Dude, Where’s My Digital Upfront?

For some, talk of A digital upfront means a surging medium on the brink of maturity. For others, it feels more like a cutting-edge business being forced to use the fax machine when a perfectly good e-mail client sits on the desktop.

It’s that time of year again, when attention turns to this Sasquatch of the media world. (Some swear they’ve seen this mysterious creature in person, while others call it a delusion-fueled myth.) Despite some high-profile past missteps among Web players putting on upfront events, the mixed opinions of media buyers and rising sentiment that even the annual broadcast negotiations that are their model are dying a slow death, several big players–including Microsoft and Broadband Enterprises–have already hosted or are planning to host their own upfront-styled events this year, complete with free booze and cheeses of the world.

Still, the consensus holds that a formal upfront season will never happen in the online space. Even as he gives credit to players that introduce programming ideas early and invite advertisers to have say in their shows’ direction, Jeff Lanctot, Avenue A/Razorfish’s senior vp, global media, remains wary of the concept. “If the intent for these companies is to create a perception that demand is so great that we need an upfront, that’s flawed and ridiculous,” he says.

Christine Peterson, media director at Carat, New York, who stayed away from this year’s digital soirees, also questions their value, commenting that it’s “definitely more beneficial for [sellers].” While she’s not opposed to the idea of media vendors presenting concepts in advance, she fears being forced into “artificial timing. We can’t commit and not know what all the pieces [of a program] are. We’re forcing a purchase decision before brands have figured out the best way to reach their target.”

Still, the fact remains that more long-term deals are happening as premium inventory gets gobbled up in certain brand categories well in advance. And that dynamic is being replicated in the still-nascent arena of original Web video.

“We are on the verge of our first watercooler shows,” says Danny Fishman, president of online video distributor and producer, Broadband Enterprises, which recently threw a Hollywood-themed upfront presentation at New York’s Nokia Theater. There it announced 10 new Web series concepts, including the well-received comedic reality show Real Moms and the Daily Show-meets-jocks Sports Court.

Earlier, Microsoft invited buyers to New York’s Directors Guild Theater, where it rolled out an impressive lineup of originals for its MSN portal, MSNBC.com and Xbox Live. (Rivals Yahoo and AOL sat out this year’s presentations following poorly received events last year.)

Meanwhile, Ripe Digital Entertainment, creators of young male-targeted Web programming, used New York’s exclusive Soho House to unveil 22 new series to a mix of traditional and digital buyers. The shows included an extreme arm-wrestling show starring Danny Bonaduce and a comeback vehicle for Pauly Shore.

Sean Ryan, vp of sales at upstart maniaTV–whose content, like Ripe’s, is tailored to young males–sees upfront presentations as educational rather than drivers for ad deals. “For Web video, there is a lot going on and a huge opportunity to educate,” he says. “There are different groups at agencies getting involved: media, account, strategic planning. They’re not leaving it in the hands of digital buyers anymore. More people need to understand this stuff. For us, it’s a chance to show all the great work we’ve done.”

Kyoo Kim, vp, sales at MSNBC.com, acknowledges that Microsoft’s digital showcase was created, in part, to stir up interest in premium content. “Frankly, it’s a medium where supply outstrips demand,” he says. “Maybe the upfront model is outdated, but it still serves a purpose: creating demand.”

Kim says more and more advertisers have issued RFPs requesting some sort of “big idea.” The Microsoft upfront presented multiple, highly flexible, big ideas. Since its presentation, Kim reports, his team has had some 50 follow-up meetings with advertisers. “The truth is, original video is not a scalable mode–what it does is get us into those conversations,” he says.

Broadband Enterprises also has seen a payoff. Fishman says it landed ad commitments for five of the 10 shows it recently presented. He equates brand-integration possibilities in online video to television in the ’50s. “This is such a ripe time to do this,” he says.

Speaking of ripe, Ripe’s CEO Ryan Magnussen says he went back and forth before deciding to hold an upfront this year, following a lackluster first attempt in 2007. This year’s event proved such a draw that his team had to turn guests away at the door, he reports–as more buyers clamor for short-form, multiplatform video avails. “It was the right move for us,” he says. “A lot of this is being driven by brands pushing into digital–we’re drafting on what is already happening.”

Meanwhile, Blip.tv, a fast-growing home for midtail, semi-professional video, passed on an upfront. CEO and co-founder Dina Kaplan says asking advertisers to commit early to unproven Web shows is like “asking them to buy a lottery ticket.” She suspects that to many the concept feels “archaic.”

Even as they roll out their fall TV slates, the broadcast nets are pushing their own digital offerings. But the highest profile vendors, including Joost, Hulu and Break.com, have avoided the upfront route.

While digital is part of the nets’ overall pitch, few expect them to be a major player in this year’s digital marketplace. As Lanctot points out, “Networks are still fairly small players.”
Jordan Bitterman, senior vp, media at Digitas, says that as the Big Four networks take small steps like sprucing up their Web sites and tinkering with ad-frequency models, pure-play digital vendors are blowing past them. “Broadcasters are making incremental moves and the market is ready for exponential moves,” he says. “What’s missing so far is original digital content.”

Thus, says Bitterman, the NBCs and ABCs of the world can only offer standard ad options rather than the customization and integration deals being offered by the likes of MSN and BBE. “Digital companies have absolutely filled a vacuum,” he says.

To take its online video strategy to another level, Digitas on June 5 will host the first Digital Content NewFront, where it will gather distributors like BBE, production companies such as Michael Eisner’s Vuguru (the shop behind the much-hyped Prom Queen) and advertisers.

The plan is to foster a dialogue among constituencies with a stake in the burgeoning medium.

Digitas’ opting for the term NewFront, rather than upfront, illustrates the aversion in the digital space to that loaded term. The truth is, few buyers expect the medium to ever adopt a TV- like upfront model, wherein most inventory is sold in a once-a- year, lock-up-the-new-season manner. For one, they point out, there’s hardly a scarcity of online ad inventory. And there are tactical reasons why it will never work.

“One of the benefits of the space is that you can make changes on the fly,” says Adam Shlachter, partner and group director at MEC Interaction.

And while the networks remain a relatively static medium,