Why Did The Media Buyer Cross The Road?

After more than 40 years covering the advertising marketplace, let me be the first to acknowledge it often is a dull and complicated endeavor where levity, bright lights, pizzazz and little sizzle can be welcome breaks from -- to quote ANA chief Bob Liodice -- the "mind-numbing complexity" of the business.

And the hype -- er, I mean height -- of that has always been the annual network upfront ad presentations when the Big 4 bring out their big guns to dazzle advertisers and media buyers with Hollywood production values, talent and good old fashioned showbiz. And of course, the shrimp cocktails.

What some people may not understand is the soft-sell begins long before anyone takes the stage at Carnegie, Alice Tully or even Radio City Music halls, and it is a carefully planned, and sublimely executed process that begins at the start of a new year when the networks begin schmoozing with advertisers and media buyers over expensive power lunches, and entertain them and provide them "hospitality" at the world's most coveted televised events, beginning with the Super Bowl, and every-other-year-or-so, and Olympics, all leading up to the Big Show.



One of my best sources -- a former Madison Avenue media Macher who went to the other side and became one of the most influential network spinmeisters -- once outlined the process explicitly for me, almost like it was scripted.

Actually, in the case of NBCUniversal, I now know it really is scripted. If you don't believe me, click here and you can read the verbatim shooting script NBCU used to produce the "developers conference" it hosted big advertisers and agencies at in its famed Studio 8H -- the setting for "Saturday Night Live" -- inside its Rockefeller Center HQ.

(Note to NBCU's Advertising & Partnerships Communications Team: MediaPost always honors embargoes and confidential information we agree to before the fact, but not to things we receive unsolicited after the fact.)

So now that I've no doubt burned my last bridge to the other side of that road, let me point out that most of the inside jokes you heard if you were in the room or streaming NBCU's developers conference Tuesday actually were scripted -- from the ones delivered by actress and comedian Ana Gasteyer, a former "SNL" cast member and star of NBC prime-time sitcom "American Auto" -- to Chief Technology Officer Anthony Skinner's "dad joke."

And as good as Gasteyer's -- or Skinner's -- delivery was, it was all part of a well-honed and professionally-executed sales pitch wrapped in the guise of a very serious meeting about how NBCU is leading the charge to use data and technology to transform the way the ad industry buys and sells, well, people.

I'm not going to digress into my rant about why it's a slippery slope for the demand-side to capitulate to the supply-side and let suppliers like NBCU set the standards, "certify" the supply chain, and set the benchmarks its customers use to calculate the return on what they buy from NBCU, because I've written about that a few times already.

Plus I know we're all a little overwhelmed, looking for simplicity to offset the mind-numbing complexity, even if it means our suppliers are the ones certifying what we get.

That's not new in the network TV world where the big broadcast networks have always called the shots, requiring advertisers to "register" their upfront budgets, and having an undue influence on the way their ad buys were measured, posted, and fulfilled.

And it's certainly not new from the other world of media-buying that NBCU has been trying to emulate in recent years, the digital supply chain comprised of humongous walled gardens that have long "certified" their supply chain, even the supposedly media neutral ad agencies that do business with them.

But the difference is that in digital, advertisers and agencies had no choice, because that's the way that industry evolved.

In the case of the major TV network owners, companies like NBCU are remaking themselves in the model of Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc., because, well, you know why.

But the big difference between NBCU's developers conference and the ones hosted by Big Tech companies, is that Google at least focuses on moonshots, while NBCU is still delivering rimshots.

That's because NBCU has been doing that longer than the 40 years I've been covering it. It goes back to the earliest days of the network upfront process -- another kind of developers conference literally called "development meetings" -- when the networks would fly their biggest clients out to the West Coast and host them on their Hollywood sound stages to hear them and some of their stars give them early first-look pitches on concepts and shows they had in development.

Those meetings were a vestige of a time when advertisers actually were the networks' partners and literally sponsored -- if not actually produced -- whole shows that were associated with the advertiser's brand. Over time those sponsorships fragmented into mere media buys, and advertisers became the demand-side for what the networks were selling. But the networks continued to use their Hollywood insider trappings to maintain the perception that it was more than a buyer/seller relationship. That they were partners, executing gentleman's agreements, and taking care of each other when things didn't work out.

It's always been a club, and you were privileged to be a member of it, even if the cost of joining was your media neutrality, and the ability to look objectively -- and more importantly, to measure objectively -- what you got in return.

So NBCU's development conference is just an evolution of that and instead of wowing ad execs with Hollywood star power, they're using the power of Big Data, troves of high fidelity consumer identity matching, technology, automation, and other Big Tech associations that the digital side of the demand-side has come to expect as its "currency."

Honestly, NBCU has done a pretty good job of walking that line, but the transition is still a little awkward as it mushes two different worlds together, into a new Frankenstein creation that is a little bit of old school network upfront hype combined with a lot of walled garden obfuscation.

They may talk about "transparency," but they're stacking the deck, setting the benchmarks, and becoming the integral source for pulling it all together vis a vis NBCU. They even branded it "NBCUnified."

Of all the insider jokes NBCU's presenters made Tuesday, I think one that ad chief Linda Yaccarino delivered may be most telling.

Her set-up was thanking a presumably off-premises "Neil" whom insiders probably know, and who Yacarrino said couldn't be there, because "his horse and buggy got stuck on the [Long Island Expressway]."

It was an ironic set-up, given that moments later, while speaking about how consumer behavior has been changing with the evolution of media, Yaccarino revealed her own horse-and-buggy-ish mindset, rattling off mobile, social "or that metaverse thing."

Metaverse thing? I'd be very surprised if NBCU isn't unveiling a metarverse thing when it hosts its next developers conference in 2023, but that's just another set-up.

Yaccarino's punch line may be that advertisers and media buyers "shouldn't worry, don't wait, don't be Neil," but the real joke is on anyone who doesn't understand that her job is not to be your friend, make you part of a club, help you step into the future, it's to sell you stuff.

You can read through NBCU's script to find the other jokes, but for now I'd like to leave you with my own punchline, the one that follows the headline on this column: Why did the media buyer cross the road?

To get to the other side, of course.

11 comments about "Why Did The Media Buyer Cross The Road?".
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  1. Joe Benarroch from NBCUniversal, March 23, 2022 at 1:13 p.m.

    WAIT a minute ... a content company ... writing scripts ... for a major event? In the famous words of Miranda Priestly... Groundbreaking!

  2. Joe Mandese from MediaPost, March 23, 2022 at 1:28 p.m.

    @Joe Benarroch: That's what you took from this column? Figures.

  3. Joe Benarroch from NBCUniversal, March 23, 2022 at 1:33 p.m.

    Thanks Joe. I read the article. But any other response that I'd have to any of your points, is really...all in the script!

    Thanks for sharing it with everyone! 

  4. Joe Mandese from MediaPost, March 23, 2022 at 2:46 p.m.

    You're welcome, Joe.

  5. Jason Damata from Fabric Media, March 23, 2022 at 3:54 p.m.

    Who you calling Skipper, Mandelazy!!!!??? SKINNER worked his own speech up and nailed it! Give that guy some credit!!!  And PS--I would agree w/ your slippery slope concept if true but-- it's not NBCU or the sell side setting the standard, it's the network adopting the systems hundreds of brands on the buy side use to evaluate tv buying and performance already! XOXO

  6. Joe Mandese from MediaPost, March 23, 2022 at 4:13 p.m.

    @Jason Damata: Ach! Thanks for catching, updated now. I gave Skinner props when we covered his delivery yesterday. He definitely belongs on the Studio 8H stage:

  7. Jason Damata from Fabric Media replied, March 23, 2022 at 4:24 p.m.

    Thanks Joe-- was just in a meeting where he was introduced as "Skipper" so maybe I owe you another THANKS. for the comedy! In all seriousness, should have them walk you through the buy side adption in the coming weeks, will get some time w/ the Captain this time.

  8. Jack Wakshlag from Media Strategy, Research & Analytics, March 24, 2022 at 2:12 p.m.

    If advertisers large and small accept metrics from top ad vehicles like Google, Facebook, etc. inevitably the same will happen for television.  Though media companies have traditionally footed the bill, Advertisers decide what data they want to use. Kelly is quite right, the traditional panel based system disappears in a few years as Nielsen modifies and adapts it's measurement product to the realities of return path data from TVs, settop boxes and the rest.  All that historical data will lose much (though not all) of its value. All the trends, patterns and data that fills todays models will need planned adjustment. It's wise to start planning and investing in solutions before the door shuts on the former approach to measurement. 

  9. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, March 24, 2022 at 3:40 p.m.

    Good point, Jack. But don't give up yet.

    Small fry local advertisers aside,  a huge amount of the ads sold by FB, Google, etc. are not traditional TV branding ads. Rather, they are direct response and search ads---often bought by computers, not people--- where it doesn't matter what the true audience is as the advertiser, in most cases pays only per response. If these companies try to sell TV-style branding ads --TV commercials, not display ads--- to sophisticated national advertisers served by savvy media buying agencies, they are going to have a hard time gaining acceptance for home grown audience metrics. The buyers will demand a third party source---like Nielsen or who ever can step up and replace Nielsen---and even if a large part of the data comes from various set-top-box and ACR set panels it will be defined and processed by a disinterested party and it will use the same measuremnets for all sellers.

  10. Jack Wakshlag from Media Strategy, Research & Analytics replied, March 24, 2022 at 4:38 p.m.

    Perhaps, Ed, but these sophisticated buyers are not objecting or requiring this for their digital spend today, even their branding spend. Is that because they have decided against it or don't think they need it?  I can't tell. More importantly, if video is to capture dollars going to the likes of Google and YouTube, it will have to go beyond branding ads.  The desire of advertisers to connect impressions directly to sales outcomes is where the rubber meets the road and TV needs to figure out how to attract those dollars. Branding ads alone won't generate enough revenue growth.  Today's TV revenues are held up by an increasing shortage of ad impressions caused by viewership declines vs growing demand for impressions by a larger pool of advertisers seeking more than branding outcomes.  Driving demand by enticing more advertisers  is what will grow revenue.  The upside for brand centric ads is much smaller.

    Even if third party players are part of the solution, so advertisers don't rely on media self reported data, and they do seem to be part of what NBCU and other media players are "certifying", the measurement will be from many different places and devices.  That disruption will last at least one year, and probably more -- and everybody better be ready to deal with that change. The numbers will change whether they are from Nielsen, which may continue to use its panel to calibrate, or others that won't bother.  This disruption will be expensive and time consuming, driving even more dollars to automation.

    Bottom line always takes us back to supply and demand. Traditional media outlets are trying to increase their share of the supply of impressions knowing that growth will come from online video and not traditional TV. At the same time, they can increase demand by offering inventory to advertisers beyond the big ones looking for branding effects. 

  11. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, March 24, 2022 at 5:43 p.m.

    Jack, the key is going to be how many branding GRPs are available to satisfy the demands of advertisers who don't sell direct. While "linear TV" is gradually losing audience volume, I'm sad to say that I think that the sellers will continue to increase ad clutter until it amounts to 35% of content to partially make up for their audience losses and generate more GRPs to monetize.  And I expect that the hard core "linear TV" fans---probably about 40% of the country with "pay TV" in five years plus another 15% with over-the-air broadcast signal reception---will largely tolerate the increasing ad loads---though ad exposure levels should decline as a result. Trouble is that advertisers don't seem to care about attentiveness as they are making no effort to make it part of the new TV rating services that are developing.

    Another key will be how many advertising GRPs will be added via streaming---both CTV and AVOD. Currently ad clutter is limited in most of these venues to encourage subscriptions and  usage but that will probably change and steady increases  will develop more GRPs. The same goes for new initiatives by YouTube. So I'm not as pessimistic about branding advertisers continuing to be a major income source for the various TV time sellers. Part of the deal will be much higher CPMs, however, in all venues---including "linear".

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