The upfront market is only now picking up steam, as buyers push pricing rollbacks on streamers

After weeks of getting their proverbial ducks in a row, the chief investment officers of several major media agencies, have quietly begun to cut deals with the bigger media players selling their wares in this upfront marketplace. But it’s been a long time coming this year. Why? It’s a buyers’ market apparently — at least according to buyers. 

“This is the slowest developing marketplace that I’ve seen in probably 20 years,” said one buyer who declined to speak for attribution due to client sensitivities — as did the other investment execs. “Every time it’s a buyers market, there’s a slower pace to the marketplace.”

Added another head of investment: “There needs to be an acceptance by partners that they’re not going to get the cost that they maybe were planning on prior to the upfront. There’s a come to Jesus moment for them that needs to happen, and then they realize, ‘If I don’t get going soon, I may lose a lot of [dollar] volume.’ And that’s really being caused by an influx of supply in the streaming space.”

Among the newer developments as deals get negotiated and cut are the inclusion of more sports inventory, and the pricing rollbacks that buyers are demanding of the main streaming services. All investment execs spoke with Digiday on condition of anonymity to speak more freely. 

Amazon Prime’s participation in the upfront as a seller for the first time has also added a new wrinkle to the complexities of an already complicated marketplace. For one, its move to make all of its subscribers ad-supported — forcing anyone who wants an ad-free service to switch back for a fee — flooded the market with millions of eyeballs and driving prices downward.

For another, one investment head bemoaned their belief that Omnicom and WPP — the two last holding companies said to be vying to win Amazon’s ad account, worth an estimated $2.5 billion in media spend — are offering preferential pricing to Amazon in the upfront if the e-commerce and content giant lands its business with their holding company. As expected, neither Omnicom Media Group nor GroupM would comment on whether they are doing that. A Wall Street Journal story a few weeks ago made glancing reference to that possibility.

Meanwhile, all the buyers Digiday spoke with said they are rolling back pricing on the major streamers, which the first buyer described as “obscenely out of touch with the marketplace.” 

“My focus was we are going to adjust and reset the digital streaming pricing that exists in the marketplace,” said the buyer.  “Pricing is “now going to have to come down, and I focused 95% of my efforts against resetting all the digital streaming pricing.” The buyer added that it’s a matter of the premiums and fees that streamers add to their pricing — not unlike a car dealer that tells you what your monthly cost is, but then adds anti-rusting or wiper protection surcharges onto the number.

“When you want to exclude news from something, they’re gonna charge you 10% premium,” said the buyer. “If you’re going to do it programmatically, they’re going to charge you 15% premium. If you’re going to do something targeted, they’re going to charge you 25-30% premiums on top of your CPM. I thought that’s why you were buying streaming — to be more targeted. So why are you telling me the CPM is $28 when it’s really $48 when you’re all said and done?”

All this takes time. Another investment head said they took their time to organize all the options laid out — of which there are many more than even two years ago, including digital video, programmatic, social video on top of linear vs. CTV — before negotiating on cost for their clients.

“We really wanted to get our ducks in a row before we even got to the point of price,” said the buyer who also is looking for CPM rollbacks. “We know where prices were going to end relative to last year, and relative to what we think the market is like. It was more around really landing the plane on all the different elements that go into the actual negotiation. And you’re not negotiating two or three day parts, or two or three channels anymore. It’s a lot.”

Sports content is driving most of the demand, agreed most of the investment heads. “Partners with very large sports portfolios are probably the ones that you’re seeing wrap up sooner than later,” said yet another investment head.

And those sellers with a good amount of sports inventory in their content portfolios will likely wrap up their dealings sooner than those that are entertainment-only. “The sports market is seeing more demand than entertainment/linear and streaming,” said a fourth buyer.

All this is to say the upfront won’t likely wrap up until August — one of the latest times in recent years. It doesn’t help that budgets are down, particularly in entertainment, CPG and tech, as the fourth buyer noted. Two categories said to be spending more are pharma and sports betting.

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