The 'Advertising Age' Upfront Conversation: A Million Little Pieces

Digital Splinters Will Have to Be Cobbled Together to Reach Mass Audience

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NEW YORK ( -- With video content popping up on so many screens, marketers in the next five to 10 years will find themselves recreating mass media from a million little pieces, all measured and bought in different ways. But for now, digital media remains only an experimental part of the upfront -- an add on that's neither scaleable nor easily priced. In other words, most of the $9 billion spent by advertisers in the coming month will be used to secure prime-time TV inventory.
Those were the key message delivered by panelists at Advertising Age's "Upfront Conversation," held this morning in Midtown Manhattan.

Wide-ranging discussion
The wide-ranging discussion, moderated by Advertising Age Editor Jonah Bloom, covered everything from the woefully inadequate measurement tools for video to minute-by-minute ratings to emerging digital platforms. Panelists included Mel Berning, exec VP-ad sales, A&E Television Networks; Dennis Donlin, president-CEO, GM Planworks; Andy Jung, senior director-advertising and marketing, Kellogg's; Tim Hanlon, senior VP-Denuo Group; Bill Morningstar, exec VP-media sales, CW; Tony Pace, senior VP-chief marketing officer, Subway; Mike Shaw, president-sales and marketing, ABC; and Joe Uva, president-CEO, OMD Worldwide.

Denuo Group's Mr. Hanlon noted that marketers would need to spend more and more time filling in the digital nooks and crannies to reach their audiences, and that in order to do that, data was needed from a number of sources, not just Nielsen. "We need to be crunchers of data, from the set-top-box to VOD streams to interactive TV clicks and some level of Nielsen data and the DVR stream of data. We are going to have to do the aggregation." Marketers aren't going to have their needs fulfilled by one or two players anymore, he contended.

A theme that ran through much of the discussion was the lack of adequate measurement tools to allow marketers to commit dollars to digital platforms. Nielsen Media Research, panelists were quick to note, has not kept up with the needs of marketers. Commenting on the proliferation of high-definition TV sets, Mr. Hanlon said marketers won't buy what they can't measure. Even though HDTV is extremely "engaging," Nielsen does not yet measure such channels. "It's hard to justify spending the money, that's a real problem to get over," Mr. Hanlon said.

Research deemed 'shaky'
Nielsen was also called out for inadequately measuring viewers using digital video recorders. Kellogg's Mr. Jung said that he would not be paying for time-shifted viewers as part of his upfront buy. The Nielsen sample size for DVR use is too small to be statistically accurate, he said. "You have a better chance of being hit by lightning. ... I'm not basing a business decision on research that is that shaky."
From left, GM Planworks' Dennis Donlin, Denuo Group's Tim Hanlon, Kellogg's Andy Jung, CW's Bill Morningstar, and Subway's Tony Pace listen to a question from the audience.
From left, GM Planworks' Dennis Donlin, Denuo Group's Tim Hanlon, Kellogg's Andy Jung, CW's Bill Morningstar, and Subway's Tony Pace listen to a question from the audience. Credit: Rohanna Mertens
OMD's Mr. Uva suggested Nielsen's services could eventually be superseded by other firms. "I share the opinion that Nielsen has woefully underserved its customers. They've made some strides this year but it's not enough. ... I don't see why we couldn't bring in a third party to audit some of these other channels. If the numbers are verified, audited, pass Sarbanes Oxley, what's to stop us from reaching out to other researchers to do it?"

While both marketers and sales executives agreed that few of the new media offerings were big enough to warrant major ad outlays at this point, marketers were firm in their views that they had to play in the space or get left behind. Mr. Jung said: "There are 700,000 people out there actively blogging. It's not scalable, but it will be."

Subway's Mr. Pace agreed that marketers have to experiment early. "We're interested in extensions but to wait for a cataclysmic event is wrong. The good news about it not being scalable is that the investment is small. The learning is affordable."

Traditional TV dominates
Downplaying the impact of digital media on traditional media, ABC's Mr. Shaw reminded the audience that $9 billion plus is still spent in prime time and that the entire streaming video universe barely amounts to a blip on the radar. "If there are 400,000 simultaneous streams on average and 28 million people watching 'Desperate Housewives,' how does it square? It doesn't. You could sell all those ratings in a day. It's not big enough yet to go out and monetize it." Still, Mr. Shaw said the network has worked hard to make advertisers part of the new media offering at the Walt Disney Co., adding that he was surprised that there wasn't more of an outcry among marketers who were cut out of the picture when Disney announced its programming venture with Apple's iTunes.

He also suggested that broadcast networks might not be able to match supply with demand. "Everybody wanted product integration three years ago. But with two, three, four hundred customers, there was not enough supply. We are at the forefront on every new platform but it's not big enough. The opportunities are not there yet."

On the subject of minute-by-minute ratings, marketers noted just how helpful they are in defining where to place ads. Mr. Pace noted that the sandwich chain has learned to "not be after the car commercials." Mr. Jung said that making quality commercials could help keep viewers for a network and may end up being something a marketer could sell back to a network.

However, the question everyone's asking went unanswered by panelists including A&E's Mr. Berning, and CW's Mr. Morningstar. Will the upfront be up, down or flat? Several panelists made the point that it doesn't matter, and that too much emphasis is put on what happens one week in May. Only ABC's Mr. Shaw ventured a direct stab at the question. Not surprisingly, he said ABC would be up.
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