Inside the Upfront War Room for 2021

"On TV and Video" is a column exploring opportunities and challenges in advanced TV and video.

Today’s column is written by Stacy Daft, GM of enterprise commercial business development at Amobee.

Last year’s TV upfronts were either “absolutely horrendous,” or “merely awful,” as Daily Variety put it. This year’s upfront ad spend is likely to drop 27%, according to eMarketer data. But despite the triple whammy of the pandemic, an economic downturn, and the continued disruption of legacy TV, this year’s upfronts, especially when it comes to CTV, are a golden opportunity for buyers and sellers to overcome uncertainty and accelerate into the future. 

A mental reset

At the outset, buyers and sellers should think about how they can use the 2021 upfronts to get comfortable with a changing audience data landscape where television and digital are unifying. The technical challenge is to align legacy TV measurements with digital metrics that encompass CTV, online, and mobile. 

But the bigger challenge is mental. A fear of the unknown. This is the year to experiment with new measurements and push boundaries. Eventually, our ecosystem will develop common media currencies to create a framework for holding stakeholders accountable for delivering against the next iteration of audience data. Nielsen, for instance, is in the process of updating its currency to accommodate addressability.  

One way to ease anxiety in the face of systemic change is to shift the conversation from price to value. Talking about price traps us in unhelpful comparisons to previous upfronts. By focusing on value, buyers and sellers engage in a process that meets the challenges of the moment. The more that conversation focuses on delivering value (to all stakeholders), the sooner our industry will articulate the new audience data that will drive our industry for years to come. 

Client success is the new North Star

Sellers are using CTV’s capabilities to tell comprehensive stories about audiences across platforms. Meanwhile, buyers are demanding media investments drive attributable outcomes for their businesses. But now that the industry can discard historic baselines and use 2021 to reset expectations, we need to embrace a new truth as well. Simply put, client success is the new North Star—for buyers and sellers.

While there’s a tendency to think about sell-side solutions as binary—does it work, or do we need to look elsewhere?—the reality is buyers and sellers are in the same boat, sailing the same uncertain seas. Telling comprehensive stories about audiences across platforms is meaningless if those platforms can’t deliver successful client outcomes. Conversely, new cross-platform audience measurements have no value without business context. By setting client success as the North Star, buyers and sellers can begin a transparent, iterative and collaborative process that will define the future. 

Privacy is central to guiding data investments

To solve cross-platform investment and attribution challenges, there’s an active search for data that looks across all distribution channels. Privacy must drive this effort, and both buyers and sellers will need to bring creative solutions to the table.  

Opt-in panel-based and ACR data sets are readily available and attractive investments because they support cross-screen linkage and future proof insights as we head into a cookieless world. Sellers can lean in further by investing not only in proprietary insights, but also planning and activation tools that use data science and optimization to bring clients answers to questions around cross-platform media mix and how reach accumulates across screens. 

The sooner sellers make those investments, the more likely they are to be seen as a valuable partner to the buy-side. Because although sellers are in the business of selling audiences, the demand for audience insights will only grow as media fragments, consumer behavior shifts and privacy regulations take shape.  

Buyers and agencies can meet sellers halfway by breaking down silos that divide digital specialists versed in programmatic with traditional marketers who are adept at panel-based measurement. Under the previous model, silos made sense. But in the face of reunifying the media portfolio, skill sets and expertise must also converge. 

 Blind spots are everyone’s problem

Media blind spots are growing due to audience fragmentation and the rise of walled gardens (Google, Amazon, Roku, Samsung). While those blind spots are a challenge for buyers in the near-term, they hurt the entire ecosystem in the long-run because they undermine the 360-degree view of the audience.

But blind spots aren’t really a technology challenge, they’re a business issue. Sellers should negotiate into their distribution deals the right to govern their audience data across all platforms. With those rights, sellers can aggregate information and leverage available technology that allows for campaign and creative rotation decisions across the full portfolio and minimize the impact of blind spots, providing that 360-degree view of their total audience, and the control to manage campaign-level reach and frequency.

The future is actually bright

I began this piece by quoting a pessimistic Daily Variety article about last year’s upfronts in order to level-set the conversation. But I’m optimistic, not just about future upfronts, but about the future of our industry. As we talk about the investments we’re making, let’s navigate the changes ahead with the optimistic mindset that helped us build the previous model. Because if stakeholders bring their best intentions to the table, our industry will get the best results.  

Follow Amobee (@amobee) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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