TV Upfronts

Mark Marshall Explains How NBCU Delivered a 'Wicked' Ad Opportunity at Upfront

NBCU's ad sales chief on creating a 'more complete' event and Seth Meyers' Linda Yaccarino joke

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To no one’s surprise, NBCU ad sales chief Mark Marshall enjoys having more than 72 hours to plan an upfront event.

In 2023, NBCUniversal’s upfront week presentation faced obstacles, including former ad sales chief Linda Yaccarino leaving the company for Twitter/X days before the event and Hollywood strikes keeping entertainment talent away. That resulted in the presentation going through last-minute changes and Marshall’s part in it completely shifting around.

However, NBCU had “no surprises” ahead of this year’s upfront week kickoff on Monday, bringing in an orchestra to play iconic NBCU songs, an exclusive look at the Wicked trailer, Jimmy Fallon parodying Beyonce’s “Texas Hold ‘Em,” Kelly Clarkson bringing the house down with “Stronger,” and even Seth Meyers roasting Yaccarino for her surprise NBCU exit.

In the first of ADWEEK’s upfront postmortem chats, we spoke with Marshall about the differences with this year’s presentation, the ad opportunity around Wicked and, yes, his reaction to Meyers’ Yaccarino joke.

ADWEEK: Last year, you had strikes keeping talent away and had to step into your position with about 72 hours’ notice. What was the mindset coming into this upfront vs. last year?

Mark Marshall: It was nice to have a full planning cycle. Last time, we planned and changed the show over a long weekend. This time, prep started around the beginning of this year that we built to. So yes, plenty more prep, a lot fewer distractions, and I think the show came off pretty flawless overall from what we wanted in the storytelling.

One of the unexpected highlights of the night was Seth Meyers’ joke about Linda Yaccarino, NBC’s former ad sales chief, saying NBC’s Destination X was originally called “The Linda Yaccarino Story.” What were your thoughts? Did you know that was in the presentation?

I did not. I did not know that joke was coming, and Seth has done this for years. He finds things in the ads universe, makes jokes and teases about it. And that’s what makes them great, as they find topical info and make us laugh. But no, I was not aware of it, and obviously, I have a relationship with Linda. It was a funny joke.

What’s the biggest difference between this year’s event and last year’s now that you had entertainment talent back?

It’s twofold. One was just doing the presentation. The other part of it was also trying to figure out and convey to marketers what your schedule was going to look like, knowing that there were going to be some delays in production. Fortunately, we had planned ahead, so we had a pretty good fourth quarter of original content that still existed.

The idea of stability and knowing what was coming allowed us to put on a much more complete show this year than we had last year. And again, some of the other networks were even impacted more than we were. So we felt good about it.

It also allowed us to find opportunities to tell different stories, like being able to play the world premiere of the new Wicked trailer that will launch in the fourth quarter. That was a new treat. And we had never had Universal Pictures as part of the upfront, so that was something different for this year.

Yes, the Wicked trailer got a lot of buzz. How are marketers and advertisers getting involved?

We’ll have the behind-the-scenes special that will launch a couple of days before the film on NBC. But we also work closely with our partners at Universal Pictures and try to find ways to build partnerships that will include not only Universal but also how we extend that partnership in different areas. And then behind that is when it finally goes to Peacock in that pay-one window. We have marketers that will work with us to be able to run in that as well.

NBCU shared that the Olympics would have multiple Super Bowls’ worth of impressions. Can you speak more about those numbers?

The Olympics are part of the core and the culture of this company. I think it probably is the best indicator of being able to put together a show that actually uses all of our on-air talent, but also allows the consumer to program their own experience as well. So in primetime, you’re going to have these big events, over 200 million people will watch in aggregate, but you have Mike Tirico in primetime telling you the stories of what happened during the day, the behind-the-scenes stories.

You’re also going to have live support throughout the entire day across linear and Peacock. And on Peacock, you’re gonna be able to program your own experience with host feeds as well as the quad experience, where you’ll be able to watch four different events all at once. So, the idea of personalization and scale all in one event.

What’s been the initial feedback on the upfront event?

I’ve had many lunches and dinners since that point and been with many marketers and agency people, and I think everyone was appreciative of the show and the bigness and the spectacle of what it was. It was a nice welcome back—coming back from Covid-19, then you had the impact of the strikes—this was the first big one. So I think everyone felt great about it.

It was sold out. We had a waiting list of people trying to get in. So there was anticipation about what the event was. And I think the idea of being able to show the trailer, how strong the content looked around returning shows, plus the new shows especially on Peacock, combined with sports. It goes to that theme of content, data and transparency all rolled into one.

Lastly, will you be back for upfront week next year?

I’d certainly hope so. Upfront week has morphed into different looks and feels over the years. Even NBCU years ago had a broadcast presentation, and then we would do a cable presentation. Now, we all do everything together as one, and then Telemundo had their own celebration as well. So even within our world, it looks different.

Then, this year, you have new streamers and new participants overall. It’s always going to continue to look and feel different. But we love our position, and we love leading off the week where we sit right now.

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