Upfront Mystery Diary: A Top TV Buyer Takes Adweek Inside One Company’s Negotiations

An exclusive look at a top-secret process

Image that says "Inside the Upfronts"
A major TV ad sales exec gave Adweek an exclusive (and anonymous) behind-the-scenes peek at the high-level talks.
Typography: Dianna McDougall; Source: Getty Images

The upfronts are one of TV’s great mysteries: They’re always the focus of the advertising year, but the negotiation process remains hush-hush, with only a handful of people on both sides engaged in those high-level talks. That changed last year, when a major TV ad sales exec agreed to (anonymously) take Adweek behind the scenes, compiling an upfront diary that highlighted each stage of their upfront negotiations. This year, we got another behind-the-scenes peek, this time from the other side of the bargaining table, as a top TV buyer—once again, anonymous—took Adweek through every step of their company’s talks. Here’s what this person had to say about the “insane” upfront marketplace, where early movement, a “really dumb” response to higher-than-expected rates of change and the sudden exit of WarnerMedia ad sales chief Donna Speciale affected this year’s negotiations.

Entry No. 1: Getting a handle on upfronts week

The process of preparing for upfronts week—the annual marketplace synonymous with TV and video buying—begins on cold and dreary days in February. Our teams gather for two days of meetings to determine what our posture in the market will be and, more important, what we’re wanting to achieve for clients. Teams will spend February, March and April developing strategies from the information we’ve learned in an effort to maximize our success when the negotiations begin in earnest.

This work includes a good deal of effort forecasting the marketplace, figuring out what’s right for each individual client and trying to ascertain where the dollars are going to be. Pre-upfront recommendations to the clients are made throughout this run-up to May with the objective of gaining client comfort and alignment on where their coveted dollars will be spent.  A lot is on the line for brands, companies and the folks empowered to make these decisions. Now is when dollar approvals begin to be firmed up for the battles ahead. Our agency likes to ask for at least a first look at client budgets in April in an effort to lay out our big board. But if I’m being honest, budgets typically don’t get finalized and remain fluid throughout our negotiations. It’s a living, breathing puzzle, and eventually the pieces move into place.

How important is upfronts week?

The answer is: It varies by client. For more than a decade, trade publications have written bold headlines proclaiming “The Death of the Upfront.” Ironically, I wish they were correct back then! However, despite my cynicism, I believe it’s important to look at the new shows that have been greenlit. But I also appreciate that most of the time it’s not an imperative to what you’re buying. When there’s a true breakout hit, then it’s important because you’re going to want to have screened those opportunities. But with some exceptions, what’s more important (and what doesn’t necessarily happen this week) is ensuring that if you’re a prime-time buyer, you’re getting the same quality and consistency that you’ve had year over year.

nbcuniversal upfront event at radio city music hall showing a stage with olympic rings and the american flag
NBCUniversal’s upfront event isn’t as important to buyers as the agency-client meetings during that week.
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Personally, I find that the programming and big showcase events become less important each year. What remains very important is that many clients come to New York and get exposure to important media partners they don’t see all year. Upfronts week offers the chance for many client-agency or client-agency-media partner meetings to occur—gatherings where everybody is in the room together setting some baselines for the coming weeks ahead. So while I think the presentations are not that important any longer, the week itself and the time spent with clients and partners, when used wisely, can set the tone for your upcoming negotiations.

This year, I enjoyed that there was no bashing. Each media partner focused on their own strengths and the direction they want to go. But other than one exception, I think the presentations are way too long! The other thing I could not help but notice is the irony of living in a world where we perpetually talk about data and digital innovation, yet we still sit through bloated television upfront presentations. Made me chuckle.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 26, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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