An Invigorated Viacom Is Bouncing Back and Scaling Down This Year After a Chaotic 2016 Upfront

The company is ready to share its new strategy with buyers

Viacom's new CEO Bob Bakish, left, and head of ad sales Sean Moran
Bakish: Bloomberg via Getty Images; Moran: Viacom

To call Viacom’s 2016 upfront “chaotic” would be an understatement. With the future of the company very much in doubt (founder Sumner Redstone and then-CEO Philippe Dauman were publicly battling over the firm’s future, and Viacom was widely expected to merge again with CBS), last year’s upfront approach for Viacom was less about grabbing every available ad dollar and more about simply riding out the storm.

What a difference a year makes: with its future now set as an independent company, Robert Bakish installed as permanent CEO and president, and Sean Moran tapped to succeed Jeff Lucas as the company’s ad sales chief, the firm has a fresh attitude and a new upfront approach to match. Says Moran, “There is a renewed energy that I haven’t seen here in many, many years.”

Moran had initially planned to condense most of last year’s five upfront spectacles into a single, grand event. But after consulting with buyers, who asked for an approach that was “more tailored to us,” he opted instead to hold a series of intimate dinners with agencies—featuring the network presidents and Bakish himself—beginning this week and continuing for the next three weeks.

During those upfront gatherings, the execs will spotlight Viacom’s new strategy, focusing on the company’s “flagship six” networks with global revenue potential: BET, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr. and Paramount, which will be rebranded from Spike next year and become a general interest network like USA and TNT. “That reaches a broad demo, with a younger skew than most general entertainment brands—an average age of 40—and it’s going to be investing in premium content,” says Moran. “It’s very exciting.”

On the data side, Moran will be talking to buyers about purchasing more inventory via the company’s Viacom Vantage data platform, in tandem with OpenAP, the new audience targeting platform to simplify the process for agencies that he spent the past year creating with his counterparts at Turner and Fox Networks Group.

“It really does benefit the clients and fans who are watching if we deliver more advertising to the right people at the right time,” says Moran. “We think that this is the future for a large majority of our industry.” And Viacom, in particular, stands to gain from the shift toward audience targeting. “Because people are targeting audiences and because we trade in the most youthful, valuable audiences, it feels really good to us about how this is going to propel our business forward,” says Moran.

Bakish says he was eager to take an active role in his first upfront, both to demonstrate his support for the company and its new strategy (his presence “shows in a very visual way how important I think the whole process is”) and to build relationships with agencies (because he’s been running Viacom International Media Networks for the past decade, he’s less familiar with U.S. clients). And while the dinners aren’t yet underway, he already has high hopes for this year’s upfront haul: “The supply is tight, and the digital alternatives, there is increasing noise for very good reasons on some of their delivery,” Bakish says. “I think that portends a strong upfront for Viacom and the industry at large.”

This story first appeared in the April 17, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.