The Problem With the Digital Upfront

Lots of reasons why TV budgets aren't likely to move—at least for now

Here’s the problem with all these digital NewFronts: People like Rino Scanzoni don’t know what to do with them. And they’re probably not attending the events anyhow.

Indeed, for all the excitement surrounding digital’s dash for television ad dollars, it’s often forgotten that execs like Scanzoni, GroupM's chief investment officer, still have powerful sway over TV budgets. And he’s having a hard time justifying to clients that they should suddenly pull dollars away from ABC and put them into online video on YouTube or Yahoo.

“For monies to transfer, you need a consistent measurement,” Scanzoni said. “And we don’t have that.”

Scanzoni is optimistic about initiatives like Nielsen’s Online Campaign ratings, but right now he can’t tell clients whether Web video will deliver the same TV audience or a new one. Does Web video add new viewers? Or just give you more heavy TV viewers?

“We can’t tell a client, ‘If you add X amount of dollars to Web video, you get Y,” Scanzoni said.

And while he doesn’t doubt that Web video will eventually grab more dollars, he doesn’t see the urgency right now for an upfront. “It’s kind of absurd," he said. "With TV, there’s scarcity, and you can wrap your arms around the market.”

That’s tough to do on the Web where the choices are infinite and audiences aren’t predictable.

Still, Scanzoni insisted that clients could always be swayed to change their minds. Others contend that the way budgets are set inhibits the shift of dollars online. “Until dollars are allocated by clients based on objective and not medium, things will move slowly,” said Eric Bader, a top digital marketing executive.

Brad Kay, president and partner at SS+K, essentially agreed. “Online video is poised to pry open the stranglehold traditional TV has held on advertiser budgets,” Kay said. “But to what extent they'll take share of voice away will be largely determined by how successful the YouTubes, AOLs, Netflixes and Hulus are in insinuating themselves as far up the food chain as possible, meaning nurturing and solidifying relationships at the holding company and CMO levels in the same way traditional media sellers have done over a half century.”

Agencies also are not helping matters, say many insiders, and are not necessarily motivated to do so. Digital buyers are protective of their relationships and, more importantly, their own value. Why cede territory they’ve worked so hard to build just because TV buyers suddenly find Web video religion?

Meanwhile, some complain that TV buyers often seem satisfied negotiating occasional digital extras from a traditional TV player rather than mastering the complex Web video marketplace.

Some argue that traditional media companies are just as culpable in preventing dollars from shifting to the Web. When a company like ESPN or NBCUniversal is landing budgets from two different divisions within an agency, why would they want such buys to consolidate, potentially diluting overall spending levels?

Said one former agency exec: “There are plenty of irrational reasons why brands continue to spend on TV.”

All that said, there is one other way that television dollars could end up moving online. If the TV upfront gets contentious, as some are predicting, the threat of a shift in dollars could become a powerful negotiating ploy. And if prices get too rich for smaller clients and agencies, Web video could suddenly start looking quite attractive.


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