It happens every spring. TV buyers start planning for the upcoming upfront buying season, and digital media executives ponder the question -- are we having an upfront, too?
The prospect of a digital upfront -- one focused on video, specifically -- was the topic du jour on Monday during a one-day conference hosted by the organization digiday at the W Hotel in New York. During a standing-room-only panel session featuring representatives from several top digital agencies, the concept of a digital upfront was derided by some and cautiously embraced by others.
The mere mention of a video upfront seemed to exasperate Greg Smith, COO, Neo@Ogilvy. "I'm still at a loss as to why we would ever want to replicate the TV upfront," he said. An upfront is primarily a "sellers market," argued Smith, and one that isn't suited to a medium that lacks scarcity and offers far more flexibility.
"[An upfront] doesn't help me or my client," he said. "In a medium when I'm starting to look at real-time buying ... there is no reason to plan fourth quarter in April."
Yet other buyers were less resistant to the concept of an upfront -- albeit for a certain stratus of top inventory. "I definitely see the advantage for some clients of an upfront for locking up premium inventory," said Margaret Clerkin, svp, group media director, Digitas. "But we need much more flexibility."
David Cohen, evp, U.S. director of digital communications, Universal McCann, called the idea of planning any digital campaigns for 2011 at this early juncture, "ridiculous" -- particularly given how fast the digital media landscape changes.
However, Cohen revealed that his agency is taking a different approach this year when it comes to upfront planning -- by letting traditional TV buyers take the lead on planning online video in some cases -- with the digital group providing consulting support.
Indeed, several of the panelists acknowledged that TV budgets, and thus TV-centric buys, can often dictate how dollars flow to Web video. That was a sentiment shared by several sales executives during a subsequent panel during Monday's event.
"It's a television upfront," said Peter Naylor, svp, digital media, NBC Universal. While Naylor sees the upfront season as providing digital sellers with a "wonderful opportunity to play a sales missionary role" and have thoughtful conversations with clients, the marketplace is driven by TV avails, not Web video -- despite the huge explosion in video consumption online. "It's still more about television ... consumers are way ahead of marketers," he said.
Still, marketers are catching on quickly -- at least based on spending growth estimates provided by industry analysts and several panelists. Both Digitas' Clerkin and Chris Allen, vp, director of video innovation, Starcom USA, forecasted double-digit growth for online video in 2010 versus last year. Cohen took things further, forecasting that his clients would up budgets by 30 percent this year.
Cohen added that clients are becoming more comfortable with the medium in part due to the rapid industry adoption of verification companies such as Double Verify and AdSafe, which essentially audit online media campaigns.
Ad verification is "something we are thirsting for," said Cohen. "I'd like to see us galvanize around a definite standard."
Neo@Ogilvy's Smith agreed that verification could lead to a tipping point for the medium. "That's where the TV money is," he said. But even if that TV money starts shifting to the Web, Smith remains skeptical that the upfront model will ever follow.