‘We’re open for business’: BBC’s Upfronts demystifies its ad offering

The message at the BBC’s first U.K. Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Digital Upfronts this year was crystal clear: “We’re open for business,” said Sean O’Hara, evp international advertising at BBC Global News, the international commercial arm of BBC News.

The BBC’s advertising opportunities in the U.K. have thus far been pretty unclear, being funded domestically by the license fee payer has cast a long shadow. For the BBC, hosting an Upfront event — the U.K.’s version of the IAB’s Digital Content NewFronts in the U.S. — means the broadcaster can showcase its commercial clout to brands and agencies.

At the event, The BBC outlined new editorial platforms like BBC Reel and BBC Worklife as well as released research about how measuring emotion proves its branded content works. The broadcaster also showed off new technology efforts like augmented reality series “Inside Design” on BBC Culture and virtual reality experience on BBC Travel, “World of Wonder.” Through BBC StoryWorks, the content studio from BBC Global News, brands can create content distributed outside the U.K., through StoryWorks’ social channels, and on advertiser’s platforms.

“There’s more of a more concerted effort to raise their profile this year,” said Mark Holden, global strategy director at Starcom. “I’ve had a couple of meetings with them, and they’ve presented to the agency. I’ve seen its content through other platforms like Acast, the brand is a lot more visible.” Other agency executives interviewed for this piece said they previously didn’t understand how they could work with the BBC.

The BBC is a prime example of the value of the IAB Upfronts. In the U.K. the Upfronts, have always been more of a showcase of new products rather than the opportunity to strike deals, much how the IAB NewFronts West in the U.S. is shaping up. Less obvious commercially digital players, like the BBC and outdoor advertising giant JCDecaux next week, get to shop their wares to agencies alongside the U.S. tech platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Oath.

This year, the schedule is slimmer with five IAB Upfronts events compared to a dozen in 2017. Channel 4 opted to host its Upfronts in the summer this year to “create an earlier opportunity for them to talk to all of our clients and agencies on their vision for the future of Channel 4.” Global Radio is hosting its event in November outside of the IAB to give it more flexibility. The Telegraph and the Daily Mail, with more obvious digital commercial offerings, both had a presence last year.

Fewer publishers on the bill is not necessarily a bad thing. “I’d rather have five sold-out events than 15 where people don’t have something to say,” said James Chandler, chief marketing officer at the IAB. Agency execs can be more focused on finding ways to work with publishers on content solutions in fragmented audience landscapes.

The lack of trading deals being done at IAB Upfronts has made them more of a luxury for busy sales teams. “Typically, brand direct deals are not upfront commitments because they don’t always know what their budgets will be this year, so are reticent to lock in spend with publishers,” said Holden. Instead, they tend to be incentive deals, spending a certain amount will unlock certain benefits.

Annual trading deals heat up at the end of the calendar year, but any checks signed, like the reported £500 million ($660 million) deal between Channel 4 and Mediacom a few years ago weeks after the Upfronts, are more likely coincidental rather than tied to the IAB Upfronts, said Holden.

Despite a smaller scale, agencies mostly see value in the events at an industry level, even if the events appear to be more sporadic and disparate. “The loss of the (Publicis agency) Digitas event this year is a real loss,” said one agency executive, speaking anonymously, saying that fewer from the agency were attending this year. “Historically, it was one of the most inspirational sessions with great attendance. Audiences are perhaps getting a bit cynical about it becoming a sales event.”


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