ANA Calls for ‘Transformative’ Shift to Calendar Year Upfront

Move would 'accommodate the new reality forced upon us,' says CEO

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The ANA wants to shift the $20 million upfront marketplace from a broadcast year to a calendar year timeframe. Pexels
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Key insight:

Buyers and media companies alike have been planning for a staggered upfronts marketplace this year due to the economic disruption caused by Covid-19, but the Association of National Advertisers is proposing a much larger change—one that would completely upend the $20 million in ad revenue usually transacted during that time.

As part of what it is calling “transformative” changes in the media ecosystem, the ANA is calling for a shift from a broadcast year upfront to a calendar year upfront, a move that it said will improve business planning and align TV buying with the fiscal years of most marketers.

The ANA called the request “an immediate priority,” though it is unclear how feasible such a shift would be, given that several media companies have already begun upfront talks with clients.

“The marketing community must revisit the media buying environment and develop changes that will accommodate the new reality forced upon us,” said ANA CEO Bob Liodice in a statement. “It is a fundamental imperative to include the evolution of the upfront among those legacy systems that need change and improvement.”

The ANA outlined its proposed changes in two white papers from the ANA Media Advisory Board, which includes 13 senior-level executives from marketers like Bank of America, Mastercard, McDonald’s, Nestle, Procter & Gamble and Unilever.

In the traditional upfront timeframe, advertisers buy ad inventory ahead of the broadcast season, which begins in late September. As part of a calendar upfront shift, those negotiations would happen later in the year, for inventory in a January-December timeframe.

The move would provide more certainty on budgets and allow better synergy with the planning calendars for many brands, agencies and media owners, according to the ANA.

As part of a calendar upfront shift, fourth quarter buys would be treated separately, since studio production and sports schedules are still up in the air.

Since March, the TV industry has been grappling with the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, which has halted Hollywood production, canceled almost all live sports and will cause an estimated $10 billion ad revenue loss in the first half of 2020. Because of the continued economic uncertainty across the country, coupled with TV’s production shutdown, buyers and media companies alike had planned for an upfront shift to a staggered timetable, with clients and categories engaging in talks at various times during the second half of the year.

But the ANA Advisory Board wants to formalize a shift to a calendar year upfront.

“With uncertainty around the economy and public health like we’ve never seen, we strongly believe that a responsible course of action is for the upfront marketplace to occur at a later date [fall timeframe for 2021 inventory],” the Board said in the report. “That would be after advertisers have greater financial certainty and the major network groups are able to publicly share their approach to programming based on studio production limitations and their contingency plans around sporting events based on league decisions.

“This does not mean that deals would not and could not happen at other times of the year as they always have, just that the traditional upfront marketplace would move to a time when there will hopefully be more certainty.”

Rob Master, vp of media and digital engagement at Unilever, acknowledged in a statement that “the fundamental structure of the upfront marketplace provides benefits to all parties.” However, he continued, “the timing of the marketplace to accurately forecast supply and demand has been challenging. We believe reform around the upfront approach is needed and overdue.”

(Update: The ANA said Wednesday afternoon that due to “an editing error” in its press release, the final sentence of Master’s quote above had been incorrect. The original, now retracted, sentence read as follows: “We believe shifting the upfront to calendar year timing will benefit the entire industry, provide a more accurate view on supply and demand, and allow the industry to reform.”)

The Advisory Board also called for other long-term media transformation initiatives, including cross-platform measurement and the transition to a digital ecosystem without third-party cookies, but said the upfront timing needs to be resolved first.

“As stewards of business and brand growth, marketers must transform the current suboptimal media ecosystem,” said ANA chairman and P&G chief brand officer Marc Pritchard in a statement. “While there are benefits to the upfront, it remains an antiquated business system that needs reform. Other efforts such as cross platform measurement, brand safety, anti-fraud, data transparency and privacy are also taking way too long and must be accelerated.

“This industry must constructively disrupt itself to create sustained, systemic value and that requires all marketers, publishers, broadcasters, platforms, agencies, suppliers and trade associations to come together now.”

Adweek has reached out to the major media companies for comment on the ANA report, and will update this story accordingly.

But several media companies—including Disney, ViacomCBS and NBCUniversal—told Adweek in recent weeks that they have already begun upfront talks with some clients, and expect that other business will be conducted in a calendar upfront as part of this year’s staggered timetable, with clients and categories engaging in talks at various times during the second half of the year.

“We will move when clients and agencies are ready to do so,” Disney ad sales chief Rita Ferro told Adweek last week.

Upfront talks picked up during the past couple weeks, and will continue throughout the summer, Ferro said. “Anybody who’s in sports will probably move earlier than others,” while some advertisers will move in a calendar upfront—which is something that a group of brands have already been doing, prior to this year.

The ANA white papers can be found here.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.