Will Upfront 2028-29 Be IRL?

During a prep call for the Upfront 2028-29 session I will be moderating at MediaPost’s annual Outfront Forum in New York City Wednesday morning, speakers raised a surprising candidate for what would emerge as Madison Avenue’s next big media play five years from now: “In Real Life.”

It surprised me, anyway, because normally the session’s crystal-balling focuses on how marketplace shifts could alter the supply-and-demand of screen-based media -- especially TV, CTV, video and new-and-emerging tangents thereof.

So I expected the media execs to be more focused on less-real-life things, like the “metaverse,” VR, AR -- or even, you know, “reality TV.”



But when Barry Lowenthal brought it up as a discussion point, the other speakers seconded it.

Lowenthal teased the idea recently in a column discussing his own recent IRL sojourn, but I was surprised that other top agency media execs are on the same page, until I realized something ironic. As screen-based media continues to proliferate -- and fragment -- and as consumers spend increasing amounts of their time in not-so-real-life media experiences, the IRL kind are becoming increasingly scarce and arguably, more important and valuable to advertisers.

While this has been an ongoing shift over time, something hit me. It actually could have been accelerated by some more recent developments – namely, the COVID-19 pandemic -- and the fact that the social distancing, WFH, hybridization of both work and social interaction that led us to become even more screen-dependent may have created pent-up demand for IRL.

The Outfront panelists did not disagree, but we also didn’t wrestle the idea down to the ground, because panel prep calls aren’t designed to do that -- just tee up ideas, get juices flowing and set the stage for a debate that will take place -- you know, IRL.

And then it also hit me, that with the exception of two virtual events, MediaPost has been hosting the Outfront as a live, IRL experience for nearly two decades now. It also hit me that originally the Outfront was conceived to include not just screen-based media -- but all media, including the IRL kind.

It began over a lunch with my boss Ken Fadner, the late Andrew Jaffe, and Nick Brien, and the initial idea was to create an event that "got out in front of the upfront" -- hence The Outfront.

That was 2004, years before a well-named out-of-home media company branded itself Outfront Media.

And the truth is, I originally thought we would use the event to focus on the annual fiscal planning process for all media -- including the IRL kind (out-of-home, experiential and event marketing, etc.) -- not just the screen-based kind.

But those were the days when TV still dominated the hearts and minds of Madison Avenue, not to mention trade-publisher event sponsorships, so MediaPost’s Outfront eventually got focused on -- you guessed it -- screen-based video media (mainly TV) and it became more of a traditional series of upfront panel debates.

As a side note, I went back to look at the agenda of our first Outfront and realized that not only is Andrew Jaffe no longer with us, but two of our more notable original Outfont speakers: Erwin Ephron and Mike Lotito.

As I write this, I’m also still mourning a couple of other former friends and colleagues (Robert Simko, Jack Feuer), and realizing there may be nothing better for this year’s forum than to be celebrating things in and about real life.

So think about attending this year's Outfront. I guarantee that at the very least, it will be pretty lively.

And if you can't make it IRL to ask any questions, feel free to suggest any you might have to me at, and I'll do it for you.

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