The NewFronts are finally a fixture. After two weeks of 33 media companies pitching marketers to spend more money on digital video, advertisers aren't walking away from this year's presentations wondering if they were worth the time, let alone the investment. Or wondering if they should return next year.
"When Digitas started the NewFronts in 2008, it was a little bit of a chance to get the industry to stop and pay attention," said DigitasLBi's chief content officer, Scott Donaton. As publishers have invested in more TV-quality content and incorporated more data into their programming slates and ad packages, the NewFronts are "no longer a secondary thing" to the TV upfronts, he said. "They're becoming the main stage."
The broadcast TV networks that are about to secure commitments for billions of dollars in ad time might disagree; the NewFronts still don't work like that. But they are continuing to make the case for digital video and finding new ways to meet marketers' needs.
Ground floor, please
Companies including Yahoo, AOL and Condé Nast Entertainment announced large programming slates that spanned TV-like long-form shows and shorter daily series. But advertisers appear to be more interested in content that publishers can create with a brand.
"I'm much less interested in a slate of packaged shows that are a jump ball for a brand to sponsor, and much more interested in seeing so many of these digital players now establishing labs and studios where brands can create content with them," said Mr. Donaton. DigitasLBi announced three separate branded-content deals during the NewFronts, with Maker Studios, Vice and Vox Media.
Still looking for hits, except when they're not
Marketers might be more attracted to prebaked video series if it were easier to see hits coming, and nothing like Fox's "Empire" or Netflix's "House of Cards" has ever been hyped at a NewFronts pitch. But Hulu's J.J. Abrams-produced adaptation of Stephen King's "11/22/63" and Time Inc.'s "A Year in Space," about astronaut Scott Kelly's year aboard the International Space Station, seem promising.
Audience fragmentation and a proliferation of programs that appeal to specific demographics -- like Yahoo's millennial-focused competition show "Ultimate DJ" -- are meanwhile leading some media buyers to redefine "hit."
Instead of a single show that reaches a massive audience, companies like BuzzFeed are using Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to create "a series of small bits that get socialized into a hit structure," said Harvin Furman, senior VP at Starcom and head of the agency's digital acceleration group.
NewFronts presenters "are recognizing they have the best of both worlds," said Michael Lampert, senior VP-media and account management at 360i. "They can create content to distribute across screens to a mass or niche audience," he said.
Data for dollars
To tempt advertisers with "small bits," though, publishers need to help uncover the programs and audiences that will deliver results. This year, more of them showed that they're doing the work.
BuzzFeed talked about looking at its audience data to determine which editorial and branded videos to produce and how to distribute them. Yahoo and AOL are augmenting their content with audience-based ad sales that will let a series sponsor reach the shows' viewers when they're consuming other content.
"The people that help us make the most sense of what's going on in this fragmented ecosystem are the ones that attract the most attention and the most money," said Adam Shlachter, chief investment officer at DigitasLBi.
YouTube networks step up
Last year's NewFronts revolved around YouTube, the dominant digital video service. But this year, the focus shifted a bit to the companies that have built their businesses on YouTube. Of the 33 media companies that hosted official NewFronts presentations, nine have grown from collections of YouTube channels to sprawling, de facto TV networks for millennial and Generation Z audiences.
These so-called multichannel networks, or MCNs, included Maker Studios, Fullscreen, Collective Digital Studio and StyleHaul -- all of which announced original shows to capitalize on their YouTube stars' built-in audiences and lure younger viewers from TV. "This was the year of the MCN," said Gian LaVecchia, managing partner-digital content marketing at MEC North America.
The NewFronts may be too big (but too bad)
Advertisers may have welcomed the flood of companies such as Collective Digital Studio that made their NewFronts debuts this year. But that doesn't mean they want more brought into the fold.
There seemed to be a drop-off in attendance from the NewFronts' first week -- when the big companies like YouTube, Hulu and Vice present -- to the second week, when out-of-town advertisers are hustling home before returning to New York for the broadcast-TV upfronts. "We have to figure out a way to get it all done in one week," said Mr. LaVecchia.
It may be hard to keep the NewFronts from growing again, though, as long as participants believe they're working. Several agency execs said NewFronts presenters have proven they can fetch big audiences for their content, so it doesn't matter if that content is exactly analogous to the TV shows their clients are buying. It's all about the audiences.
"A lot of agencies and a lot of brands are going to video-agnostic strategies, so they're just buying programming to reach audiences. So I think now you're starting to see legitimate scale emerge where that's truly a viable opportunity," said Mr. LaVecchia.