Pull the plug on upfront market or drop media-neutral pretense

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It's time to abolish TV's upfront marketplace.

This is a mantra I've chanted for months -- others, for different but equally valid reasons, have been saying it for years -- and if anything surprises me, it's how few buyers and sellers disagree. Yet any day now they will begin a complex and frenetic week-long, phone-based ritual dance that will lock up more than $6 billion in advertising commitments.

The relevance of the upfront marketplace, which absurdly favors sellers, has been debated for years. Media consultant Erwin Ephron sent along a copy of an essay he wrote in 1995 that traced the history, and questioned the value, of upfront buying. That column referenced a February 1992 panel during which P&G's Jim Van Cleave, Y&R's Paul Isaacson and JWT's Jerry Dominus "argued for a continuous TV market where advertisers could buy throughout the season."

"But little changed," Ephron wrote in 1995, and indeed little has changed today in the upfront sales process. Meanwhile, everything else on the communications landscape has been dramatically transformed, leaving the network upfront to stand out as anachronistically against the modern media backdrop as the old woman who strolls past the Gap and Starbucks storefronts in my Westchester village in formal hats and dresses from the early 20th Century.

"Media neutral" is the phrase of choice these days among buyers and sellers of time and space. There's not a media specialist on the planet that doesn't boast of an ability to develop "platform agnostic" solutions to its clients' challenges. In theory, this means an agency and marketer start by defining a challenge, identifying the core consumer and then figuring out the best contact points at which to touch that person with a marketing message.

For sellers of anything other than network TV time, this sounds like a dream come true. It levels the playing field, and discourages marketers from plunking down 70› out of every advertising dollar on network TV by rote. In a media-neutral environment, if magazines are the best way to hit the target, magazines will get a bigger share of the budget. Ditto the Internet, outdoor boards and radio, as well as other marketing disciplines.

Yet despite all the lip service paid to the concept of media neutrality, there's little evidence of it. The upfront is one of the biggest reasons. There's no way to have media neutrality when buyers and sellers participate in a feeding frenzy in May during which they commit huge chunks of their ad budgets in advance to TV. Those commitments, which represent about 85% of total prime-time TV spending, extend from the fourth quarter of the year in which they are made through the third quarter of the following year.

With so much money taken off the table in the spring, magazines and other major media are left to fight over scraps later in the year.

It's not clear why buyers would want to cling to an anachronistic upfront, especially since sellers clearly are able to manipulate supply to keep prices up. Buyers can decide how much money to hold back from the upfront if they think they can secure better deals in the scatter market. But they really don't. In a market motivated by fear, "experience conditioned buyers to believe that the economic risk of buying early was preferable to the personal risk of holding back," Ephron says.

So despite declining audience shares, the networks rack up healthy price increases every year and set new records for upfront sales.

There are so many levels on which the upfront model no longer makes sense. The most obvious is that it's insane to have so much money spent over so short a period of time in a frenzy of late-night wink-wink nudge-nudge dealmaking. But the more subtle reason is that the promise of a media-neutral marketplace -- and all its potential benefits for marketers -- cannot be realized until this rusty, creaky structure is dismantled.

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