SONY RETHINKS ITS UPFRONT APPROACH

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May 14, 2001

By Tobi Elkin

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- As network TV moguls hunker down this week with the nation's top advertisers for the heady media fest known as the upfront, marketers are optimistic they will command the strongest position they've had in several years.

It's a basic law of supply and demand, to be sure. The sluggish economy has dampened ad rates, which means the networks won't be able to rake in the same kind of cold, hard cash they did during the go-go years.

Some advertisers are playing the game closer to the vest than usual. Microsoft Corp., one of the nation's biggest advertisers, which spends close to a billion dollars a year globally, is looking to maximize media efficiencies. And, like AOL Time Warner, the software giant is both a big advertiser and a major advertising medium via its sprawling MSN Internet network. In its dual role, Microsoft has the potential to leverage its media might to create favorable cross-platform media deals, similar to those by AOL Time Warner.

Scrutinizing media plans
Sony Electronics, which spends more than $100 million in marketing and advertising in North America, is also scrutinizing its media plans as it approaches the upfront.

"A market like this allows us to go to niche programmers, second- and third-tier programmers," said Ken Dice, vice president of brand marketing and communications for Sony.

As it heads into the upfront, Sony is looking beyond traditional media delivery vehicles and rethinking traditional demographics. "It's very easy sometimes to get into the rut of 'I'm going to talk to adults 18 to 49," said Bob Gruters, the senior manager who leads Sony's media planning strategies.

Sony, in the last year or so, has moved toward "passion group" targeting, identifying customers by their lifestyles and passionate interests rather than only by demographic grouping. "It allows us to be a little bit tighter with how we buy media," Mr. Gruters said.

Mr. Dice, speaking at the Electronic Media and Advertising Age Upfront Television Advertising Summit last week, said his company is looking for media opportunities with which it can forge genuine partnerships, no matter the type of media.

One such partnership was created with Viacom's MTV Real World franchise last year. The Real World Road Rules Challenge involved a mission to steal Aibo, Sony's electronic dog, from the Real World house. The challenge with partnerships, said Mr. Gruters, is to go beyond product placement and bundling to weave the brand into programming in a meaningful way. Another recent example of partnering involved Sony's promotion of digital camcorders with the Travel Channel via a Candid Camera-type surprise with tourists.

Beware bundling
To Viacom, AOL Time Warner and other media conglomerates that are flogging cross-platform media deals, Sony says "Don't bundle your media properties for us for the sake of bundling," Mr. Gruters maintained. "Our suggestion to them and what we've said is, 'You've got to provide value if you want us to increase our investment.'"

Sony's advertising is handled by WPP Group's Y&R Advertising, New York and Irvine, Calif. Media buying and planning is coordinated via the Media Edge.

Overall, advertisers such as Sony Electronics are looking for networks and cable properties to come up with a palette of media options that reveals the extent to which they understand the marketer's needs.

"Sales people are looking at us as the signers of a check. ... I've challenged them to come back to me with a proposal that adds value to my business," Mr. Gruters said.

Copyright May 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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