Being Upfront About The NewFronts

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stevegoldbergThe Sell-Sider” is a column written by the sell side of the digital media community.

Today’s column is written by Steve Goldberg, digital practice lead at Empirical Media.

The recent NewFronts were super cool. Ambitious content, breakthrough ideas, blowout parties, even the guy who sings “Happy” wearing that weird hat. There is no doubt it was a big step forward for Web and mobile video, and kudos are in order for all the participating publishers and the IAB.

But a lot of people, like me, were left with an unsettled feeling. And while it is never fun to be a buzz kill, I think I gotta kill some buzz. The unsettled feeling came from an unasked and unanswered question that permeated all the proceedings.

Namely, what are the publishers doing to create audiences, as well as content?

Let’s take a look at how that nagging question was handled by the buying and selling community. On May 8, a group of heavy hitters in the buying community published an open letter to the IAB, and on May 9, the IAB responded with an open letter of its own.

Cynical observers might conclude an exchange that ends with an invitation to join a “Center for Excellence” is not worth their attention, but these letters got even less attention than they deserved. To recap and save you time here is the gist of the letters.

First, the agency leaders from Digitas, UM, Carat, GroupM, Zenith, Starcom and OMDwrote that theNewFronts are engaging and hint at a future where Internet video represents both a great user experience and a great media opportunity. But they were dubious about the ability to create “move-the-needle” audiences that merit real brand budgets.The letter then went on to discuss metrics and guarantees.

The IAB responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!” but then spent most of its letter outlining basic talking points on automation, advertising creativity and measurement, privacy and IP control, most of which recapped content from its recent Leadership Summit.

All good stuff. All important stuff. But mostly off point.

Even though these are good people who are truly devoted to improving our industry, reading the two letters was tough. They seemed like diplomatic missives from two nations discussing an impossible-to-reach peace accord. They were polite, respectful and complimentary but used most of the allotted words to make their own points or talk around the key points of differences.

The key here – the one that matters most – is the first point made by the agency folks.

These shows might be great, but if no one watches them, it will not matter.

With all due respect to the IAB – an organization I support and played a large role in founding – and its strong leadership, this made the NewFronts seem otherworldly.

As I learned working at ABC, a network is its own largest client. A show in trouble can be moved to a better time slot (think about the difference between having “Modern Family” as your lead-in vs. the “The Goldbergs”) or promoted on “Good Morning America.” Think about the “Today Show” interviewing the stars of “The Voice” and the promos they run on Sunday during football.

Networks have levers to deliver audiences that advertisers need in order to make upfront commitments, which is what the upfronts are really about. Internet companies do not.

And if all the levers fail, either because of show quality or competitive reasons, networks have a known and reasonable “make-good” protocol that doesn’t always completely satisfy agencies but comes pretty darn close. Again, the Internet does not.

Which is probably why, when it was all over, the first open letter appeared. Deep in the agency letter were two sentences that stood out beyond all others: “If you build it, will they watch, love and follow? Likely not without a little help.”

True, albeit understated. Not a “little help” – a lot of help.

So, what to do? Here are two simple suggestions for the writers and readers of the open letters.

First, for the sellers. Take heed of the real point of the agency feedback by creating Centers of Action vs. Centers of Excellence. Publishers must look the problem of fragmentation in the eye. This means spending relatively more money on promotion to audiences, be it social media, traffic arbitrage and the like, and relatively less on productions and parties. The publisher who does that will get the audience and then the dollars, long open letters notwithstanding.

And second, for the buyers. Take the gloves off. Seriously. Don’t overly dilute the message (just yet) with too many distractions about engagement and cross-channel measurement. With respect, reread your letter and boil it down. Stay focused on audience delivery before the dollar shift.

And for everyone, don’t get distracted by meeting Katie Couric, whom you probably met at the actual upfronts a decade ago. She’s perky but not the point. Keep the argument simple and constant. Get brands an audience of consequence.

Follow Steve Goldberg (@stevegol) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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