ViacomCBS Stresses Power of Combined Portfolio in Day 1 of Virtual Upfront

Talent echoes 'simply stronger together' mantra in business-as-usual presentation

an animated dog and an animated stephen colbert at a desk
ViacomCBS' presentation teamed up celebs from across its portfolio, including an animated Stephen Colbert and Chase from Paw Patrol. ViacomCBS
Headshot of Kelsey Sutton

Key insight:

ViacomCBS’s annual upfront pitch to marketers this year, like most events held in the last two months, is a virtual one, a side effect of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic that has shut down television production, halted live sports and thrown the advertising industry into disarray.

But in its presentation to marketers today—a second event will be posted tomorrow—the message was clear: even as the world is far from normal, ViacomCBS wants it to be business as usual at the company. It was also a message of unity, with talent from both sides of the company that merged last December emphasizing that the company was “simply stronger together” when working with advertisers.

The presentation was the first of two that ViacomCBS has planned for the week, both of which are designed to replace the company’s April agency dinners and annual glitzy presentation at Carnegie Hall. Today’s, which centered on the Viacom side of the company, delivered the sort of well-prepared, celebrity-studded onstage presentations that the upfronts have long been known, but was considerably shorter than in-person events that can run past the two-hour mark.

The presentation Monday clocked in at just over 33 minutes with a pitch that was designed to be “efficient and entertaining” for clients, ViacomCBS ad sales chief Jo Ann Ross told Adweek. Tomorrow’s event will focus on the CBS brands.

The pitch was jam-packed with dozens of remote appearances from Viacom brands like BET, Comedy Central and MTV, though several CBS stars popped up as well. Instead of onstage presentations from television talent, they called in via Zoom video conferences. Instead of sitting in a live audience, marketers—dubbed “adstronauts” in an opening animated segment—watched from home offices and living rooms after receiving emailed video links.

ViacomCBS primarily emphasized the audiences that its properties draw and the reach the brands have with kids and young adults, but the presentation was less of a hard numbers sell and more a highlight reel of the talent, brands and audience that the television network has in its portfolio. A Hard Sell segment, presented with a Star Wars-type opening crawl and packed with numbers about ViacomCBS’ reach, clocked in at less than one minute at about one-third of the way through Monday’s presentation.

The presentation was also light on executive appearances. Ross and BET Networks president Scott Mills were the only execs who appeared in the Monday presentation, with Ross appearing near the end of the event in a faux-60 Minutes interview with correspondent Bill Whitaker to talk briefly about the company’s advanced television capabilities.

“For some time now, 60 Minutes has been looking into advanced advertising,” said Whitaker, introduced the segment as if it were a typical 60 Minutes report. “What we have uncovered is a strange cult with a language of their own: followers who revere advanced advertising speak in sentences littered with cliches like targeted, optimize and powerful.”

a man standing in front of a ticking clock with 60 minutes on the left and a woman's face below that
Jo Ann Ross' faux 60 Minutes segment with correspondent Bill Whitaker.

Ross’ ad sales team is conducting roundtables with clients and agency partners in the coming weeks to offer a deeper dive into the company’s capabilities, reach, scale and advanced advertising offerings.

Talent filled in most of the airtime, which marketers will be able to watch on-demand through the week as their schedules allow. Young Sheldon’s Iain Armitage and Nickelodeon’s JoJo Siwa appeared via video call to pitch Viacom’s connected TV bonafide and appeal among young viewers. Stephen Colbert, host of CBS’ The Late Show, made two appearances in the presentation, appearing in animated form at the beginning to interview Chase from Nickelodeon’s Paw Patrol and in-person near the end to emphasize ViacomCBS’ “simply stronger together” messaging while cracking jokes.

There were other appearances from NCIS, with Los Angeles’ LL Cool J and Chris O’Donnell, MTV reality stars Brody Jenner and Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi and comedian and actor Keegan-Michael Key, who is hosting the upcoming CBS game show Game On!

Some of the pitches from Viacom’s talent underscored the uncertainty about when life might return to normal, even if it wasn’t mentioned onscreen. A brief pitch from MTV’s Nick Cannon and Justina Valentine about Viacom’s offerings of live events like Nick’s Kids Choice Awards and in-person experiences landed as most events are up in the air as stay at home orders and local decrees prevent those kinds of events from happening.

CBS Sports sportscaster Jim Nantz and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo touted the upcoming NFL season and Super Bowl LV, which is scheduled to air next February on CBS, even as the return of live sports has more questions than answers due to the pandemic.

But television can also be a great unifier in times of trouble, so long as the show is able to go on, which Late Late Show host James Corden said in a closing appeal to marketers.

“There is one thing that brings us together every time: that little box in the corner of your living room,” Corden said. “That box, that television, is the thing that can give us the collective experience we have so sorely been missing.”

The upfronts season overall has been thrown for a loop due to the pandemic’s myriad effects, but ViacomCBS’ approach highlights an eagerness to replicate in-person upfronts experience as much as possible in a virtual setting. Still, the pitch to advertisers comes in a difficult market. Advertisers plan to spend about one-third less during this year’s upfront, according to a recent survey, making the pitch crucial to capture ad budgets that have disappeared or are on pause.

At ViacomCBS, first-quarter ad 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 Covid-19-related cancellation of March Madness)—as live sports dried up and advertisers pressed pause on some investments. The ad sales picture is “not pretty,” ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish told investors.

Ross, though, has expressed optimism that the scatter market will pick up speed later in the year as marketers chart their paths forward.

@kelseymsutton Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.