It's not a new ploy, but this year, the argument that marketers should be looking elsewhere to park their TV budgets might actually resonate, as money can shift to other, more measurable channels.
"It's above the line this year because you have traditional marketers who are going to the upfront looking to buy the digital properties," said Eric Valk Peterson, VP-media director, Agency.com. "They are trying to figure out how to get the most bang for their investments."
Upfronts-which in the online world are defined as any time when you're selling inventory in advance-are practiced by the major portals AOL, Yahoo and MSN, as well as sites in certain sectors like auto-specialty sites Edmunds.com and kbb.com (Kelley Blue Book). Other video-rich sites, including news purveyors and sites devoted to showing video clips, also find themselves selling large swaths of inventory early in the year. Cinema ad sellers are also jumping in with upfront events.
The Web, much like TV, does have certain inventory that is always in high demand, and much of that is around broadband video. In the 2005 fourth quarter, for example, AOL had sold out its video inventory for In2TV, its classic TV programming, through 2006. Yahoo, MSN and other video-rich sites typically sell out certain sectors, like entertainment, financial services and travel by the end of January. Cinema sells up to 80% of its inventory between October and December and only 10% in the spring.
So certain non-TV upstarts are beating their own drums to distract media buyers in the run up to the May upfront presentations from the broadcast networks.
Take Heavy.com. The laddie-oriented site, which serves up jokey, shocking, gross, sexy and just plain goofy video clips, much of it user-generated, for an audience of mostly 18-to-34-year old males, is launching an upfront this spring to tout its slate of six new shows. The programs include "The Massive Mating Game," a dating game played with cellphones, and "The Manly-Man Games,"an Olympics for the ordinary guy. Heavy executives will call on media agencies during the TV upfronts.
The rationale behind the move is simple. As marketers show more interest in digital properties, "We might be able to pre-empt those dollars going into TV," David Carson, co-CEO, Heavy.com said. "They are calling it an upfront, but it's really just a way to get people to buy inventory early [at a time when] traditional buyers are trying to get the most bang for their investments," said Eric Valk Peterson, VP-media director, Agency.com
Heavy's Mr. Carson pointed out that because much of his site's advertising consists of customized branded placements or integrated sponsorships, he needs to square away his sales so his staff can focus on building those unique ads. One example: a Heavy-created clip called "Pimp My Weapon" that features the characters in the Sony video game "God of War." While some buyers and publishers accept that because of the customized nature of Heavy's ads, it does have a limited supply to offer, most said an interactive upfront is not necessary.
"It's a great publicity stunt," said Michael Barrett, exec VP, AOL Media Networks. "Mission accomplished: You're doing a story."
But Heavy is also zeroing in on a very real trend in which more and more media agencies and marketers are breaking down the silos between various video advertising media. This could be the first year that marketers begin to think about video as a concept in which buckets of dollars slated for video ads could be distributed across a number of channels, including TV, online and cinema. Of advertisers polled at the ANA TV Ad Forum last month about whether the TV upfront should now include cinema, online and other media, 37% said yes, 59% said no and 4% weren't sure.
At the Forum, American Express VP-global media James Hedleston said his company had reclassified TV as "rolling video stock"-a term that encompasses cinema, pre-roll online video, video podcasts and traditional TV. "We capture the most valuable impressions first," he said, going after "the most engaged channels-cinema, opt in media such as paid search, and then use TV and other media to sweep up the rest of the GRPs."
One of Heavy's main competitors, iFilm.com, which was bought by Viacom for $49 million, is also seeing online video as one aspect of a larger video package. "This is the first year I'm seeing agencies talk about online video [which skews heavily toward viewers at work] as an actual daypart."
Screenvision, one of two players in the cinema advertising space with almost 14,000 theater screens, hosted an upfront event in March, which included a panel discussion on the state of the film industry. But more of their business, they find, is done on a calendar year basis, leading them to consider moving their upfront to the fall.
"Cinema is speaking the same language as broadcast TV now," said Jason Brown, senior VP-ad sales for Screenvision. "We estimate and post off of Nielsen, we're in the IMS planning systems and we're moving into developing engagement metrics. It's a great way to extend the broadcast week.