ViacomCBS Prepares ‘Efficient and Entertaining’ 2-Day Upfront Stand-In

'We are much better as a combined company,' says Jo Ann Ross

jo ann ross
Jo Ann Ross virtually returned to Carnegie Hall in a recent video about the company's alternate upfront plans. ViacomCBS
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Jo Ann Ross had been looking forward to making a splash at the first upfront for the combined ViacomCBS—but thanks to Covid-19, the ad sales chief will be doing that in a much different way than she had planned.

Beginning today, the company is kicking off a two-day virtual upfront event called ViacomCBS Upfront @Home. Today’s Viacom-centric presentation is standing in for the intimate agency dinners that had been planned in April, while Tuesday’s CBS-focused event (which will include the unveiling of CBS’ fall schedule) is substituting for the annual Carnegie Hall soiree that was supposed to be held last Wednesday during upfronts week.

These represent the first official replacement events for last week’s canceled upfronts week presentations (both NBCUniversal and Univision streamed events last week for advertisers, but stressed they were not substitutes for their official upfront presentation). Both ViacomCBS presentations will be prerecorded, and will go live on Monday and Tuesday afternoon for agencies and clients to stream at their leisure in the coming days and weeks.

After the company’s annual Carnegie Hall upfront event and April dinners were canceled in March, ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish and his team worked on creating an alternative virtual presentation that not only “sticks a flag in the ground about our industry-leading capabilities and our programming,” but would also be “efficient and entertaining” for clients, said Ross, president and chief advertising revenue officer for domestic ad sales.

“We have some of the best creative people in the industry working on this, so I’m very confident it will hit the mark,” said Ross of the two presentations. “You’ll see some good sizzle, some good information, and I think people will come away saying, ‘Yeah, that worked.’”

Following the Monday and Tuesday events, Ross’s ad sales team will conduct roundtables with clients and agency partners in the coming weeks, providing a deeper dive into the company’s capabilities, reach, scale and advanced advertising offering.

"You'll see some good sizzle, some good information and I think people will come away saying, ‘Yeah, that worked.’”
Jo An Ross, president and chief advertising revenue officer of domestic ad sales, ViacomCBS

These presentations will be the first major opportunity for the Viacom and CBS portions of the company to come together publicly since talent and execs rang the Nasdaq opening bell the day the merger was finalized in December.

With its “simply stronger” tagline, “the feeling here is that we are much better as a combined company,” said Ross, pointing to ViacomCBS’ largest share of U.S. TV audience among all media companies and the strength of Viacom’s advanced portfolio.

The integration of the ad sales team under Ross, which began in January, “was accelerated and definitely strengthened because of the way we’re doing business over the past eight weeks,” she said.

While Ross is already in “early conversations” with some clients, she said there “won’t be a one-size-fits-all” approach to what will be a staggered upfront marketplace, with buyers entering negotiations when their clients are ready to think about their long-term spend. “Whether it’s next week, or next month, or next quarter, our team is ready to do what is right for our clients and make it simple for them.”

Even in a wildly different marketplace than anticipated, Ross is sticking to the same upfront strategy that she previewed for Adweek earlier this year: “When our clients are ready” to go to market, said Ross, her team will “make it simple and make it stronger. It’s going to be solutions oriented and a single point of entry.”

ViacomCBS is looking to woo advertisers on the heels of its bleak quarterly earnings earlier this month: Advertising revenue in its television entertainment segment decreased 30% year over year—a loss of $586 million (a combination of CBS not airing the Super Bowl this year and the coronavirus-related cancellation of March Madness)—as live sports dried up and advertisers pressed pause on some investments. The ad sales picture is “not pretty,” Bakish told investors.

But Ross is optimistic about the company’s upfront prospects. The scatter market is starting to pick up in May after a tough March and April, as “more than a handful” of clients that initially exited the marketplace or postponed their spends in March are returning to TV again.

“We’ve been able to get our fair share, if not more so” in scatter, said Ross, with content like the classic Paramount films airing Sunday nights on CBS, including Titanic and Forrest Gump, and a coronavirus-themed episode of CBS’ All Rise that was shot entirely remotely.

And the return of live sports is getting closer to reality, with the recent release of the new NFL season schedule and PGA Tour events resuming beginning June 11 on CBS.

The company is already in “active” conversations about the NFL season and next February’s Super Bowl, but is working contingency plans into those conversations in the event that the schedule is disrupted by Covid-19.

“There’s going to have to be an asterisk, [but] hopefully they’re able to get the schedule up and running,” Ross said. “And hopefully we’ll see some of our top tier categories come back, like cars, movie studios, QSRs. When they do come back as the country reopens, those marketers are going to be able to have a very, very strong voice, whether it’s in live sports, or in new programming, or in the Super Bowl, which is the biggest event of the year.”

With Hollywood productions still sidelined by Covid-19, contingency plans will be baked into entertainment-based upfront talks as well. “We are all looking forward in this pandemic, but we’re very nimble, and we’ve learned that there have to be contingencies for everything, including for our entertainment programming,” Ross said.

In this upfront, ViacomCBS will also be pushing its growing streaming offerings, including the revamped and expanded CBS All Access, which Bakish said on the earnings call will debut this summer. “With consumption being up, we have tons of momentum in our streaming content, and we are continuing to grow those properties,” Ross said.

ViacomCBS’ upfront website will include much more detail about the company’s upfront capabilities, but Ross said she hopes clients will wait until their one-on-ones with the sales team members, who will offer a “guided tour” of the offerings. “But if a client can’t sleep one night and wants to take a look at what we’re doing with Vantage, shopper, experiential or Awesomeness, they can log on and take a deeper dive,” she said.

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