BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- For years, the TV-upfront market hasn't entirely worked for Unilever. But rather than exit like some, the company -- with the $499 million it spends on TV -- is looking to rewrite the rules and increasingly set the agenda with what it calls a "reverse upfront."
Unilever began turning the upfront concept upside down last year by presenting brand plans to media companies and asking them to develop media plans and content deals around them. That reverses the traditional concept, in which networks showcase programming and look for advertisers to start dealing.
In year two, Unilever hopes to expand the process to even more of its media outlay, though it's likely to consolidate the number of media outlets it works with.
Unilever's reverse upfront began last month. And while it hopes to conclude as much as three-quarters of these complex deals during the May upfront, some, such as Hellman's integration with CBS's "The New Adventures of Old Christine" or Vaseline's tie-in with Lifetime's "Maneater" were finalized as late as December based on briefings prior to last year's upfront. The CBS deal culminated in a two-minute April segment on "Old Christine" featuring extensive footage and references to "Hellman's Real Mayonnaise," followed immediately by ads featuring the Food Network's Bobby Flay for Hellman's and Hellman's Light real mayonnaise.
More than TV
By design, the reverse upfront encompasses far more than TV. And while it has the sound and some of the trappings of a reverse auction, the goal is more about getting better quality rather than simply lower rates, said Rob Master, Unilever's director of North American media.
Unilever briefs the media companies on brand plans, in some cases prior to creative development, in others after a creative idea is in place. This year, Unilever's media shop, Mindshare, New York, established a "speed-dating" program in which brand managers briefed media executives in serial fashion.
Then, as upfront negotiations begin in earnest this month, Unilever expects networks to come back with programs that go well beyond TV, including digital, mobile, interactive TV and -- increasingly important -- talent and content deals.
Some have dubbed it "the Unilever upfront," Mr. Master said, and he believes no one else is doing it quite this way yet.
"Great ideas that break through need time, and we are looking for advertisers who want to take the time and invest the time with us," said Ed Erhardt, president-ad sales at ESPN, which partnered with Unilever last fall for a sweepstakes to promote the launch of Vaseline for Men, with a campaign running across ESPN's TV, magazine, radio and online properties. ESPN has been in active discussions since January on integrated marketing deals with two to three major advertisers from many of the top holding companies, but few have opened up their brand portfolios the way Unilever has.
Focus on quality
According to Mr. Master, the process was an outgrowth of a Unilever effort 18 months ago to rethink how it buys media built around three pillars: flexibility, value and quality. The reverse upfront is mainly about quality.
Mr. Master doesn't characterize the results in terms of better media rates -- though he clearly wants that, too.
"When you do a commercial-pod innovation with CBS and Bertolli and the Monday-night comedy lineup, or you're doing a tailored month-long program with 'Gossip Girl' on CW," he said, "there's no direct comparison to buying the traditional 30-second spot. ...The days of simply running a schedule of 15-seconds or 30-seconds and just buying straight [gross rating points] are over."
In October, CBS ran a night of specially created promotions that used one of the hosts of entertainment news show "The Insider" touting how easy Unilever's Bertolli pasta meals were to make for dinner, and how it made it that much easier to kick back and watch CBS's Monday night comedies while eating them. The CW's "Gossip Girl" in April ran a series of video vignettes to promote a new product, Go Fresh Burst Body Wash. The videos features four real 20-something women who once lived lives similar to the show's characters. The first part aired during "Gossip Girl," and then viewers could watch the rest online.
Harder to cut
Unilever will, in fact, still be making straight TV buys in some cases. But Mr. Master said Unilever's deals increasingly are coming out of reverse-upfront process, and that the more involved deals are the one most likely to weather the economic storm.
It would be highly difficult to unwind some of the deals in a midcourse correction, after all, once both Unilever and networks have invested in talent and content.
"It speaks to the importance of media companies delivering big ideas that our brands want to engage in," Mr. Master said. "When we have to make tough decisions, if we have nothing on the board with you, and options need to be taken, we're going to go to places where we don't have these programs."
Just from the sheer complexity and depth involved, Unilever is also likely to consolidate the number of media companies it works with, he added.
"We'll definitely see a consolidation of networks and media companies that we work with going into the upfront," Mr. Master said. "We generally value our relationships with media companies. We recognize we have to navigate the realities of economics together, consumer-landscape changes together. But ultimately, media companies who don't have a realistic view of the marketplace are going to be very challenged during this upfront. ... It's not to say that if companies don't get one [of these deals], their entire investment is at risk. But it certainly helps us make decisions."
'Price does matter'
While the reverse upfront addresses the quality issue, Mr. Master hasn't forgotten the concerns about value, efficiency and flexibility. "Price does matter," Mr. Master said. "And we're looking to leverage every dollar we spend." Consolidating the number of media companies Unilever will do deals with is also part of that effort, he said, as is looking more closely at audience composition and set-top-box data.
Results of many first-year programs are still being evaluated, but the ROI generally has been good, Mr. Master said. "Overall, we've seen clear, measurable business success from pretty much every big program we've done."
It hasn't meant more spending, though. Overall, Unilever's U.S. outlay was off 14.3% last year to $748 million, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Globally, Unilever cut ad spending by about 1.1% as a share of sales, or around $100 million last quarter.
Nor has it meant more internet-display spending, it appears: TNS data show display spending down 55% last year for Unilever to $17.1 million -- albeit most of the drop came from one brand, Sunsilk.
As a result, TV as a share of Unilever measured spending actually rose 4.5 percentage points to 66.9% last year. And Mr. Master said the process does tend to make TV more useful by sweetening the pot with content, talent and cross-platform deals. He now sees spring as the time for a "media upfront," not a TV upfront.
He also notes that increasingly complex deals include elements such as talent and content development that aren't picked up by conventional media measurement. And notwithstanding the display numbers, he said Unilever's digital spending in all areas has continued to rise.
But he's also fully aware that a tough year awaits both Unilever -- and the networks. "Given the economic environment and the realities we're all facing, we certainly plan to be aggressive with our investment," he said. "But there's a real sensitivity to what's taking place in the marketplace overall."