In the thick of Upfronts season, worlds collide. Upfront TV buys, where media agencies have the opportunity to preview pending programming at the network level for upcoming TV seasons, is also where many media dollars are promised, allocated, or reserved. Rates are better when you buy ‘up front’, and at this stage, availability is guaranteed.
In the past, Upfronts exist to parade new programming in front of those who control buyer budgets, and a few celebrities join to deliver the wow factor. Typically it includes a handful of those who have endorsed content, purchased book rights, engaged writers and showrunners for adaptations, or volunteered themselves for specific roles. If 2019 is setting any measure of precedent, you can expect to see Reese Witherspoon’s production company Hello Sunshine, attending Upfronts for years to come. It’s a special day in ad tech when work-related research brings me to Entertainment Weekly!
Media and television, and by association, celebrity, typically live within an arm’s reach of each other. Historically, media and celebrity have been inextricably linked, hailing from the earliest days of structured marketing strategies. The first celebrity endorsement on record is as early as the 1760s with a pottery company touting royal endorsement in the official title of their master potter as “Potter to Her Majesty.” No agency required! In our modern day world, media and celebrity are constantly collaborating behind the scenes (literally), bringing you the content you didn’t know you’d want next year. But it’s 2019 – let’s throw in a few tech companies, and all the sudden it’s a spectacular display of evolving partnerships between some vastly different parties.
The Upfronts are changing
On the surface, all is innovative and well. Original programming is growing exponentially year over year. Celebrities are taking a heavier hand in pursuing and producing content they know their existing fan bases will respond to, simultaneously helping increase diversity of cast and content. Endless on-demand and streaming options make rabid consumption and virality the norm. But in tandem, the immense fragmentation of access and delivery points is increasing as well. Networks and broadcasters are no longer the de facto proprietors of hot new content. For example, OTT streaming service Hulu is reportedly paying a premium in bidding wars against these very same networks and broadcasters for original content and celebrity-backed projects.
If the name ‘NewFronts’ isn’t enough of an indication that there are new kids in town, read on. For one thing, SpotX, a peripheral participant at best a few years ago, is now happily in the thick of it. Not only do broadcast and cable networks lead traditional tv-buying Upfronts, the big six agencies lead their own version of buy-side upfronts for their relevant partners. But the growing roster of participants at the NewFronts is where the bulk of real change is concentrated.
In the past, NewFronts have indicated participation of digital or tech-focused companies, but the genre of participants is ever-expanding. Walmart is a new participant this year, and for the first time Target swooped up a last-minute spot released by Disney. These traditional brick-and-mortar retail corporations either already have skin in the online streaming and media tech game (Vudu, acquired by Walmart in 2010), or have their sights set on capitalizing on shopper data. Thursday’s announcement focused on Target’s in-house media venture, newly re-branded Roundel, which will aim to move the commerce giant into the sell-side via campaign and content-creation for any and all advertisers utilizing information about shopper behavior. Aside from retail giants, tech and data companies like AT&T’s Xandr, are also participating this year, with a focus on data-driven buying in both digital or traditional TV environments. The industry is still awaiting a solution to wrangle OTT and traditional TV content in one cohesive marketplace, but solving for unified measurement and shared budgets is undeniably complex.
While various linear and digital buying teams will certainly be attending in varying percentages to reserve their piece of the TV pie, the formula at its core is changing. The agencies will still bring the money, and networks will still bring content, but streaming services abound and their original content carries some serious social clout. The tech companies will bring the online data and ‘pipes’ as we like to say, and retailers will bring their own shopper data and strategies aligned with an assortment of tech and programming acquisitions. In this new model, retail scale now translates to a bonafide data commodity. In coming years, data will serve as an entry point for any who are willing to collect and wrangle it. And celebrities will remain the icing on the cake, advocating for your favorite book club book to be transformed into a miniseries.
This article was written by Mic Roske, Director of internal training at SpotX.