TV Upfront

Pitch Perfect: An Inside Look at Discovery's Personalized Upfront

Horizon Media Hosts Cable Giant's Intimate Sales Pitch

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Investigation Discovery's 'Serial Thriller'
Investigation Discovery's 'Serial Thriller' Credit: Discovery Communications

Perhaps it's a function of the way the river light splashes all over the room like bourbon poured from a great height, or maybe it's just that this is the first day in which spring no longer seems like some kind of cruel rumor. Either way, the mood around Horizon Media's Manhattan office is positively sunny.

It's a little after five o'clock on Wednesday, April 1, and Horizon CEO Bill Koenigsberg and a retinue of around 80 employees are winding down around the terrace bar with a group of senior executives from Discovery Communications, who made the four-mile trip downtown to present a scaled-down version of the company's annual upfront pitch. Whereas Discovery's traditional dog-and-pony show would clock in at around two hours, this year's "Honey, I Shrunk the Upfront" production was a much more succinct affair -- 57 minutes and change.

As was the case with the discontinued Discovery upfront model, no one here is breaking away to talk deal points or hash out pricing on the back of a napkin. That's not the point of the exercise. If anything, Discovery's 11-agency barnstorming tour is simply meant to reaffirm longstanding partnerships while giving buyers an early look at some of the new shows on offer for the latter half of the year and beyond.

Which isn't to say that there isn't some serious ear-bending going on here. Henry Schleiff, who oversees the powerhouse crime network Investigation Discovery and a suite of four emerging channels, is reeling in Mr. Koenigsberg with a monologue in which he deftly slips a hot real estate tip between twin testimonials to ID's uncluttered ad environment and world-beating length of tune-in.

After Mr. Schleiff takes his leave (on his way to the elevator bank, he reminds Mr. Koenigsberg to "buy that place!"), the Horizon boss is asked to name some Discovery programs that looked particularly promising. Cocking an eyebrow at Discovery Ad Sales President Joe Abruzzese, Mr. Koenigsberg jokes that he hasn't the slightest idea. "I actually wasn't paying attention," Mr. Koenigsberg cracks. "So I can't tell you what my favorite part of the presentation was."

The unflappable Mr. Abruzzese waits a beat, whereupon his host offers a more sincere assessment of the Discovery sales pitch. "Actually, I think their diamond in the rough is ID. I really mean that," Mr. Koenigsberg says. "We've done a bunch of research on consumer sentiment for the kind of genres that they're putting on, and it's not a coincidence their ratings are growing."

If nothing else, Discovery's pitch to Horizon belies the perception that the relationship between networks and media agencies is universally antagonistic. The mutual respect was manifest from the start of the presentation -- whereas most people tend to avoid the front row, Horizon staffers weren't afraid to claim those seats -- and remained evident throughout the afternoon.

"That adversarial relationship that some groups engage in doesn't exist here," Mr. Abruzzese says, shortly after his team wraps the Horizon pitch. "This is a true partnership. We're all in this together."

That's evident at the end of the afternoon, when Horizon Senior VP-Chief Investment Officer Marianne Gambelli thanks Mr. Abruzzese for bringing his upfront pitch to Varick St. After endorsing Discovery's more-personalized upfront format -- Exec VP-Ad Sales Sharon O'Sullivan placed particular emphasis on recent integrations, branded entertainment opportunities and an upcoming test designed to advance the "use of technology and information to create better results for advertisers" -- Ms. Gambelli confirmed that she had closed a long-term deal with Mr. Abruzzese about a month ago during, of all things, a spin class.

(If it weren't already glaringly obvious that the era of woozily scrawling million-dollar upfront agreements on the inside fold of a 21 Club matchbook is dead, the notion of writing business at6:30 a.m. while astride a stationary bicycle should convince any holdouts change is here.)

Aside from the cost savings of bringing the upfront show to the agency's doorstep (the big Discovery event at the Jazz at Lincoln Center venue cost upwards of $4 million per year), the primary advantage of the customized approach is that the most influential agency execs tend to show up when the presentation is in their own backyard.

"I'd look at the guest list after [the big upfront shows] and realize that so many of the key account people, so many people in charge of the budgets, were no longer showing up," says Mr. Abruzzese. "With this new format, we have a personalized presentation for all the decision makers, which leads to great conversations afterward.

"There's also that immediate feedback," he continues. "We get to spend an hour with Bill. And Henry just sold Bill on ID. That's worth the entire presentation."

"They win business on the work they do, and not by making promises to clients they can't keep," Mr. Abruzzese says as the last of the people gathered in the terrace area begin making their way to the elevators.

"I honestly think they've got some good stuff going," Mr. Koenigsberg says, before he heads out into the spring evening.

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