The Date: May 8, 2008
The Venue: Nokia Theater, New York
Key Execs: Judy McGrath, chairman-CEO, MTV Networks; Hank Close, president-U.S. ad sales, MTVN; Mika Salmi, president-global digital media, MTVN
The Drinks: An open bar filled with all the staples: Absolut, Captain Morgan, Jack Daniel's, Bacardi, you name it. But since this was an MTV upfront after-party, a sign had to be placed clearly on the bar that read, "Only adults over the age of 21 will be served alcohol."
The Food: All-you-can eat sushi and then some. Sashimi, California rolls, spicy tuna rolls, salmon rolls -- presumably chosen to remind buyers of the pre-rolls, mid-rolls and post-rolls they'll be selling during MTVN's digital upfront.
The Celebs: A who's who of MTVN talent and music stars showed up in person: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert; Justin Timberlake, who will bring his first TV show, "The Phone," to MTV this fall; "Hills" star Lauren Conrad; CMT award winner Taylor Swift; musical guest John Legend, who sang two songs; singer and VH1 "Save the Music" spokeswoman Ashanti; comedian Sarah Silverman; and Samuel L. Jackson, three-time host of Spike's "Video Game Awards" and star of the "Star Wars" prequel trilogy Spike has exclusive broadcast rights to through 2014.
The Marketers: MTV Networks decided to let the marketers sell for them, trotting out Kathy O'Brien, marketing director, Dove; Frank Cooper, VP-marketing, carbonated-soft-drink flavors, Pepsi Co.; and Ehtisham Rabbani, VP-product strategy and marketing, LG Mobile, to share case studies and successful metrics from recent marketing campaigns with MTV Networks.
The Pitch: MTV Networks is seeking to rebrand the return-on-investment model and make it "return on innovation." In a companywide upfront presentation to advertisers today in New York, MTVN cited several years worth of case studies creating custom branded-entertainment and "podbusting" content to enhance commercial retention and ad engagement. MTVN trotted out its biggest music and comedy talent to plug their shows but also the above mentioned marketing heads to provide testimony on recent campaigns they launched through MTVN channels.
Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert kicked off the presentation with a deliciously subversive spin on the upfront process. Mr. Stewart started by playfully griping, "I thought we didn't have to do this anymore. The writers strike was supposed to cancel this." He then cracked of his show's highly desirable 18-to-34 target audience, "They have disposable income, they trust us and we think you can exploit that." Mr. Colbert gave a shout-out to Zenith's Peggy Green, quipping in between bites of chips from his sponsor Doritos, "Jon, you got your moment of Zen. I just got my moment of Zenith." He then asked for some water to wash down his Doritos. Responding to his request: Justin Timberlake, who promptly handed Mr. Colbert some H20.
Mr. Timberlake also introduced MTVN's Ms. McGrath, who told the crowd, "We do our best to invert and invest. MTV Networks is the one creative engine firing on all cylinders."
To illustrate her point, Ms. O'Brien from Dove shared metrics from the Unilever brand's recent "Go Fresh" commercial miniseries starring Alicia Keys, which aired during the current season of "The Hills." Launched less than two months ago, the campaign "is already exceeding sales expectations," Ms. O'Brien said, with MTV's "willingness to experiment with new formats helping us to accomplish our new goals."
Later, Pepsi Co.'s Mr. Cooper spoke of a similar branded mini-action series Mountain Dew created with Spike, "Get Moe," for which the brand commissioned its own custom research and saw a 30% "spike," as it were, in purchase intent among 18- to 34-year-olds and an increased perception of the Dew brand as edgy. The unique nature of the custom campaign was such that Mr. Cooper is hard-pressed to figure out how to renew the Dew effort. He told Ad Age after the presentation he was mulling between a new installment of "Get Moe" or an adaptation of "Dewmocracy," a user-generated consumer initiative starring Forest Whitaker.
Several clip reels showcased other case studies across all the other MTV Networks, including Nickelodeon, VH1, TV Land, Logo and CMT. Chris Rock even showed up to plug the premiere of his CW series "Everybody Hates Chris," which will make its off-net debut in Nick prime time next year. "Going to Nick at Nite, it's all about family entertainment now, so there's no more porno Tuesdays," he joked.
Comedy Central's Ms. Silverman later sang a tongue-in-cheek ode to Group M Chief Investment Officer Rino Scanzoni, citing the upfront's theme of partnerships as the impetus for her desire to "have a partnership with him in the back." She cut her song short, though, upon realizing that serenading the man who buys all of her show's ads could be perceived as gratuitous and shameless. So she made out with a McDonald's Happy Meal instead in a riff on product placement.
Jokes aside, MTVN reiterated its commitment to helping clients analyze their marketing campaigns' effectiveness at the end with the announcement of a new partnership with ad-analytics company Marketing Evolution. As Mr. Close, MTVN's sales chief, explained, "It will allow you to see examples of how our brands can deliver on your objectives with effectiveness and campaign tracking. We'll redefine how the consumer experiences advertising."
Last Year's Take: MTV is the company's biggest cash cow, taking in $1.08 billion in ad dollars in 2007, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Comedy Central took $684.2 million, VH1 grossed $565.7 million, Spike made $557.6 million and TV Land amassed $299.7 million last year.
The Ratings Game: After several years of ratings struggles, MTV made a fourth-quarter comeback with "The Hills" and "A Shot of Love With Tila Tequila," newfound momentum it was able to ride into some of its highest-ever ratings in first-quarter 2008. VH1, Comedy and Spike all saw ratings lifts in their key demos of 18-to-34 and 18-to-49 in prime time this year, and TV Land is on track to more than double its prime-time presence thanks to its newfound focus on boomers with shows such as "High School Reunion" and "The Big 4-0."
That said, commercial ratings continue to be MTV and VH1's biggest struggle, even after holding out for deals based on average program ratings in last year's upfront to combat poor audience retention. According to Nielsen, the nets finished the first quarter with prime-time C3 averages of 84.5% (VH1) and 83.8% (MTV), ranking 46th and 49th out of 49, respectively. On the other end of the spectrum, boomer-friendly Nick at Nite and TV Land ranked first and third in C3 retention, with Spike and Comedy Central rounding out the middle with about 90% retention. Mr. Close noted, however, that individual "podbusters" show spikes in commercial retention, with Dove's recent miniseries for "The Hills" scoring near 100%.
The Digital Play: MTVN's 300-plus digital sites attract 90 million unique visitors, an audience Mr. Salmi and his team are looking to expand this year through strategic partnerships with Microsoft, a social-networking platform called Flux and the creation of "tribes," or vertical ad networks for major brands such as Nickelodeon's Parents Connect. MTVN also recently formed a Digital Fusion group to co-create customized digital campaigns with clients and cited a recent viral web series with T-Mobile, "Get Connected," as an early success. Mr. Salmi also said TV campaigns that include digital components have shown a 60% increase in brand recognition, while campaigns that include one of MTVN's virtual worlds post a 300% increase in recognition.