When 21st Century Fox acquired ad-tech startup True[x] three years ago for $200 million, it may have seemed to some to be just another diversification strategy by a traditional media company seeking a bit of a hedge against further digital disruption. But readers of MediaPost who had followed founder Joe Marchese’s op eds about Madison Avenue’s looming “sub-prime crisis” may have sensed more of a strategic play.
After all, Marchese and his partner David Levy founded True[x] on the premise that the real marketing battle wouldn’t be fought over who had the most media impressions, but which of those garnered the most consumer attention.
It was a vision apparently shared right from the top at Fox.
“The connections between brands and consumers have continued to evolve within digital video environments,” 21st Century Fox co-COO James Murdoch stated when the company announced the acquisition, adding: “True[x] is at the center of this vital innovation.”
And then Fox immediately began placing it at the center of its innovation, naming Marchese president of advanced advertising for the Fox Networks group and making Levy responsible for all “non-linear” advertising sales at Fox, including digital, OTT and on-demand programming.
While True[x] continues to operate as a free-standing ad-technology firm independent of Fox, the team quickly integrated True[x]’s technology, insights and most importantly, its belief systems across Fox.
But it wasn’t until this spring when Marchese was promoted to president of all of Fox Networks’ ad revenue that people on the outside could see the writing on the wall.
"Consider this," Marchese told media buyers and ad execs from the stage of Fox’s prime-time upfront ad sales presentation in New York City, just days after taking the new job. "We as an industry have done studies to demonstrate that having the sound on is a more effective way of delivering your commercials."
“Seriously, let me repeat that...” he added, at which point the audio on the loudspeaker system went mute and all you could hear was laughter from the audience.
“…and that is the secret to the future of advertising. And tomorrow’s winning lottery numbers,” Marchese concluded as the audio came back on, sparking an ovation from the audience.
It was a visceral way of making the point that this wasn’t your father’s Fox upfront sales presentation, and that Marchese’s “sub-prime” crisis message was finally ready for, well, prime time.
Rattling off the conditions of Madison Avenue’s looming sub-prime crisis -- the proliferation of clutter, unsavory content, ad blockers, DVRs and an abundance of advertising-free media options -- Marchese said it was time for the ad industry to shift from “trading impressions to making impressions.”
And the best way to do that, he continued, was to leverage the powerful “storytelling” of studios and networks like Fox with those of brands and their agencies to re-engage consumer attention in a way that enhances their viewing experience, but also “makes your brands heroes.”
Like many of the big media companies that are its peers, Fox is doing that by investing in better research, data processing and metrics that prove performance, but also unlock insights that reveal when consumers, brands and network programmers benefit by enhancing the experience.
The most radical part of Marchese’s and Levy’s vision -- the one it has convinced Fox’s most senior management to buy into, and its mission to get Madison Avenue to do the same -- is its “less is more logic.”
Instead of using network TV’s traditional playbook of boosting revenues by squeezing more advertising impressions into their mix, Marchese and Levy have taken the boldest step yet to create even more premium value by reducing advertising exposure, and ideally, getting brands to pay more for it.
It’s a model they proved successfully at True[x] where customized ad units enable brands to be the “hero” by providing consumers with enhanced experiences of “rewards” in exchange for their engaged attention. But until now, it was only theoretical that it could also be extended to the top of the mass media food chain: network prime-time TV.
It’s a work in progress, for sure, but the Fox team has already begun to experiment with new ad formats that reduce the number of impressions viewers are exposed to, while increasing the attention they give to the brands that advertised in those less cluttered environments.
One of the formats may seem counterintuitive: six-second ad units. The short-duration video ads, which have already become a default standard in online video, have already been tested in Fox’s live sports and prime-time programming, and Marchese has indicated that he is willing to push the envelope even further to test how far the less-is-more strategy can go.
During a recent MediaPost roundtable on the subject, he said Fox was even willing to test “three-second” video engagements as the basis of viewer attention if brands are willing to try it out.
Needless to say, there are many issues about cognition, ad effectiveness, cultural and generational divides that still need to be understood, but the fact that Fox has been willing to embrace such a radical transformation of its underlying inventory in hopes of creating a better experience is exactly the kind of criteria -- vision, innovation and industry leadership -- that MediaPost uses when it recognizes advertisers, agencies and media suppliers in these awards.
“Working with behavioral scientists, we’re exploring the core pillars of human attention,” Marchese explained to the ad execs at Fox’s upfront. “The goal is to ensure that you get the greatest return on every dollar spent based on attention received.”