Upfront Guru Barry Fischer Explains Why The More It Changes, The More It Remains The Same

With years of experience on both the buy and sell sides, Barry Fischer has forgotten more than most people understand about the upfront television marketplace. Over the years, Fischer has schooled me personally on how things really work and how they don't and why the upfront continues to persist, and how it serves both sides.

A former top market strategist at NBCUniversal and at Turner Broadcasting before that, Fischer currently is principal of Media Allocation Decisions LLC.

I had a fresh conversation with Fischer on the eve of this year's marketplace and my personal takeaway is -- that for all of noise and confusion surrounding the upfront -- the more it changes, the more it will remain the same.

MediaPost: You’ve given me so many lightbulb moments about how the real world of the ad marketplace works, and one of my favorites is when you first schooled me on how the upfront process works from a network seller’s point of view: How it’s a long, thought-out process tied to tentpole events, starting with the Super Bowl, an occasional Olympics, the Oscars, development meetings, all leading up to Upfront Week.



Can you talk more about that for our readers and also describe what you think of all the noise surrounding the newfronts and all these other events that have cluttered the marketplace leading up to the upfront?

Barry Fischer: I don’t think the upfronts has changed much. It’s obviously gotten more fragmented with hundreds of presentations, but that’s a natural outgrowth of fragmentation. What has changed a little is that the upfront has been a gravitational center for most of the sellers. It forces them to figure out what they want to be about, because without a deadline, nothing is going to happen. The upfront is the deadline where you as a seller have to figure out what you want to say.

Despite the hype, very little information actually gets transmitted. I mean, anyone who shows up at an upfront expecting to find out a lot of new stuff probably is not directly involved in the transaction process from the buyer’s side.

From the seller’s side, most of the important decisions take place well before the upfront. They really start to take form in January, because it takes that long to do the analysis of supply, demand, terms and conditions, how you want to approach cross-media guarantees, and what percent of your inventory you want to allocate to upfront vs. scatter, which provides another forward-looking projection on cost. Viewability is a moving target. Creative elements that go into the sale all have to be figured out well before the upfront.

If you go to a client and say, “I want to do an integration. I want you to carve out money for this…,” well you can’t do that in June. The money has to be set aside. So the important parts of the sales pitch have to take place so far in advance of the upfront.

Does that make the upfront irrelevant? No, because for the planner/buyer side, it’s an incredibly efficient way to see a lot of stuff in a short period of time. The period of time has certainly expanded from one week to now, which is a few months, but without that, you’d have a thousand salespeople running around trying to see people. It would be untenable. 

Although hype-filled, it’s still relevant. From a seller’s and buyer’s point-of-view, what’s the volume play? How much do you want to allocate to a given seller? For me, the bottom line is that the upfront is sort of a mechanism to define where your allocations lie.

These days, terms and conditions are incredibly important. And T&Cs are not something you agree to with money on the table. They are something you agree to well in advance, because they can be variable depending on your portfolio and how you structure your guarantees and where your options lie.

What happens if you’re selling a streaming service or your web-based product with TV? Where does the guarantee structure get made up?

All of that takes place well in advance. And the actual allocation is sort of like the final “Okay.”

I think what makes it more challenging now is that there are so many sellers.

As part of the trade press, you are part of the process of influencing the sales pitch in terms of how sellers are trying to position themselves.

Having said all this, I still think the upfront is an incredibly efficient process if you’re selling video. Let’s face it -- if you see a clip from the Olympics, or you see a clip from “Colbert,” or network news, you’re reminded that it’s not all the same inventory.

The bottom line is it is a demand-building mechanism, and it works pretty well. You’ll never hear a seller say “Demand is soft, prices are coming down.” You’ll always hear their optimism about the market. It’s a one-way message. You can get into a pretty fierce debate between buyers and sellers in a one-on-one meeting or on a phone. In an upfront presentation, it’s whatever the seller wants to say. And then you go from there.

MediaPost: So there’s a lot of pre-planning and thoughtful consideration that goes into the supply-and-demand model? But it’s also a way for the networks to leverage their share-of-mind at a time when there’s a lot of noise.

In the last few years, all the big network parent companies have been doing these big “developers conferences” that emulate what the big digital platforms do, to get the ad community excited about technology and data developments.

They’re trying to show that they’re part of a new world and that in many ways, they are a platform.

Has that transformed the process much?

Fischer: Because that part is digital, it is a continuous market. Because digital is 365, and because it’s continuous and it has ongoing top-of-mind, it’s important for the video folks to come back to that development process. It’s still an important demand-building mechanism that they are now focused on cross-platform or digital offerings.

MediaPost: How do you think the role of so many alternate currencies will impact the upfront marketplace?

Fischer: There have always been multiple currencies. There has always been a planning currency. There has always been a currency behind-the-scenes that takes a rating or an impression and combines it with a product-use number that the sellers never, ever get to see.

MediaPost: I think you’re right that this whole process is about demand-creation from the supplier’s point of view. And from the buy-side POV, it’s about building a base, so they have something to work with. Do you think that demand base has changed much, given all of the other options they have to buy now?

Fischer: As long as sellers provide options to buyers, there’s no reason why buyers shouldn’t place their money -- knowing that they have this big blunt instrument of an option that allows them to adjust and move money elsewhere if the marketplace changes and problems come up.

The upfront is still highly advantageous for a buyer, because of the flexibility that options provide.

3 comments about "Upfront Guru Barry Fischer Explains Why The More It Changes, The More It Remains The Same".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, May 15, 2023 at 8:55 a.m.

    Good one, Joe. One of the key points Barry makes is about so-called "alternative currencies" which, in reality, are qualitative considerations, not "currencies". He pointed out that these have always been at play---though, I would add, not uniformly nor for all buys. The reason for this is the simple fact that it's the brands who decide what their needs are regarding dayparts, network types, and, in some cases porogram types---not the buyers.

    For most corporate upfront buys the goals---invariably represented as GRPs not "impressions" ----are set out by daypart, network type--broadcast, cable, syndication and streaming----  and program type---when applicable and, of course, by month or quarter. These represent the aggreagte of all of the brands "needs" and it's the buyers' job to execute them.

    Needless to say, reach and frequency considerations play a role at the brand level and other factors may affect their daypart,  or program type preferences---such as ad attention levels, incremental reach against younger demos, etc. Sometimes the buyers may apply these considerations to their deliberations but in the main, they will be judged by client bean counters on their ability to keep CPM increases to a minimum---and they know that. This does not preclude strategic thinking---like holding back some upfront spending for opportunistic scatter buying or switching some prime time broadcast network dollars to streaming if the latter's CPMs appear to be lower than anticipated broadcast scatter CPMs in upcoming quarters. Such, made- on- the- run decisions, ratified by the client's media execs, are often seen---but the broader, media planning process, which dictates the kinds of GRPs that are needed is rarely upended as the corporate buys are made.

  2. Jack Wakshlag from Media Strategy, Research & Analytics, May 15, 2023 at 10:47 a.m.

    Barry Fischer's insight and candor are valued by all he has worked with, including me. Thanks for this insightful piece. 

  3. John Grono from GAP Research, May 19, 2023 at 10:09 p.m.

    Thanks Joe for posting Barry's thoughts.   Also thanks to Ed and Jack's comments.

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