A Look at the Upfront Now and in the Future.

The upfront is just getting started and already there are prognosticators reporting that the decline in revenue will continue from last year. Wayne Friedman, Mediapost West Coast Editor, who moderated the first panel at the recent Outfront, wondered “whether or not we are in a new upfront paradigm. Are we on verge of perhaps two consecutive upfronts where there has been declining volume? In the past 25 years only four seasons had spending declines. Each one rebounded the following year.’ 

But what about this year? Will the declines continue and if so, what does that mean for the business? It seems to me that it all comes down to consumer behavior and fragmentation of platforms. If devices continue to offer consumers more on-demand content choices and the television technology – VOD, connected TV, OTT - continues to increase in both distribution and adoption, the business opportunity for selling traditional television in the old upfront model will inevitably shrink and need to change to a model that fully captures cross platform and digital …. in as close to real time as possible. That means currency cross platform measurement, dynamic ad insertion and maybe real time bidding. This could keep a traditional media executive awake at night.

Friedman asked each of his panelists what discussions they were having with their clients. Helen Giles, Director National Broadcast and Video Integration at Lowe Campbell Ewald said, “We look at look at individual client needs and where the audience is.” Chris Geraci, President National Broadcast Investment at OMD agreed, “We always start with the clients. We look at media as video and have an agnostic approach to it. Video is now consumed on more diverse array of platforms than ever before.” 

Some were weighing the value of buying in the upfront.  “What if I didn't do the upfront?” said Jason Kanefsky, EVP Strategic Investments for Havas Media, “We have this discussion at Havas. What is my ceiling for price and what is my alternative? It used to be the idea of the fear of being shut out. And that fear is what has driven the market. Fragmentation makes us less fearful.” Maureen Bosetti, EVP Group Director National Broadcast and NY Operations for Optimedia posited, “What is the value we can yield from the upfront? Is it the best programming and the flexibility? Why are we in the upfront?” And Gibbs Haljun, Managing Director Media Investment for GroupM noted that, “The upfronts is the futures market. It depends on what are we doing from a brand and client perspective. Many investments are being done closer to lead time. But it is based on individual clients.”

That is now. Looking forward five years to Upfront 2019-2020 and there was little consensus as to what to expect. Barry Lowenthal, President of Media Kitchen, see programmatic as the future. “We have been bullish on programmatic and took back from our trading desk to do programmatic all by ourselves. It is the very center of what we do. The best insights come from data driven media buying.” However Kris Magel, Chief Investment Officer, Initiative is less convinced. He said, “Programmatic is overused.” And Adam Kasper, Chief Media Officer, Havas Media sees a sea change going forward. “It is incrementally different this year. We are shifting from traditional to digital and it is an important shift. Are upfront commitments necessary? I am not sure it will be I existence in five years. Maybe we will go directly to content creators.” Kasper also saw, a “revolution coming in the measurement space.”

It is difficult to make any forecast in this turgid media environment but if agency executives are questioning the future of Upfront as we know it, it is certain to change in a meaningful way. As Joe Mandese, Editor in Chief for Mediapost said, “We have reached an inflection point where things really are different.” How different still remains to be seen. Stay tuned.

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