Media Buying Briefing: The upfront season! Can’t live with ’em, can’t so easily change ’em 

This Media Buying Briefing covers the latest in agency news and media buying for Digiday+ members and is distributed over email every Monday at 10 a.m. ET. More from the series →

Are those drumbeats in the distance? In many ways that makes sense because the upfront season is upon the industry — that time when linear TV ( the OG of the upfront event), digital and platforms (the NewFronts), gaming (the PlayFronts, which just took place) and even podcasting (Podcast Upfront) host events and parties to showcase their content wares.

But maybe those drums signal the beginning of the end of the upfront process, something that may have outlived its usefulness because so much of what’s showcased has changed. It’s an interesting premise floated by a veteran industry executive who’s long lived in the intersection between content and marketing. 

Shannon Pruitt is currently the global CMO of Stagwell’s Brand Performance Network, but has had decades of experience as a branded content executive with stints at Dentsu, Horizon Media, Warner Bros. TV, Fremantle and The Honest Co. Pruitt posits that the function and value of the presentations themselves has changed because of the explosion of content. 

The upfronts, Pruitt reminds, began in the 1960s as a means for the three (!) broadcast networks to show their programming schedules so that advertisers would have a chance to think about how to invest in the coming season. Then, with the advent of the major digital companies (Facebook, YouTube and a host of content across the internet), the NewFronts turned it into a showcase of platforms.

Today, Pruitt adds, with the addition of podcasting and gaming, etc., it’s a matter of properties  — owning the rights to content, from women’s sports to which studio makes what show — because the same content can live in multiple places in an on-demand world. 

In other words, we’re a long way from a three-network prime-time programming grid. 

“You’re no longer in a programming era and you’re no longer in the platform era because everyone’s in a multi touchpoint ecosystem at any given time,” explained Pruitt. “So do we need all of these separate weeks to think about what our marketing ecosystem is going to look like and how we’re going to spend our money? Because really, the whole point was originally to schedule out your dollars through leverage and tonnage to be able to invest so that you know where your money was going and you were going to get a discount, right? We don’t live in that world anymore.”

Pruitt stopped short of suggesting that all the parties and presentations should go away, but she does argue there’s a positive environmental impact to either reducing the number of events and parties. 

What’s vital to point out, argued a few investment executives at holding company media agencies, is the need to distinguish the presentations/parties from the actual marketplace, in which well over $20 billion in ad dollars are committed.

“Everyone keeps calling the presentations ‘the upfront’ and the marketplace ‘the upfront.’ The presentations are a very elaborate sales piece — the upfront marketplace is really a futures market,” said the head of investment at a major holding company. 

The executive’s point is that for the last several years, that holding company had already made significant commitments in upfront spending before any of the presentations had even taken place. “I wish that people would start talking about a futures market than an upfront,” the exec added. 

“Even though the industry and the landscape has changed so much, it still does provide meaningful value for our clients in terms of not only costs but also innovation and access,” said Sharon Cullen, chief investment officer at Omnicom’s Hearts & Science. “It’s gone so much beyond what it used to be, in just having new new inroads that it allows us to be able to access not only content programming, all the data access that is so critical today.”

Pruitt certainly isn’t alone in questioning the way the upfront events — presentations and marketplace — have been done. Media pundit Mike Shields (a former Digiday reporter), posed a similar question in a recent column, asking:

“Yes, I know, the upfront has been a candidate for death going on 20 years. The annual TV sales ritual, which is known for a lavish set of sales presentations each year, but is really about a media space marketplace, has survived the great recession, the rise of digital media, the emergence of streaming, Covid, you name it. It’s hard to kill, primarily because it has still served a purpose. But does it anymore, really?”

Here’s my humble proposal for a solution to the party/presentation side of it all. Bring all the “fronts” — upfront, NewFronts, PlayFronts, etc — together in the Javits Convention Center on Manhattan’s west side, and have every media firm (from the studios and network owners to the platforms, gaming companies, podcasters, etc.) set up booth space to present whatever it is they want to present. Give media agencies and clients free access to wander the floor over the space of four days. Each night, one of the media firms gets to throw a party. Done. Time, money and space is saved.

Of course, given each sellers’ competitive instincts, such a sensible proposal is unwieldy at best and naive at worst. Still, it might be worth thinking about a better way.

And as for the marketplace side of the business, that’s always going to change based on the prevailing winds of the broader economy and ever-mutating media business.

Color by numbers

Influencer management platform GRIN released new data on social media shopping that shows very few consumers read reviews on a brand’s website – but 66% of Gen Z watches reviews on social media before buying something. — Antoinette Siu

More findings:

  • 73.5% of consumers have purchased a product because of an influencer endorsement
  • 20% of consumers planned to buy holiday gifts directly through social media
  • 33% of consumers said reviews on social media had the strongest impact on their purchasing decisions
  • 61% of them have bought a digital product, from apps to subscriptions, because of a social media recommendation.

Takeoff & landing

  • GroupM’s government practice arm of EssenceMediacom won the Canadian government’s media business, specifically Public Services and Procurement Canada. The mandate calls for media planning and strategy, buying, as well as ad serving and trafficking, ad verification and reporting. GroupM also added media duties for Nestlé in Australia and New Zealand.
  • Major bank Chase launched its own retail media network last week, Chase Media Solutions, with plans to only charge merchants a fee when a customer makes a purchase based on the offered deal. 
  • Health-related media agency CMI Media Group launched a new unit called Centered, which will specialize in social media and content creation, as well as digital media production and creator strategy.

Direct quote

“The landscape is shifting, especially around AI. Smart, networked agencies are blending these strengths with their own vast resources and global scope. In our experience, there’s a sweet spot, merging start-up-like flexibility with the power of a large network. This allows for the delivery of both personalized and expansive solutions, including in the AI realm.”

— Jill Smith, global CMO of integrated marketing agency Iris.

Speed reading

  • Kimeko McCoy continued her deep research into retail media networks’ explosive growth — and how there may not be enough ad dollars to go around to fund them all. 
  • Antoinette Siu covered independent agency Mod Op’s plans to expand to become more of a full-service shop but also its new AI unit. 
  • Seb Joseph explains why M&A in ad tech has once again become a hot topic.

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