For Some Networks, Bigger Is Actually Better at the Upfronts

A+E and AMC reverse course on their downsized productions

AMC and A+E are returning to big upfronts.
Caroline MJ Dorn

Over the past couple years, several media companies have scrapped their lavish annual upfront events, opting for more intimate, and far less expensive, dinners and meetings with individual agencies. Discovery Communications, AMC Networks and A+E Networks—joined this year by Viacom (for more on that company’s upfront strategy, go to page 14)—decided that when it came to splashy upfront spectacles, less was more.

But now, some of them are having second thoughts, with both AMC and A+E reversing course and reinstituting their upfront productions. Peter Olsen, evp of national ad sales for A+E Networks, said the company’s annual fête—held in late April or early May—had gotten lost in the crush of NewFronts and upfront events. After taking last year off, he moved his presentation to mid-March. “We rethought it and said, doing a big brand event early, it gives it more time to seep in and [the ad sales team more time to] actually activate off it,” said Olsen. “We like this time frame.”

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But Olsen admits that by sitting out last year, A+E lost the thread on its brand messaging. So that theme was front and center during this year’s event, which provided the company with a big platform to announce the relaunch of its Biography franchise. “Everyone is talking about audience, but the only way to get great audience is through great shows and great brands, so let’s focus on them,” said Olsen, whose team is now conducting more targeted, data-heavy upfront discussions with buyers.

AMC Networks also wanted to put its shows, rather than new data initiatives, in the upfront spotlight, as it brought its five networks together for the first time during its April 6 event. “To sit there and wax poetic about data isn’t the best use of anyone’s time,” said Scott Collins, president of advertising sales for AMC Networks. The company had held agency dinners for two consecutive upfronts, but in his first year as ad sales chief, Collins was ready “to do something bigger,” he said. “I wanted to reach out to a wider swath of people in the ad community, because not everyone was able to go to the dinner. But even more importantly, it was the right moment for us to come together as AMC Networks.” His group, too, will save its biggest upfront push for post-event meetings with agencies.

Meanwhile, Discovery Communications has no plans to follow suit and bring back its own annual upfront event. Its new upfront approach of bringing its top execs to agency meetings tailored for their clients “is efficient for us, but importantly, it’s efficient for the agencies and clients. We want to be respectful of their time, and for them to be able to attend all these events is asking a lot,” said Ben Price, who is overseeing his first upfront as Discovery’s new ad sales chief. “I’m really happy with it; that’s because the feedback we’ve gotten has been really positive.”

That’s because buyers generally find the smaller, agency-specific upfront meetings more valuable. “Smaller events allow for an experience that is more personalized and customized to our business, and provides broader exposure to our employees throughout the agency. Often when there is one bigger presentation, the invite list is much more restricted,” said Marianne Gambelli, chief investment officer at Horizon Media. However, she allows that significant moves—like AMC Networks assembling its entire portfolio—could justify the occasional larger upfront event: “If the messaging changes, and there’s a bigger story, then that bigger forum would make sense.”

Singer-rapper Lizzo performed for the A+E upfront audience.
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This story first appeared in the April 17, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.