where you’re transacting on different currencies with different partners for the same campaign inside the same timeframe. So you can do it all. There’s just a heavier lift than people anticipated still having at this point.”

Law agreed that very important piece of the investment puzzle is far from solved. “We have to continue to focus on the best measurement, which has to be about business outcomes and consumer experience,” he said. “How can we ensure that we’re not just driving massive amounts of frequency but truly extending reach?”

Jaded observations

One final thought on how the upfront has changed over the decades — and perhaps this speaks to pervasive skepticism in the world, that nothing is sacred anymore. It seems no upfront is complete without someone ridiculing the process, be it Seth Meyers at NBCUniversal (“Peacock continues to prove that the easiest way to make a billion dollars, is to spend 8 billion!”), Jimmy Kimmel at Disney (“We are bundling, and while from the outside this may look like an act of desperation, from the inside, it also looks like that!”) or Conan O’Brien (“None of the statistics given today are real!”).

Even Disney CEO Bob Iger — one of the most powerful people in the industry — was in on the joke, acknowledging, “Today, we’re going to share with you the incredible projects that we’re working on. And then later Jimmy Kimmel will be out to tear them all apart.”

I don’t mean any of that as a judgment — just an observation, as someone who’s seen the magnitude of change over the buy-sell equation these last 30 years.

Color by numbers

Gen Z’s spending power reaches the hundreds of billions in the U.S. — so targeting gamers seems like a no-brainer, given that the cohort spends several hours a day playing video games. Payment app ZBD did a deep dive on the Gen Z gamer — the 18-to-25 age group that makes up a big market. It surveyed more than 2,000 Gen Z gamers in the U.S. on their gaming habits, emerging tech, rewards and influencer topics.

Some highlights:

  • 65% said they play video games more than three hours a day.
  • 81% of Gen Z gamers have played or would play a video game that is entirely based on a non-gaming brand, like Nikeland in Roblox.
  • However, 43% said ads in games ruin the experience — but 74% would be more receptive to ads in games if they were rewarded with Bitcoin for their time.
  • 67% would trust a brand more if influencers or creators they know are associated with it.
  • 70% make money through a side hustle themselves.
  • Male gamers are most likely to engage with influencers on YouTube (79%), while females favor TikTok (75%). — Antoinette Siu

Takeoff & landing

  • Omnicom Media Group landed Gap Inc.’s media business, which also includes Old Navy and Banana Republic. The incumbent is, of all places, an OMG shop, PHD.
  • GroupM tapped Toby Jenner, the global CEO of GroupM unit Wavemaker since 2019, to take on a new role at the network as global president of GroupM Clients.
  • Independent WPromote landed media AOR duties for Athletic Brewing Co., which specializes in non-alcoholic beers. The deal expands on WPromote’s performance media work for the client.

Direct quote

“You deserve to know where every single one of your ad units runs. Not everyone shares that level of transparency.”

— Mark Marshall, chairman of global advertising and partnerships at NBC Universal during the company’s May 13 upfront presentation.

Speed reading

  • Digiday reported on several angles of the upfronts last week, including Antoinette Siu’s look at how independent media agencies find their opportunities in a marketplace that tends to reward the biggest players. Also, Ronan Shields and Alex Lee covered Amazon’s efforts, including Twitch’s presence.
  • Kristina Monllos, Seb Joseph and myself looked into the surprisingly subtle reactions the ANA’s report on principal-based trading that came out last week.
  • Sam Bradley looked at the implications for brands and media buyers on the battle to secure the next round of rights to the NBA, whose current deals expire after the 2024-2025 season.
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