At the Upfronts, Data Is Driving Deals

Buyers' new motto: trust but verify

The broadcast ad market is on its feet and moving toward deals as of this week, but one thing that seems to be in much greater play this year is accountable, verifiable data—and not necessarily from the usual sources.

“Budgets are being registered, but I don’t think there’s a lot that’s start-to-finish closed,” said one buyer. Indeed, Fox appears to have leaped into the fray first; Viacom, which has fired the starter pistol several times in recent years, isn’t budging on pricing this time—frequently it’s gone for volume over price, but there are enough endemics for sales folks to dig in their heels a little more. ABC has also entered the market, and the consensus seems to be that budgets are down across the board.

On the broadcast side, something surprising is changing, and that’s the way data is guaranteed. NBCU’s new service, NBCU+ Powered by Comcast, is a hit with advertisers (it pairs up Comcast’s vast user footprint with purchaser data from companies like Acxiom and Experian—which mine credit and loyalty card info—to give a clearer picture of who’s actually seeing ads and buying products). “I definitely think that’s the direction we’d all like to move in,” said the buyer.

Buyers aren’t the only ones winning data battles—CBS and Fox have inked deals with GroupM agencies to buy against C7 data. C7 isn’t always useful—if you’re buying time for movie openings or holiday sales, who cares if you get extra impressions after the fact?—but it’s a crossroads. Fox is said to be offering a discount for C7, but buyers at other groups aren’t happy about the shift. “This whole business is built on a ratings gap anyway,” said one. The new metric technically makes the GRP pool bigger by 3 percent or 4 percent (more simultaneous viewing, more ratings points), ”but they’re going to continue to overestimate. Technically we’re getting it free now.”

Indeed, better data may mean better ROI information, but it also means buyers get far less for free. Another buyer noted that CNBC flatly refused to guarantee daytime ratings, offering internal numbers instead. That network lost ratings momentum in 2013, and advertisers reaped the benefit—the viewership that makes it a valuable buy is mostly on Wall Street office monitors. That viewership didn’t decrease, but the company had to give makegoods anyway. That may be at an end.

The cable market, said one sales chief at a network group, will probably start moving this week, though NBCU in particular will take a while because of its cable/broadcast all-in-one strategy. Not everyone is on board the good ship C7—Spark’s John Muszynski has been openly contemptuous of the shift, declaring the current environment a buyer’s market. “Where is the movement to more precise measurement?” he wrote on Twitter.

“The world is about data, data, data, data, and yet we’re going from three to seven with no accountability,” said one buyer. “It’s not as big as the shift to C3,” noted another buy-side source. “That shift meant that we only paid for the ads that actually got seen. This is just about increasing the size of the window.”