The TV ad upfront isn’t just about packed theaters, tightly staged presentations with prime-time talent, and late-night parties with endless trays of hors d’oeuvres and drinks. It’s the starting gun for buyers committing to spend more than $20 billion on TV ads (for a couple of hundred advertisers in aggregate), to be aired across a score of TV networks over the subsequent twelve months.
The upfront may be known for its pageantry, but it’s really about positioning: a fight for relative supremacy and a year of bragging rights among the top buyers and networks. Who got the best prices? Who got the most volume? Who sold more than they can deliver? Who got left with scraps and will now need to fight it out in the scatter market?
So the upfront is about so much more than the billions of dollars committed in the process. It is the top of the waterfall for the entire $70+ billion annual TV ad spend. Everything that follows the upfront -- scatter, sports, local, syndication, DR, etc. -- flows from the precedents the upfront sets.
What happens in a year like this when “rescheduled upfronts could be the new normal”? When top buyers like Horizon Chief Investment Officer Dave Campanelli says, “I don’t think there's literally any chance the upfront happens on that normal May/June timeline”?
Here are my thoughts on what might happen without a market-defining upfront, as well as who some of the winners and losers might be:
This upfront will be fractured. The lack of a collective “starting gun” for this season or pilot shows in production, or any sense of where live sports will be in the fall and winter, will lead to a fractured upfront. It will not roll out like a symphony of stringed instruments, followed by brass and percussion. It will happen section by section in a cacophony.
This will be a big benefit to buyers and sellers with strong leadership positions who have led through disruptive moments like 9/11 and the financial crisis. It will be tough for newbies.
It will be every network (and client) for themselves. Almost everyone in the TV ad business is taking a hit in the second quarter, and most expect no better in Q3. Those TV companies will do anything and everything to get as much money committed and spent as possible.
Don’t expect networks to sit back. This will put many agencies (and their clients) in a tough spot to commit against the unknown schedules of the future -- or pay the price in pricey scatter as things become more known.
I suspect this will cause individual clients to fend for themselves. Some will want to commit now. Some will want to wait out the year. Some will want to sit out two quarters and shift their upfront commitments to a calendar year -- leading to even more fracturing of the upfront.
Scatter moves from the back of the process to the front. For sure, more money will be spent in scatter over the next year. There will be just too much uncertainty for it to play out any other way. Scatter won’t be just the stepchild of many clients’ primary TV ad buys, but will become a primary TV ad buy in itself. This will benefit networks, agencies and clients with more audience and viewing intelligence and more trafficking automation. It will hurt those without it.
What do you think? Who wins and who loses if we don’t have a market-defining upfront this year?