TV Upfronts

In Paramount's Upfront Talks, Mergers Are More of a 'Background Topic'

Ad sales boss John Halley talks priorities and why Paramount is never 'ever, ever, ever' going back to upfront week

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Buyers are looking to discuss several upfront priorities with Paramount, but mergers aren’t what’s “top of mind,” according to ad sales chief John Halley.

Last week, CEO Bob Bakish exited Paramount amid ongoing merger talks with Skydance Media. Meanwhile, Sony and Apollo also reportedly made a $26 billion cash offer to buy the company. However, despite all that noise, Halley, president of Paramount Advertising, recently told ADWEEK that those developments aren’t affecting buyer negotiations.

“Coming in Monday, I wasn’t sure—candidly—whether it was going to be a foreground or background topic, and it became very clear very early that it’s a background topic,” Halley said. “We do have an amazing story to tell. And that’s what our partners and clients want to hear from us.”

According to Halley, advertisers are more concerned with achieving their business goals, and Paramount’s content and team remain the same.

“The team that they work with is unchanged, and the assets that they’re investing in are unchanged,” Halley said. “That’s what these conversations are about. For us, it was on-topic and refreshingly so.”

Paramount certainly has several topics to keep buyers occupied. The company is in its second year of upfront dinners after exiting its Carnegie Hall upfront week event, and it’s not looking back. Halley spoke with ADWEEK about bringing more transparency to Paramount’s ad products, giving advertisers integrations and sponsorships around fandom with outcomes-based goals and why upfront week is “anachronistic.”

ADWEEK: John, after Paramount exited upfront week last year, you told me you were never going back. You’re obviously in the middle of upfront dinners again, but does that still stand?

John Halley: How many times did I say never? Now, we’re never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever going back. No, listen: Last year, we had unanimous feedback that it was a better format. We changed the format because the business is becoming more complicated. You can’t have one-way linear discussions. You need to spend more time with your partners on the other side. You need to not just show them content, but talk about how you’re helping them achieve their goals and expansions in the advertising product suite. The conversations are becoming more detailed and in-depth, and the format needed to change.

What’s the message you want marketers to take from these dinners?

Our message last year was about a unified organization, a streamlined, simplified operating model for the agencies and advertisers. It was, “Here we are.” This year, we’re talking about expansions. In addition to the content slate, expanding our advertising product suite, which will see us providing, as part of our base media product, a lot more transparency around outcomes-based data. That’s just fundamentally transformed the way that our product is viewed and the way that our clients and agency partners understand our value.

Part of that transparency comes from recently announced partnerships with Mastercard and EDO to enhance measurement across linear and digital, correct?

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There are other elements to it, as well. But our story is that TV, which has historically been viewed as a one-to-one awareness generator, actually operates as a mid-funnel and bottom-of-the-funnel conversion product, as well. And as the product moves into connected TV, we have the data and frameworks to prove that and to tell that story. I often get asked, “What do you think about the burgeoning supply environment in connected TV?” My answer is that there is also going to be a lot more demand because this product is much more flexible, it’s addressable and it works in a bunch of different lanes.

Live events such as the MTV Video Music Awards, the Golden Globe Awards and the Grammy Awards were all up in viewership, and the company has more than 12,500 hours of new, original content in 2024. What are the tentpoles and content that buyers are excited about?

It’s extraordinary how people are focusing now on these cultural moments, which are scarce. That is a cornerstone of our calendar. We have a lot of them. It’s something that people are very excited about. Our new program, Tracker, is a runaway hit. It’s the biggest show on television and—nine episodes in—it was delivering higher average audience than the National Basketball Association Playoffs. Elsbeth is another big hit. As we look forward, we have the final season of Yellowstone; a new Taylor Sheridan show called Landman, which stars Billy Bob Thornton and Jon Hamm; and a lot of epic storytelling there. We’ve got an amazing slate. The content piece really matters. We are a content machine.

Speaking of content, CBS announced its fall schedule, but the upfront doesn’t operate around that anymore. For instance, you’re seeing more than 100 million full-episode monthly viewers across your platforms, with a lot being driven by Paramount+ and Pluto TV.

It’s completely different than it was a decade ago. It has to do a lot with the fragmentation of audiences, the move into streaming and the investments, which are not always centered on broadcast. This underlines our upfront format change. Upfront week is anachronistic. We look at this as an important opportunity to combine the messaging around content across all of these platforms with a discussion around expansion of the product suite and how we’re going to create bridges.

Paramount is also coming off the most-viewed Super Bowl ever. What’s the importance of sports, but also women’s sports, to this upfront?

On that front, there’s no question. We have National Women’s Soccer League and Women’s National Basketball Association games, but there’s no question that there’s a lot of interest around [women’s sports], and agencies are being very clear about that as a focus and a priority. Coming off of the women’s Final Four, there’s just no question that it has captured the nation’s attention and imagination. It’s a great development. The CBS Sports portfolio is one that is characterized by scarcity. In other words, there are 17 regular-season National Football League games, there’s one PGA tournament per weekend and March Madness takes place over three weeks. When you’re operating in a very high-demand, scarce map, it gives you a lot of control. We have price control, and we’re super-fortunate to be representing those leagues. We feel really good about the continued growth and the interest in it.

Lastly, measurement has been a big topic of conversation ahead of the upfront the past few years, but the progress hasn’t been where buyers needed it. What progress will there be this time around?

The use of alternative currencies is definitely growing in the activation of strategic segments or behavioral and intent-based segments, rather than demographics. The story of this year is the introduction of Nielsen’s panel plus big data product. They had a little bit of a false start last year. I think the reality on the Nielsen front is that there are probably going to be some shops that are guaranteeing panel-only and some are going to want panel plus big data. There’s a whole lot of math that needs to be taken care of in between there, but panel plus big data is a new currency just like VideoAmp is a new currency, just like Comscore is a new currency, just like iSpot is a new currency. And it deserves the same scrutiny.

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