The TV upfronts — annual kickoff meetings in which the networks give big advertisers a glimpse at the season to come — are one of the advertising world’s rites of passage. Buyers and sellers come, schmooze, and — if they close enough deals — conquer.
But today’s data-driven media marketplace has made the upfront widely ineffective. Buying based on what looks good at an upfront is a multimillion-dollar guessing game; no one knows how many people will ever tune in to these shows — and buyers know it.
Digital advertising doesn’t need to be sold months or even seconds in advance. Consequently, such advertising should solve the transparency issue. Full insight into audience data gives buyers a better understanding of who actually sees their ad, and, in turn, enables the buyer to be smarter and more informed.
Digital hasn’t taken full advantage of this data when selling video in an upfront, nor has it found a way to merge it with transparent pricing, one of the key tenets of the TV upfront. Until the industry can merge the two, the notion of a digital upfront is a charade.
The digital upfront has stuck to tradition, which means that it is based on outdated process and model from TV and print buying pre-digital. This simplistic model fails to take advantage of the sophisticated technology available, so the digital upfront budgets remain in second place.
Fortunately, digital buying and selling technology has changed dramatically in recent years, opening the door for a new era of upfronts — one that includes process automation and new revenue models.
Ad buyers will continue to buy directly from publishers, and the upfront should also enable them to leverage programmatic opportunities, including non-guaranteed buying and programmatic direct. Programmatic’s rapid evolution has changed the way many media channels are bought and sold — and the practice will come to digital TV in the very near future.
Programmatic’s success is due to the amount of actionable data available to buyers; that wealth of data has been largely absent from the digital upfronts. Again, we’re trying to wedge an antiquated TV model into a more sophisticated digital realm. We can do better.
Digital enables portals and content producers to merge the upfront model with the programmatic decision-making that enables buyers to pursue their best targets. The missing pieces are transparent pricing and the kind of easily digestible analytics that enable buyers to assess and leverage their full power. The buy-sell relationship today involves a lot of intermediaries, leading to a lack of trust and an industry-wide sense of confusion and conflict between buyers and sellers.
How can an advertiser choose the best approach without some form of intelligence that takes all of the publishers they work with into account? There needs to be a common language that sources and exposes data in a meaningful way, enabling buyers and sellers to take action.
The upfront is the perfect platform for this intelligence to take root. Rather than continue with publisher-specific upfronts, let’s expand the event into an industry-wide upfront powered by real-time data sets looking across all of the variables buyers use to assess media purchases. Then buyers will know where they should commit their budgets.
Many publishers may fear hey would lose money under such a system, but the opposite is true. Buyers will still commit to direct guaranteed buys around premium content. Whether an original Web series or streaming TV, professionally made, high-quality content will always attract premium advertisers. These programs may actually make more money by offering direct programmatic packages in which buyers may leverage programmatic bidding and guaranteed spend.
New content and niche video will profit heavily as well, because advertisers can follow their audiences across the Web. They’re likely to find that they can access their audiences on these long-tail streams for less. Content that grows in popularity and attracts a highly sought-after audience will inspire more competition for impressions, driving up prices.