The New Media War
ADWEEK|September 3, 2018

An exclusive look inside one media company’s negotiations.

Jason Lynch

Upfronts are always the centerpiece of the TV advertising year. However, between upfronts week in May and the announcements later that summer negotiations are complete, the process has remained secretive, with only a handful of people involved in those high-level talks. Until now: This year, a top TV sales exec agreed to (anonymously) take Adweek behind the scenes, compiling an upfront diary that chronicled each stage of his or her company’s upfront talks. Here’s what this person had to say about how hush-hush early negotiations, Roseanne’s cancellation, “sheer exhaustion” and “a shitload of money” from an unexpected source shaped 2018’s upfront marketplace.

ENTRY NO. 1: UPFRONTS WEEK STILL MATTERS

It’s a year-round process, but we really start planning for the upfronts in February. There’s a lot of internal looking at where we are, which clients have changed direction since last May and what we think is going to happen in the marketplace based on institutional knowledge and current marketplace conditions. Then, in the blink of an eye, we find ourselves here at upfronts week in May.

It’s very, very important for us to nail that upfront event, which we think we did. Our team starts working on it in March. The messaging there, and the take-away, is really important. Does it influence a share shift? In some cases, I think it does.

You don’t want to be the one that gets up there and falls flat on their face during upfront week. That would be devastating. As much as everybody rolls their eyes, it really is an important day. If people didn’t want to be there, they don’t have to come, but every year, we don’t have enough tickets.

We just had our event, but for the past month we have already been in very substantive talks with two major agencies. When an agency has their budgets and is ready to go, if they’re inclined to do something before the upfront announcement, they dial our number. So far, those two places are being very reasonable in their asks. I feel like we’ll complete something in the next couple of weeks, if not before.

I am a person who worries about everything, but going into this upfront, I’m feeling really good, specifically about prime. It’s no secret that prime ratings are down across the board. But when the supply is diminished and let’s just say the volume is the same as a year ago—which never really happens; it seems to tweak up every year— then you’re going to see a healthy upfront. We’re going to be positioned very strong in terms of rate of change.

Short of something horrible that we can’t control, I don’t see anything on the horizon that would be a huge roadblock.

ENTRY NO. 2: PRE-MEMORIAL DAY HOMEWORK

The agencies have a lot of heavy lifting to do now. They’re supposed to watch the new shows, come back, do their shares and estimates, evaluate their schedules and start rolling up their clients’ budgets.

People are doing a lot of homework this week, including us. We are in a closed-door meeting this afternoon, with all of our day part leads and all of the planning people, doing a detailed historical spending track: where are the sweet spots, where are the hot spots, getting everybody on the same page.

We’re spending time engaged in outreach conversations between ourselves and the agency portals. A lot of phone calls are being made at the account exec or manager level to their key client contacts, saying, “What are you seeing on this?” “Do you have roll-ups, do you need us to do anything?”

We don’t like to get anything going in a big way this week because we don’t want our numbers to be “shopped” over Memorial Day weekend—the five major agencies all talk to each other. I’m hoping we get into more of an active marketplace next week.

Meanwhile, Macy’s just left Carat and is going with Spark Foundry. And we heard that both Fiat Chrysler and AmEx are putting their accounts in review. So it will be up to the agencies that currently have the account and up to the client as to whether or not they proceed on the path that has been laid out in planning, or if the client says we’re going to sit this upfront out and we’ll pick it up after the review is done. But this happens every year as we approach the upfront market.

We’re still in heavy-duty prep mode, but if the world came crashing down right after Memorial Day and everyone registers, we’re ready to go.

ENTRY NO. 3: THE ROSEANNE RELATED ‘FREAK-OUT’

So ABC just had a hiccup with Roseanne [which was cancelled on May 29, just two weeks after ABC’s upfront presentation, following a racist tweet from star Roseanne Barr]. If that was me—and maybe it is—and you lost the centerpiece of your upfront right after you announced the schedule, I would freak out. If you’re in sales or programming, there’s no way you wouldn’t.

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