As COVID-19 Upends TV Ad Sales, Networks and Buyers Enact New Strategies

"We're trying to find solutions that work for everybody."

Clockwise from top left: Travel, theatrical, automotive and restaurants are among the categories scaling back their TV ad buys during the coronavirus pandemic.
Getty Images, Marvel Entertainment

Key insights:

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has left the TV industry reeling and in “uncharted territory,” as execs and buyers began navigating the ad sales fallout of sports cancellations, which began two weeks ago and continued through Tuesday’s Summer Olympics postponement.

Now that networks and marketers have had a week or two to regroup and strategize, they are carefully moving forward in the current climate, though currently taking a short-term view of the “new normal.”

“We’re trying to take things two weeks at a time, versus making big changes,” said Peter Olsen, evp of ad sales at A+E Networks. “We dealt with [last] week and [this] week as one chunk, then we’re looking at [the weeks of] March 30 and April 6 as the next chunk.”

After all, less than three weeks ago, A+E Networks was still planning on holding its annual upfront event tonight. Those plans were of course scrapped, and the company has shifted its upfront messaging from upcoming programming to highlighting its COVID-19 social initiatives.

As networks and buyers alike navigate this uncertain COVID-19 landscape, they tell Adweek they are making the best of what just a couple weeks earlier was an unfathomable situation.

“We need to provide solutions more than anything else. If that means we have to get creative, then let's get creative.”
Gibbs Haljun, total investment lead, Mindshare USA

“We are partners with our clients, and we are partners with our publisher and vendor community,” said Gibbs Haljun, total investment lead at Mindshare USA. “We are trying to find solutions that work for everybody, because when this all settles down and gets back to normal… we need to be able to look each other in the eyes and say, ‘Hey, we did good work in trying times.’”

Right now, “We need to provide solutions more than anything else,” Haljun said. “If that means we have to get creative, then let’s get creative.”

Category upheaval

Buyers told Adweek that the fallout from COVID-19, which has prompted many states and cities to require residents to self-isolate and closed businesses throughout the country, has upended several categories.

While travel was the hardest hit, several other brands are also impacted, including automotive (car manufacturing has stopped, as people staying at home don’t need new cars), retail (most stores have shuttered, though some brands are pivoting to pushing their ecommerce offerings), restaurants (again, most have been closed) and theatrical (all major film releases over the next two months have been postponed, including Black Widow and F9).

Additionally, some brands are seeing disruption to their supply pipeline, including toilet paper and paper towel manufacturers, and are therefore also looking to suspend or push their current buys.

As buyers worked to determine their Plan Bs following the cancellation of live sports, including March Madness, earlier this month, “it’s not a one size fits all,” said one buyer, speaking anonymously. “We’re going through it client by client, and understanding what their needs are and what [the network’s] needs are.”

Some clients opted to push their media buys later in the year in the hopes that the MLB, NBA and/or NHL would resume play. Others with seasonal spots were willing to shift their buys into other programming, while others asked for their money back.

“You can’t replace an NCAA [March Madness basketball tournament], in size, commitment and stature,” said another buyer. “Depending on what your needs were, you did what you had to do.”

After taking a few days to regroup, buyers registered their requests about moving, canceling or shifting their clients’ ad buys with the respective media companies a week ago.

“The immediate needs were taken care of. Now we’re talking care of everybody else, and we’re starting to think longer term,” said a buyer.

That includes focusing on those brands that are reevaluating the tone of their current ads amid the pandemic, including revamping their messaging. Some retailers are also shifting to promoting their online shopping offerings.

Those clients are looking to make their messaging “more relevant,” said one buyer. For example, even though it’s now spring and Easter is a couple weeks away, the “happy-go-lucky, family gathering messaging is not necessarily relevant when we’re telling everybody to be social distancing and stay indoors.”

Other brands that can’t get out of their buys for various reasons are shifting to running PSAs instead.

“Clients have come in and asked for shifting or relief. We’re trying to do the best we can to accommodate,” said Olsen. “And we’re allowing clients to have a little bit of time to create new creative and change their messaging.”

Meanwhile, other brands are spending more than normal, including streaming services, some consumer packaged goods, pizza delivery, pharmaceutical companies and finance firms (as some consumers look to refinance their mortgages to lower their expenses).

Programming concerns

While several brands opted to push their buys by a couple months, those actions will likely lead to inventory problems in the second quarter. “If everybody puts everything in May and June, there’s not going to be enough [inventory] for everybody, so that has to be cleaned up,” said one buyer.

“If production has halted everywhere, what the heck are we going to run in, once this slew of programming runs out?”
anonymous ad buyer

There’s also the question of what programming their ads will run in by that point, given that almost all Hollywood production has paused amid the pandemic. Already, two high-profile cable series that were set to debut next month— Season 4 of FX’s Fargo and AMC’s next Walking Dead spinoff, World Beyond—have been delayed until later in the year because production had not been completed prior to the shutdown.

“If production has halted everywhere, what the heck are we going to run in, once this slew of programming runs out?” wondered a buyer. “Do they bring back movies? Do they create stuff digitally?”

As buyers are wrestling with all these new dilemmas, other topics that until a few weeks ago had been front and center during negotiations—like audience targeting—are being moved to the back burner.

“Some of these conversations around advanced targeting and innovation are taking a backseat right now as we keep things on the rails and just make sure our partners are being taken care of,” Olsen said.

In last year’s upfront, A+E Networks negotiated more than 15 deals that included business outcome guarantees, promising brands that their ads will drive metrics like website visits and foot traffic. Most of those were running in the first or second quarter, but “they’ve all been tabled” given the current environment, according to Olsen. “You’ve got to be flexible.”

After some early blips, buyers are adjusting to their new normal in business—as their own lives are disrupted by work shifting to their homes. “By now everybody is up and running, so if we had to transact, we absolutely could. I just don’t think there’s the appetite for it just yet,” said one buyer, who predicted one more week of “cleanup.”

Following that, “I think the next few weeks will be telling about where we are going with the marketplace.”

No matter how the next weeks and months shake out, buyers and publishers are vowing to work together for the good of the entire ecosystem.

“In times of crises, we as an industry tend to stand together and put aside our differences to try to find solutions that work for all of our clients and partners,” Haljun said. “And I think that’s really key in a lot of these different areas.”

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