Hoping that the early bird gets the worm this upfront season, CNN has already started to engage with agencies, shaking up its approach by bringing its elaborate event directly to their offices.
For the past two years, the cable news network has hosted key agency partners on its newsroom floor in New York’s Time Warner Center for CNN Experience, an event focused on the CNN brand and its plans for the upfront cycle. But for its third go-round, CNN has reversed course and is instead bringing the event directly to the agencies, creating 10 pop-up roadshows in or near each agency’s office in February and early March. (Most are in New York, with events also occurring in Washington, D.C., and Boston.)
When it launched the CNN Experience in its newsroom two years ago, “we wanted our clients to engage with our talent, walk through our studios and war rooms, hear from our executives and be immersed in the passion that we house within these walls,” said Donna Speciale, president of Turner Ad Sales.
However, “during that time, our larger Turner sales strategy evolved, and we emphasized the importance of putting client needs front and center. We bring them in earlier to capability discussions and invite them to learn together with us. With all of that happening portfolio-wide, this year we felt it was critical to go to them, surface ideas and discussion and make this more of a conversation on how we can innovate together, versus a presentation,” said Speciale.
This year’s event includes several installations manned by Turner account executives that touch on all facets of CNN’s business. One spotlights CNN’s original series and films, offering buyers a sensory experience in which they can smell fresh herbs from Hanoi, Vietnam, where Anthony Bourdain traveled with President Obama for an episode of his CNN series Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. Another focuses on the relevancy of live news, with a video of Wolf Blitzer and other CNN talent preparing to go live on air, while buyers can also get their picture taken sitting at a CNN anchor desk.
A VR experience highlights the network’s digital premium businesses like CNN Money and CNN Politics, while sister network HLN, which is rebranding and adding original series, offers a Buzzfeed-like quiz: “Which HLN anchor are you?”
Other installations feature Courageous, CNN’s in-house branded content studio, which worked with more than 50 advertisers last year, and the company’s Great Big Story video network, which creates videos in the mobile and social space and partnered with 15 brands in its first year.
The installations “help us contextualize, in a unique way, some of the things that we’re doing,” said Katrina Cukaj, evp of portfolio sales and client partnerships at Turner Ad Sales.
The event also includes a pair of conversations, both of which are moderated by Brian Stelter, senior media correspondent and host of Reliable Sources. The first is with that agency’s head about the media landscape. During the Feb. 16 event at IPG Mediabrands’ office, Stelter spoke with David Cohen, president for North America at Magna Global, about the importance of succinct messaging.
“We spent tons and tons of time over the past couple of years talking about data and programmatic and media, and we haven’t spent nearly enough time, in my view, talking about what is the message that we’re putting in that environment,” Cohen told Adweek. “We’ve done a bunch of research recently. Attention spans are at an all-time low. I feel like a 15[-second ad] is long and a 30[-second ad] is interminable. We talk about a Snapchat of 10 seconds, a YouTube of six seconds; we need to be far more condensed in how we’re telling stories.”
In the second conversation at the event, Stelter speaks with a rotating mix of CNN execs and talent, including Lisa Ling (host of This is Life with Lisa Ling), Chris Cuomo (New Day co-host), Otto Bell (vp and group creative director, Courageous) and Ed O’Keefe (svp, premium digital content), about some of CNN’s new programming, how the network tells its stories and how partners could work with them. “It’s an opportunity to talk a little bit about the brand, but also talk about the business together,” said Cukaj.
Cohen said he found the CNN Experience a refreshing change from the usual run-of-the-mill upfront discussions. “It’s a period of several weeks of meetings where we go to see some relatively generic presentations that we’re just sitting in the audience, listening to our media partners talk about what they’re bringing to market. A bunch of us have been trying to figure out, is there a better way?” said Cohen. “This is probably the most elaborate, most hands-on, most experiential thing we’ve done with a partner, but that’s what cuts through. So when you think about Turner and CNN, you remember something like this, as opposed to sitting in an auditorium, listening to a bunch of talking heads.”
This year’s CNN Experience has been in the works since September, and Turner execs said President Trump’s attacks on the network, repeatedly dismissing it as “fake news” in recent weeks, had not altered their plans for the event nor how they are positioning CNN during the upfront.
“Our approach, from a brand standpoint, hasn’t changed,” said Cukaj. “The trust, the credibility, is key to the mission of the brand, and accountability, with this year in particular, and holding the administration accountable, and obviously what’s going on in the world is top priority. So the mission of the brand is still at its core. The relevancy of this brand is more important today than it’s ever been before.”
The CNN Experience, said Speciale, ties into Turner’s broader upfront theme: “We will continue to promote our theme this upfront that the ‘Experience is Everything,’” she said. “By bringing the CNN installation to our agency meetings, we are allowing them the opportunity to experience CNN on all platforms, just like the brand’s viewers and users.”