Marianne Gambelli Talks Fox's Upfront Pivots, Keeping Attendees on Their Feet

Plus, how the writers strike forced event changes that they'll stick with going forward

With negotiations in full swing following an eventful upfront week, Adweek continues our postmortem sitdowns with the presenting ad sales leaders.

NBCUniversal’s Mark Marshall got things started, talking about everything from the changes brought on by Linda Yaccarino’s exit to that Twitter-focused joke from the company’s upfront event. Now, Marianne Gambelli, Fox Corp.’s president of ad sales, marketing and brand partnerships, is opening up about Fox’s move to New York’s Manhattan Center and the last-minute changes to the presentation caused by the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike.

As was the case with most upfront week presenters, the strike had a significant effect on Fox, with entertainment talent opting not to cross the picket line. Gambelli explained how the company pivoted thanks to participation from its own sales team. And though some marketers questioned why Fox’s venue setup left many attendees standing, according to Gambelli, it was all part of putting on a live, immersive show.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Adweek: You made it through the upfront week event. So much planning goes into these. Looking back on it, what are you proudest of?

Gambelli: I’m proud of the way we presented the company in a different light, the way we brought the advertisers into the presentation. We wanted to make a difference in that we weren’t talking at them. They’re part of our story. They’re important to us, and we wanted them to understand that.

That was why they were standing with us and not sitting in an auditorium style. And I think that resonated well. I was proud. We’re very sorry that our entertainment talent obviously didn’t come. But we had a great showing from sports and news, so we felt comfortable about that. We put Tubi up front to showcase the importance of it to our portfolio.

We did have Gordon [Ramsay] there, which was terrific. And he actually came out a couple of times. And he’s so important to our for our company. So again, it felt like it was a well-rounded presentation, and we showed the advertisers why we’re different.

Now that the presentation is over, will we see you back next year in upfront week?

That’s our plan. The morning after, everybody’s still very happy, so yes, [laughs] that’s the plan.

You talked about it a little bit, but what’s the feedback so far? Going into this event, you talked about the importance of the live element.

We wanted it to be all together. We were over Covid. People are back in person. I think people like the star power. People like the excitement of upfront week. They like the showcase. They like to be part of something. And I felt that that played very well. People were excited to be there. And the feedback that I got was they were excited that they could also mingle with us as well.

So that was the idea of the format, that there was a presentation, but that it was an open floor, so when the presentation was finished, there was mingling with talent. There was mingling with the executives. And that’s an important part of this week, getting to reconnect with each other in person. I think the way we did it allowed for that to happen.

So you talked about the format, which had some audience standing and some sitting. Obviously, Gordon Ramsay made a joke about standing, and you also joked about standing. Can you talk about the new venue, the setup and your thoughts overall?

We knew that people would probably complain about standing, but we purposely kept the presentation short so that they were always engaged and not really thinking about standing for that long period of time. There was also plenty of seating for people who did choose to sit. But if you were wanting to be really part of the action, and there was a lot of action going on on the floor, then you had to stand.

We did make a joke out of it just to address the elephant in the room. I didn’t hear any complaints because, as I said, I think the presentation went fast. It moved quickly, and it was entertaining. So I think that’s the most critical part.

Well, there was definitely a lot of interaction, with Derek Jeter, A-Rod and Michael Strahan throwing autographed sports memorabilia into the crowd. I guess that’s that live element, because they went a little rogue and were throwing balls into the crowd before they were supposed to.

When you have that kind of star power, I think we knew Derek Jeter and A-Rod and Strahan were three New York icons. So we knew the audience would probably go crazy for those three. It’s the first time that Jeter has probably appeared in public in this setting, and you had to see people holding those balls after it was over.

Yeah, they did go a little rogue because I think someone kind of jumped the gun. But that was a fun part of it. That’s the live element. I think everybody just loved that part of it. Poor Erin Andrews was trying to get them all in line. So I think they will love that. That’s the beauty of live. You never know what’s gonna happen. But you had to see people holding those balls. You would have really thought that they had gotten the gift of a lifetime.

OK, so talking about all of this, what did you think about the setup? Will you go back to the venue next year?

I think so. There’s a problem with the venues that they’re just not big enough. We’re always at capacity. There are always more people that want to come. But there’s just not a lot of choices in New York City, but we’ve noticed a lot of new things have opened, so I think we’re gonna do some scouting just to see if there’s anything else that might play well into what we’re trying to accomplish because we want to keep the party and the presentation in one location.

We feel we lose a lot of people if we don’t have a party at that location. People have to travel, people trying to do dinners, or they’re going all over the city. So we’re trying to make it convenient. We will look, but if we don’t, I think we will go back to that venue again.

We knew that people would probably complain about standing, but we purposely kept the presentation short so that they were always engaged.

Marianne Gambelli on the new venue and format

You mentioned this already, but the entertainment talent wasn’t there because of the writers strike, so how much of the presentation was impacted by the strike? Is that why you leaned into news more?

No, literally, the presentation went as planned, but it allowed, which I actually liked, was we put the salespeople up on stage. We wanted to fill the stage. We knew we had a lot of sports talent. So [Suzanne Sullivan, evp, ad sales, Fox Entertainment] was able to get up there, [Jeff Collins, evp, ad sales, Fox News Media] was able to get up there. [Mark Evans, evp, ad sales, Fox Sports] was able to get up there.

So we had a nice presence, and those are the people we forget that the clients actually know. So we always try to put the talent first and make it a big show. But I think it’s nice to see someone that you connect with. That was the pivot we made. That’s why we all had pink suits on. I don’t know if you noticed.

We didn’t actually talk to each other, because we all didn’t know we were going to be on. I knew I was going to be on stage, but the rest did not know. So that was our last-minute pivot. And actually, I liked it. We’ll probably continue that element of it going forward.

So last-minute pivot—these presentations take months to plan, what was it like switching things up?

We pivoted early last week. It was Monday or Tuesday. We had to do a lot of rewrites. We had a lot of people working all weekend. But I think everybody was glad to pull together. We all knew what we had to do, and we were excited to put on a show, and I think it shows. I feel like it all came together really well.

We did miss our entertainment talent. We were lucky we did have Gordon [Ramsay]. It would have been great if they were there. But you know we did the best we could.

Obviously, Derek Jeter was a big get. Since Tom Brady is eventually coming to Fox Sports, was there any talk about bringing him in for the presentation?

We felt the stage was so saturated with GOATs, if you want to call them [laughs].

Sure, there were GOATs all over the stage.

Maybe we’ll save that GOAT for next year.

You also made a point on stage that you didn’t cancel. You’re doing this live and in person. However, other presenters did go virtual. Was that ever part of the conversation?

It was never part of the conversation. We did virtual last year, and I thought the virtual show went very well, but I think people really missed the live element. So we went all in. We wanted to make this immersive. We wanted to make this more fun, more inclusive. So we were always going to do that no matter what.

That was planned, and I’m glad we stuck with it, to be honest with you. And I think our format, because we had the mixture of party and presentation, we could have adapted the presentation any way, whereas our competitors maybe couldn’t have because they were in a seated arena, and they had to go with the full presentation.

Without a lot of the entertainment talent to support that, it might have been harder for them to pull off presentations. So it actually worked. We were able to adjust more or less at the last minute because of the venue and the way we had set it up.

What can you share about negotiations and how the strike affects things? A lot of people are thinking about a second-half rebound in the economy, but where do things stand?

I think everybody’s in the evaluation mode right now. There’s lots of choices. I think the strike has just put a little bit of a slowdown on it. I think Nielsen pulling back on the big data and their measurement has changed things. So I think everybody’s in a pause moment right now. We’ll get through this week. People are trying to see what’s out there, trying to evaluate what the strike plans would be, how long this will happen. They want to evaluate all the OTT or CTV options, how they’re going to put it together.

So I feel like it slowed things down where there was a lot of activity before the strike, and obviously the Nielsen conversation. Clients are also cautious about the economy. So they’re a little reluctant to commit quickly. Everything is being rethought right now but, yes, you’re right. We’re all predicting the second-half recovery.

With the writers strike, you may see a loss of GRPs, which I don’t think anybody anticipated. So that may mean clients might not get their money down where they want it. I think all that’s being taken into consideration right now.

Rob Wade, CEO, Fox Entertainment, mentioned the strike on stage, but was there any thought to dedicate more time to it, or do you think you said things concisely and wanted to move on?

You have to remember, Fox is probably the least impacted by the strike because of the way our schedule plays out, especially in the fall—football, live sports, starting with the Women’s World Cup, all through NFL, all through college, all through MLB.

We’re definitely, obviously, in solidarity with the strikers and hope everybody gets back to work, but it has a much smaller impact on our schedule than it does on probably other media companies. That’s why we didn’t want to make a big deal about it. It made sense in Rob’s section more than it made sense to talk about it overall.

What’s the message you want marketers taking away from the presentation?

That Fox is in a different position, that we’re much better positioned—economic factors as well as the strike factor given our live portfolio, especially going into the fall. We’re well prepared for what’s to come. We have the best of what they want.

And we are open to do business how they choose to do business. We’re not telling you what measurement tools to use or what currency to buy. We are being as flexible as possible to try to do business as the client wants to do business.

And I know it’s early, but anything you want to change? Anything you want to continue next year?

I don’t know if we’re there yet. We did not do a postmortem yet. It’s only been a couple of hours. I think we all feel pretty good about what we’ve done. Again, I think this pivot was great. Obviously, next year, we’ll have our entertainment talent, we’ll probably lean more heavily in entertainment than we were able to do this year. Tubi obviously will always be the focus, and maybe you’ll see another GOAT on stage.

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