The Upfront Evolution Explained: Q&A With DeadLizard's Todd Reinhart

Upfronts are continuing to evolve at an ever increasing pace. I sat down with Todd Reinhart, partner & co-founder of DeadLizard, to get his take.

Charlene Weisler: What do you see as the evolution of upfronts over the past decade?

Todd Reinhart: There have been many changes in the media landscape in the past decade, making analysis of the evolution complex. However, the key drivers of change over time are storytelling, technology and resources. A decade ago, upfronts were dominated by big splashy events that leveraged talent, programming and viewership. Today, the upfronts are selling experience, narrative and brand.

Weisler: What do you attribute this to?

Reinhart: The big reason (as make no mistake, demographics are still critically important) is ad tech development yielding tool sets that enable advertisers to flexibly target highly focused groups of viewers at larger and more efficient scales. Current networks (and especially streamers) have unprecedented stockpiles of viewer data at their fingertips. For buyers, data easily eclipses the cachet of any given flagship show or actor. Sellers, by necessity, need to package access to their data in more of a brand narrative as it is not tied to a specific franchise, but rather can be available across network programming.



A big component driving change is resources. There is an ever-widening gap between independent networks and media conglomerates.  The tilt on the playing field is so steep that most independent nets have taken to hitting the upfront season early to snatch as many niche ad dollars as possible before the media giants crash onto the scene in early May.

The hard truth is that there are two distinct markets at play operating at entirely different levels:  one that is flush with the latest and most powerful ad technologies and data capture, and another that isn’t.

Weisler: Do you think upfronts are more effective than five years ago or not, and why?

Reinhart: They are and they aren’t. The defining line is scale and resources, as independent nets are approaching and engaging in the upfronts today very differently from the portfolio network conglomerates.

Across the board, all upfronts have become more experiential in nature, but many of the independent networks skew toward a more historically traditional upfront where they tout talent and content and activate on that axis for building affinity and fandom. Media giants can offer proprietary ad tech tool sets on a scale that independent networks cannot.

However, the ad tech component of today’s upfronts is one of the most competitive spaces with the largest opportunity for returns - but it is very much pay-to-play. Smaller nets have lost efficacy and competitiveness in relation to their position five years ago.

Weisler:  How can one craft a compelling upfront when the industry continues to transform?

Reinhart:  First and foremost, the data and research should inform the narrative, define brand fans and evangelists, and reveal the primary strategy to connect advertisers to them. Buyers are sitting through dozens of presentations in a short period of time - stats and rankers quickly blur together (every network has a #1 demo for something, right?), but emotive and affinity-based lines are much stickier in hearts and minds.

Having developed solutions for events and small agency groups, the calculus for which way to go needs to be rooted in brand and sales goals, and the synergy of message with the method in which it’s delivered. Perhaps you’re a smaller network with a bread-and-butter stable of syndicated programs and a couple of original niche series? Small agency groups might be the way to go this year based on upcoming programming, audience trends, and your competitive set.

Or you could be an established network that is looking to pivot, and you need to shift perception first amongst buyers and then advertisers themselves. A hybrid approach of curated and heavily branded small events at your largest agencies could be the winning strategy.

Weisler: How does data and research play a role in the presentation?

Reinhart: Ten years ago, lots of research-backed information and rankers appeared quite regularly in upfront collateral -- the buyer hard sell, if you will. There has been a generalized pivot away from eyeball counting, and a massive lean into brand affinity and fandom. This results in a sell to ad buyers that hits more on the emotive, qualitative and aspirational level.

Weisler: What do you see as the trends in upfronts going forward?

Reinhart: I see an acceleration and amplification of the forces that have driven change in the industry. Core to this will be a continued divergence in the landscape in terms of the big and small players. What will be very interesting coming out of this particular upfront season will be the very definition of who is a big or small player. That question is in play as Amazon, Netflix and YouTube wade into the traditional space which they themselves were key in disrupting to get to the heights of their sway and influence today.

There is also breakneck speed with which new technologies are developing within the content space with a move into more experiential and fandom/brand affinity themes as we see both augmented reality and AI-generated content move from niche to mainstream.

Ten years from now, we just might have fully immersive AI-generated Upfront experiences that are beamed out to millions of AR headsets across the globe, but perhaps then, as now, everything old will be new again -- just in a different shell.  

3 comments about "The Upfront Evolution Explained: Q&A With DeadLizard's Todd Reinhart".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, April 27, 2024 at 9:05 a.m.

    Charlene, it's always fine to dream about changes in the upfront and how it might be done better but a few exceptions as described by Todd don't make the rule. For the most part, the impending 2024-25 season upfront will be executed based on multi-brand corporate, CPM-driven, big volume buys using the same old audience "currency"---Nielsen age/sex GRPs---- and this will apply to CTV as well as linear TV. In this context, targeting---to the extent that it is even possible without paying too great a price----will be subordinated to the corporate goal---getting to the most eyeballs at the lowest cost. And the isolated use of secondary ---or "alternative"  metrics in certain cases by certain sellers and buyers is probably not going to change things significantly.

  2. Charlene Weisler from Writer, Media Consultant: replied, April 28, 2024 at 4:57 p.m.

    Hi Ed,
    I generally agree with you because the buy/sell and stewardship systems are still reliant on age/sex grps. Where I think the evolution is taking place is in the sell-in presentation which seems to me to be more behavioral, emotiional and psychological. Once that connection is made with the advertiser, it then has to be wedged back into traditional spots and dots for processing.

  3. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, April 29, 2024 at 6:44 a.m.

    Charlene, the sell- in presentations are the "fun" part of the upfronts for the buyers and advertiser media folks as they get to be entertained, wined and dined and promised the Moon regarding the  wonderful new programming that's coming their way, supposedly great new targeting opportunities, fantastic "alternative currency" insights about audience responses, etc. Later, the fun is over and the actual wheeling and dealing begins and its back to good old basics--promised Nielsen GRPs, CPMs, etc. ---and once in a while, these deals are sweetened with some sort of add-on metric offered by individual sellers ----mainly as a sales promotion ploy.

    We are a very long way from the world as depicted by the dreamers becoming commonplace or anything close to that so long as the main focus of the upfront is low cost eyeball collecting--- not for individula brands but for coorporations  who pool their brand dollars to entice big volume-based deals with the sellers.

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