Upfronts and NewFronts: How comms pros gain an edge in the annual bid for ad dollars

Presentations are being altered in response to the changing advertising marketplace.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Upfronts and Digital Content NewFronts presentations are still vitally important, despite fundamental changes in the advertising world, say comms pros.

The upfronts, which begin in March and last through mid-May, and the Digital Content NewFronts, which ran this year from April 29 through May 3, are the annual events in which broadcast, cable and digital video companies pitch to brands and ad buyers in the hopes of locking down marketing dollars for the following year.

But the advertising market has changed dramatically since the upfronts began in 1962, when there was only three broadcast networks and no on-demand video. And in addition to dealing with the growth of digital video and changes to advertising, the presentations at both events now have to take many other stakeholders into account, including the general public.

"I do think there’s more interest in the business of television than there has been in the past," says Bobby Amirshahi?, Univision’s SVP of corporate communications.

That’s why Univision streams its New York City upfront media breakfast to its Miami headquarters, giving Spanish-speaking entertainment reporters based there a preview of the upcoming season, says Amirshahi.

"There has been an increasing interest from consumer media and the public in general," says Alfredo Richard, SVP of corp comms for Telemundo Enterprises. "And we’ll be leveraging that as well. We have a lot of talent coming to New York to represent us and we’re holding a red carpet event as well where the press is invited to talk to talent."

In the case of digital media, the NewFronts are an opportunity for brands to address reputational issues, which is why MediaLink MD Mark Wagman says the presentations are also becoming more like B2C events.

"This season, more and more tech players are participating in NewFronts because they have been hit up left, right and center over privacy issues," he says. "And those companies this week, had a chance to talk about consumer privacy and the consumer more than ever."

It’s necessary to address the concerns of both consumers and ad buyers because a brand must be careful about who it aligns itself with.

Wagman says that marketers are asking themselves, "If I run with Hulu or Verizon, will I get a ton of backlash?"

And of course, because upfronts are meant to show off a company’s main products, the potential audience is anyone with a significant interest in that brand.

"It’s not only advertisers and potential clients," says Tori Fernandes, head of adsales comms at Disney. "Investors attend, as do executives from across the country, and the press. And internal stakeholders like our employees are watching from around the globe to see what’s happening with their company."

Catherine Frymark, group SVP of communications at Discovery, says her company traditionally used upfronts simply to talk to ad buyers. But that changed last year after it bought Scripps Network Interactive.

"Discovery had for years hosted large-scale upfront events and then downsized to more targeted, in-agency meetings in the few years prior to the 2018 acquisition of Scripps," she says.

Scripps, the home of HGTV and Food Network, among others, doesn’t hold upfronts, but instead conducts a road show. 

After purchasing Scripps, Discovery decided to combine the two companies’ upfronts traditions and use the occasion to talk about the effects of the acquisition, Frymark says.

"We saw it then as a coming out party or showcase to explain the value and strength of the newly combined company," she says. "Particularly, the New York show, which is our largest at 1,000 guests and was attended not only by clients and buyers but press, sell-side analysts and investors."

Ad buyers, however, still remain the main focus for upfronts and NewFronts.

"The largest part about it really is about the ad dollars," says Brian Steinberg, senior TV editor for Variety.

In the last few years, media brands have been shying away from guy-on-a-stage presentations and towards experiential activations and other tactics in an attempt to prime the ad buying pump.

"We’ve always had an 11 a.m. Tuesday slot and we’re going to hang on to that," Amirshahi ?says. "But over the last year, we decided to do something different and break off from the pack."

This year, instead of renting a stage, Univision rented a large open space in a Tribeca studio where it recreated some content from its shows.

"The reason we did that was we realized that the majority of our media buyers, along with the business press, don’t consume our products or services in Spanish," says Amirshahi. "So we chose to bring those programs to life."

The BBC also took an experiential approach to its presentations, one of the first of this year’s NewFronts. Part of the reason for that, says Christopher Chafin, senior publicity manager for BBC Global News in the U.S., is the company has a lot to talk about.

"The BBC is such a big organization and has so much going on that we are unique [with] the people we have presenting," he explains.

For the BBC, ad buyers are still the main audience.

"The commercial aspect is important to us," Chafin says. "We want advertisers to know the BBC is interested in working with them. Many people don’t think of us as a commercial organization and it’s an important opportunity for us to talk about it."

As a result, the BBC got creative with some "great activations" as part of its presentations, says Chafin.

"One example was this year we talked about the 50th anniversary of the moon landing," he says. "And at our show, we had coverage booths where people could actually listen to our broadcasts. The general idea is to find dynamic ways to bring it to life."

But even companies that stick to traditionally styled presentations featuring people on a stage have altered those presentations in response to the changing advertising marketplace.

Jill Kelly, chief marketing and communications officer at Digitas, says her company has adapted its NewFronts presentations to changes in the digital content space since it started the event years ago.

"When we first started programming for it, it featured a lot of YouTube content creators and we had a large venue that could hold 800 to 1000 people," she says. "It’s evolved and we’re now programing for a different kind of audience."

This year, the agency scaled down the event to a 250-seat venue and is focused more on addressing the challenges that media brands and tech companies are facing.

"This year our theme is trust," she says. "It’s clear trust is under attack; there’s a lack of trust in the government, lack of trust in brands, the rise of fake news and what people see as threats to privacy. We reflect our programing based on what we see as challenges for or potential pain points for marketers and brands in general."

In fact, Wagman says, when it comes to on-stage presentations, straight ad sales pitches are becoming passé.

At the NewFronts, presentations are becoming more about solving marketers’ problems and less about "getting all the stars on stage to talk about why this courtroom drama or that Thursday night comedy is the big thing," he says.

Wagman uses binge watchers as an example.

"How do you use a 30-second ad break to put new accounts into context of what they are doing?" he says. "You have to address consumer sentiment that’s little more relevant in terms of the experience of consumers."

It’s less about where the eyeballs are, Wagman says, and more about what the customers are doing before, during and after they consume the content.

He adds that presentation materials are a lot more "quant," with a new focus on using explanatory data to demonstrate trends and offer solutions. This has changed the character of the upfronts and NewFronts presentations, says Wagman.

"It really feels like something from Apple, when Tim Cook does his dog and pony show and then says something like, ‘Now I’m going to bring up my app developers,’" he says. "[It’s not like] NBC or Hulu ramming ideas down the audience’s throat."

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