Make Your Buys Now, Before You Hear, ‘Sorry, Sold Out’

Gone are the days when the Internet was a last-minute tactical buy or bargain-basement add-on to an offline package. Online planning cycles are lengthening, and advertisers are reserving popular inventory—such as portal home pages, section fronts and broadband video—three, six, even 12 months in advance.

“Supply and demand is forcing us to [have] longer planning cycles and longer lead times for a campaign now because of inventory shortages or marquee placements like online video,” said Jay Krihak, group media director at WPP Group’s The Digital Edge in New York. “Now, because demand is so much higher, inventory four weeks away isn’t necessarily available.”

High-demand inventory, such as the retail sections of major portals on Black Friday, is fast becoming comparable to what used to be Must See TV on NBC’s Thursday nights. “I got a call from a client yesterday who wanted a very specific date in January and didn’t get that date because somebody already got it,” said MSN chief media revenue officer Joanne Bradford. The Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft Internet property is currently talking to advertisers such as Toyota and Warner Bros. about commitments for the next fiscal year.

Don Buckley, svp of interactive marketing at Warner Bros. Pictures, said the longer cycles are largely thanks to traditional advertisers. “Over the years, we’ve created an environment which publishers have responded to. We’re accustomed to buying media upfront,” said Buckley, adding that WB will likely have locked up its online buys for 2005 by September.

“Everybody quickly figures out what works,” said Rishad Tobacowala, president of Starcom MediaVest Group’s Starcom IP in Chicago. “It’s not like everything works, but let’s say 20 percent of everything works. 100 percent of the money goes racing after the first 20 percent.”

Still, many in the interactive industry hesitate to formalize advanced negotiations through an online version of the TV upfront. Naysayers believe the broadcast model—this year’s upfront commenced last week—is broken. And while prime online placements may go like hot cakes, the limitless and flexible nature of ad inventory on the Web remains an attraction.

“Is there a movement that marketers and agencies need to be briefed earlier on what sites are going to be doing in 2005, so they can start to lock in and make decisions? Yes, I think that is definitely the case,” said Peter Green, vp of national sales at The Weather Channel’s Weather.com in Atlanta. “I wouldn’t necessarily call it an upfront. I don’t know how yet to label it.”

While the interactive industry is unlikely to use the same model, there is still a flurry of online activity during the TV upfront, especially when it comes to broadband. “If you’re going to put some money into broadband, you have to take it away from television, and you take it away from television when you are planning television,” said Tobacowala, who works with advertisers such as Nintendo and the U.S. Army.

Though the reach is essentially nil compared to TV, marketers are increasingly considering ad-supported online video content, such as Yahoo! Launch, MSN Video and ESPN Motion, to reach the coveted teen, at-work and 18-34-year-old-male audiences. Embedding TV spots into online video content has been “a shot of adrenaline to prod people to plan in advance,” said Carat Interactive president Sarah Fay. She said the Boston-based Aegis Group i-shop has accompanied TV-buying teams to pre-upfront meetings to brief clients such as Pfizer and Radio Shack on broadband possibilities.

ESPN Motion, which reaches about 1 million users a day, is often sold out three to six months in advance, said Riley McDonough, vp of sales at ESPN.com in New York. Currently, 38 advertisers are on board, including Allstate, American Express, BMW, McDonald’s and Coors. Because of the demand, ESPN.com gave one-third of the inventory to its offline counterparts to bundle with this year’s TV commitments.

“It’s really encouraging now that we’re being thought of right from the origin of the media planning and strategy,” said McDonough. “Online is being incorporated into those initial discussions about strategic direction, strategic objectives and what online can do to play an important role in that mix.”