Viacom Is Swapping Its Elaborate Upfront Spectacles for Intimate Dinners With Its CEO

The gatherings with agencies will begin in March

Viacom is scaling back most of its big upfront spectacles, like last year's elaborate MTV presentation.
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Since wrapping last year’s upfronts, no media company has changed as drastically as Viacom. It has a new permanent president and CEO in Robert Bakish, a new ad sales chief in Sean Moran and—now that plans for a merger with CBS have been scrapped—a new direction, which Bakish unveiled last week.

So it’s not a surprise that as Viacom resets for this year’s upfronts, it would also change its approach to the presentations. The company has decided to drop most of its pricey, splashy upfront spectacles—the company held five of them last year—in favor of more intimate, individual dinners and presentations with agencies and holding companies. Those gatherings will offer clients the chance to speak with Viacom’s top execs, including Bakish, about the company’s new vision for its brands.

“We wanted to cater to their needs, have it in a relaxed setting, and have access to the top leadership at Viacom, so they can truly understand the company they’re investing with, and the reason that they should be excited about those investments,” said Sean Moran, head of marketing and partner solutions for Viacom.

Those Viacom leaders will include Bakish himself, who suggested to Moran that he be involved in the dinners. “In this industry, it’s not often that you get the CEO of one of these major media companies that will spend this amount of time, over an extended period, with the partners. But for us, it’s such a key moment for Viacom, that it’s an exciting time to share this message in a really personal way,” said Moran.

"It’s the right year to mimic where we’re going with our overall product, which is not one voice speaking to many, but much more of a thoughtful, addressable approach."
-Sean Moran, head of marketing and partner solutions for Viacom

During those meetings, Bakish will elaborate on the plans he revealed last Thursday to turn around the struggling company, by shifting resources to its “flagship six” networks— BET, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr. and Paramount (which will be rebranded next year from Spike)—which he said have global revenue potential. The other networks, which include TV Land, VH1, Logo and CMT, will continue to operate, but Viacom will shift some of their resources to the core six networks.

Viacom will hold between 6 to 10 of these upfront dinners, with most taking place in New York, starting in late March and stretching through April. The company is also looking to hold the dinners elsewhere, including Chicago and Detroit.

In recent years, several networks have done away with their big upfront events in favor of smaller gatherings, with Discovery Communications, A+E Networks and AMC Networks all making the switch in recent years. Buyers have said they find that approach “far more valuable” in their upfront conversations.

Moran said the company had initially talked about combining all their presentations into a single event this year, much like NBCUniversal did last year (and will continue with this year’s presentation, which will be held May 15 at Radio City Music Hall). But after speaking with client and agency partners about that approach, he decided to shift gears.

“What they helped me see is because of where Viacom is and some of the changes we’re going through, it’s the right year to mimic where we’re going with our overall product, which is not one voice speaking to many, but much more of a thoughtful, addressable approach,” he said.

Last year, Viacom held five separate upfront events for its networks, with presentations for Nickelodeon, TV Land/CMT, Comedy Central, MTV and BET.

Since then the company has reorganized its networks into three groups: BET Networks, including BET and Centric; the Global Entertainment Group, which includes MTV, Comedy Central, Spike, TV Land, CMT, Logo and VH1; and the Nickelodeon Group, which includes Nickelodeon and its related brands.

The upfront dinners will cover all the networks in the Global Entertainment Group, while the company will still hold its traditional upfront events for Nickelodeon, which will take place March 2 in New York, and BET, which will occur April 27.

“Those brands have such a distinct value proposition and have really been on an established course for what those events represent for them, where there’s been a lot of evolution for the other events,” says Moran of the decision to keep the Nickelodeon and BET events.

Moran is looking forward to a much different, and seemingly less volatile, upfront environment for Viacom this year. In 2016, Viacom had to conduct its upfront business as founder Sumner Redstone and then-CEO Philippe Dauman publicly battled over the company’s future, while there was also speculation that then-ad sales chief Jeff Lucas would be leaving Viacom for Snapchat. (Less than two weeks after wrapping Viacom’s upfront sales, Lucas did indeed announce that he was headed to Snap Inc., where he is now vp and head of global sales.)

Dauman departed the company in September. Three months later, Viacom resolved the other major questions about its future, installing Robert Bakish as its permanent CEO and president after parent company National Amusements pulled the plug on a potential CBS-Viacom merger.

With Bakish setting the company on a new course, “it’s exhilarating,” said Moran. “It’s truly a renaissance that’s taking place here and I feel so fortunate to be a part of it.”