NCC Connects the Spots

Even with the influx of political capital, local cable ad sales caught a case of the yips in the third quarter of 2008, as automotive and financial services sputtered. And yet, as the local marketplace continues to misfire, the spot  cable firm NCC has quietly reached a major milestone, landing $1 billion in sales for the first time in its history.

If Canoe Ventures is dipping an exploratory paddle into the waters of targeted advertising, NCC is a Mississippi riverboat captain with 20 years at the helm. In practical terms, NCC facilitates all river traffic, allowing clients to buy local cable and insert anywhere in 209 individual markets and thousands of targeted geographic zones.

NCC’s reach puts it in front of 99 percent of all wired cable homes, but it’s the rep firm’s eBusiness suite that facilitates its hyper-targeted ad placement. “Every spot we sell is a Web-based transaction, so not only does that streamline the process, it helps the agency save paper,” said Andrew Capone, senior vp, marketing and business development at NCC.
“Every time I read about [TVB’s] ePort, I have to laugh. We invented electronic invoicing 10 years ago.”

The connectivity fostered by NCC’s platform mirrors the open-ended dialogue between the firm’s reps and local media buyers. “They’re very open to ideas, to research,” said Mary Barnas, executive vp, director of local broadcast at Carat. “Even if nothing is on the table, we have a lot of conversations. With NCC, it’s not always just about sales.”

While the rise of the cable interconnect has been a gale at NCC’s back, Capone readily admits that political spend made all the difference in an otherwise rocky year. “We took in an unprecedented share of political advertising dollars, probably around 18-20 percent, although all precincts haven’t reported in,” Capone said. (According to preliminary estimates from Borrell Associates, political spend came in at around $2.16 billion, with local cable accounting for 15 percent, or about $32 million, of the overall take.)

Beyond the political blitz, NCC also saw growth in entertainment dollars (movies, videogames), as well as QSR and casual-service restaurants like Olive Garden and Outback Steakhouse. Some travel and leisure money came through as well, a first for NCC.

That said, no one expects more of the same in 2009. “When you start seeing hundreds of million of dollars piling on, it distorts things,” Capone said. “But it’s all really contingent on domestic auto. When a category that big craters, that’s an asteroid hitting the earth.”

Then again, even if all hell breaks loose, local cable still may not be as exposed as other ad-dependent media. “In this challenging financial environment, clients and agencies are seeking more accountability and engagement, and that’s one of the primary advantages of cable,” said Barry Frey, senior vp of Cablevision’s advanced platforms sales. (The New York-based MSO was one of a very few to boost local ad sales in the third quarter, growing 7 percent to $31 million.)

“Heading into an uncertain time, we’ll need to look more closely at how to effectively spend our clients’ money,” Barnas said. “More than ever, we’ll be talking about how to make that meaningful buy … and that’s what NCC offers.”

Next month, NCC will tap into another revenue stream as it actively begins integrating DirecTV’s regional sports network feeds into cable interconnects in nine markets. An initial launch is planned for Dec. 1 in Chicago.

While DirecTV competes directly with the cable operators for market share, the RSN deal is wholly additive, Capone said. Likewise, NCC sees Canoe as a complement to its own established business model, even if the start-up seems to get a disproportionate share of ink.

“We have a very strong relationship with Canoe and, in many cases, we may be the beneficiary of what they’re doing,” Capone said. “Besides, for our owners and affiliates, we have a billion dollars of their revenue. Nobody’s going to mess with that.”