The 2022 Upfronts Need to Evolve Into the FlexFronts

The pandemic proved the TV ad business can handle more flexibility. Why go back to old ways?

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In 2020, like our personal and professional lives, everything about the TV upfront changed. The combined impacts of the pandemic and the shift away from linear television to streaming have primed the industry for change.

Or it certainly felt that way, as many believed we would see a rethink of how tens of billions of dollars in television advertising were transacted annually. The only problem is, that hasn’t happened. But it should.

Limited visibility and flexibility

In 2021, as the overall advertising market kicked back into gear, NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell called the upfronts a “watershed moment” for his company in terms of an enormous revenue bounce back. When compared to a year when advertisers pulled their TV ads en masse during lockdown, it would have been hard not to show big percentage gains.

But overall, last year was mostly a return to the old normal as brands doled out huge chunks of spending to lock in linear TV ad inventory six to 12 months out, with limited visibility and even more limited flexibility. Given all that has happened the past two years, business as usual hardly seems to make much sense for any industry, let alone one that is undergoing massive generational shifts in consumer behavior.

The reality of our industry is that both ad buyers and content owners require a new way forward. Rather than an upfront or a NewFront, what we need is a FlexFront.

The genesis of the FlexFront idea can be traced to the 2020 upfront season. Brands and their agency partners had just pulled hundreds of campaigns off the air, while scripting new creative messages and tearing up media plans. Marketers needed plans A, B, C and D as conditions and consumer attitudes kept shifting.

The time is ripe to fully embrace a new path forward regarding how TV advertising budgets get allocated on an annual basis.

Timelines were crunched and cancellation options extended as agencies leaned on their partners more than ever. State closures forced ads off the market in one region, only to need to be redeployed to other markets. Major sporting events were canceled and cord cutting exploded, as did the shift to streaming, further fragmenting the consumer landscape.

It was a chaotic time, but necessity breeds innovation, and the TV ad business proved it.

A new way forward

The overall lesson was clear: The media companies that proved they could sell and manage TV more like digital media fared far better and set a new benchmark for how TV could—and should—be transacted.

Fast forward to 2021, and rather than doubling down on the lessons learned from 2020, the TV business opted for its version of comfort food: falling back into old patterns. While this regression was understandable, in a time of dizzying change, it nonetheless felt like a missed opportunity.

It is against this backdrop that the industry prepares to enter the third upfronts of the Covid-19 era. The time is ripe to fully embrace a new path forward regarding how TV advertising budgets get allocated on an annual basis—one that reflects the accelerated digitization and data usage that have radically altered just about every business.

What we need is a FlexFront.

Flexing newfound digital muscles

A FlexFront is about enabling brands to build an optimal plan across linear and CTV that is designed to balance reach and flexibility. Brands, agencies and media partners need to use what they learned during the craziest days of the pandemic and treat TV more like an always-on, always-optimizing market.

That likely means more budgets going toward the more agile (and growing) parts of our medium like CTV and digital video. And it demands a more holistic view across channels, allowing for data and dollars to be deployed strategically.

Consider this report finding from Samba TV: Ninety-seven percent of all linear ad dollars reached the same 50% of television viewers. Doing things the old way doesn’t work. The returns are diminishing, and consumers are being bombarded with repetitive messaging. We’re in an era that demands marketing to be responsive to customers.

A FlexFront approach would bring more digital-centric brands to these giants while also driving more incremental spending throughout the year—not just every spring. Of course, this new philosophy won’t take root overnight. But the time to have the conversations and make meaningful steps forward is now.

Modern brands require a medium that addresses their needs and matches their preferred way of working while also driving increased accountability. It’s time for the TV business to match this modern way of thinking and flex its newfound digital muscles.

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This story first appeared in the April 18, 2022, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.