Do Upfronts Make Sense in the Programmatic Age? Not So Much.

by Will Doherty, Senior Director Business Development

Upfronts are upon us. And once again it’s clear just how far digital has come when compared to TV. Where brand dollars are concerned, digital is clambering for its rightful place at the table.

Historically, brands have loved the TV upfronts. They showcase content for brands, and allow them to buy commercial time to reach the content’s target. They’re easy, and ratings allowed buyers to validate whether or not those buys were successful. Lately, digital has tried to capture this magic. It’s a seamless way to adapt those traditional, large media buys from a familiar landscape — TV — to a newer landscape — digital. What’s not to love?

Well, there are a few things. For one, media consumption is continually fragmenting. Upfronts rely on appointment viewing, where the audience is guaranteed to be engaged at just the right time. But those guarantees are fading. Take Breaking Bad, arguably the greatest drama of the last decade. But it was a cultural juggernaut that took years to find its audience. Ten years ago it would have been dead on arrival. Even the ratings for its series finale would have relegated it to road kill status. Simply put, today’s media culture doesn’t have the monolithic touchstones it used to — which is great for consumer choice, but challenging for brands.

As well, in a digital environment, particularly in programmatic buying and selling, we have data and insights that TV never had. Programmatic allows brands to tap into rich audience data and leverage it to find consumers across all publishers and content providers. This creates exponentially more data for brands to consider — but programmatic allows for this data to be collected and actioned against in real time. TV is linear. Digital is anything but. For digital, upfronts roll in with flash and spectacle without any consideration of crucial factors like real-time audience behavior, device-specific user experience, and proper measurement of effectiveness.

See the disconnect?

Upfronts worked just fine during the era when media channels could program for their target audiences, who tuned in at once and at scale. But that model isn’t the reality in the age of DVRs, on-demand content and portable media. The target consumer may engage with the same content on a smartphone during lunch break, or at 7 p.m. on a laptop, or at 10 p.m. on a tablet. The same advertising message won’t apply under all conditions.  “Must-see TV” as we know it is dead. Since you can no longer program for audiences as in days past the very point of upfronts is gone.

Traditional media companies themselves now need to find their place in an environment where they still create great content, but they no longer set the conditions for discovery and engagement. They’re competing less with each other, but with tech companies, whose data drives distribution and placement of advertising to the right audience, at the right time, under the right conditions. They’re competing with Amazon, Google and Netflix. These are companies that have massive amounts of user data and know how to leverage it. Content creation might be the easiest part to solve, with talent and production facilities spilling far beyond Hollywood. The challenge today is in processing and leveraging data, and programmatic offers crucial solutions.

Upfronts just don’t make sense in a programmatic environment. But the best thing about programmatic is that it isn’t an upfront. It allows for conditions subjective to audience behavior over time and user experience. Through programmatic, brand marketers and media buyers can test and implement messages for a variety of audiences without tied-in commitments. Programmatic is fueled by current data, which gives it a competitive edge in the fast-changing digital environment. The buys are not as easy as in TV, but they combine scale with valuable audience engagement. Continued testing, and understanding consumer data, will help brands reach and speak meaningfully to their target audiences.

Upfronts aren’t the way bridge TV and digital. But that’s okay. Digital has the eyeballs now, and it provides actionable data to reach them without a lot of guesswork beforehand. With programmatic, brands have a more data-rich arsenal than upfronts could offer. Programmatic will never be as easy as traditional TV buying, nor should it be. We should embrace the complexity and work to solve for it, instead of replicating a dying media model.

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