Tips for navigating the upfront

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* Catch The Wave

Timing can be the difference between a smooth ride and a wipeout. Upfronts can last a few days or weeks or continue into the late summer or even the fall.

The time to make your deals is after the early easy money has overpaid and before the out-of-touch late buyers get re-priced into paying more than they should.

The number of deals builds over time until they reach a point when several networks are nearing their upfront sales goals. There is no announcement of this moment and it can be days or weeks after the start of the upfront.

How to tell when the time is right to buy? It's an instinctive feeling you get after living through a few dozen upfronts. Constantly monitoring sellers and peers, listening to the buzz, will give you a very good idea of when the sellers are beginning to grin and the buyers are starting to tense up.

* Stay on Base

Did you know that the networks already have your number? Whatever your company paid in the first upfront in which it participated becomes the basis for all future pricing for your upfront media buys, no matter who negotiates on your behalf.

If someone overpaid 10 years ago, you're still very likely to be overpaying. If someone made a great deal for, say P&G or J&J (highly likely) 20 or even 50 years ago, then these advertisers are "grandfathered" into the lowest rates paid by anyone.

So what are the negotiations about? The inflation rate you will pay above what you paid last year. If a network is seeking a 5% increase overall, your buyer's goal is to get you a deal under 5%. But it is distinctly possible that a negotiation that gets you a 3% increase in a 5% marketplace will still leave you paying 20% more than another advertiser whose schedule is negotiated by the same buyer.

* Have It Your Way

Upfront buys offers advertisers and media buyers guaranteed audience delivery and first choice of programming. But this isn't the only way to get an edge in buying national TV advertising.

Calendar-year upfronts and guaranteed quarterly "scatter" buys are both reasonable alternatives for some clients.

Calendar-year upfront media buys may offer several advantages over the traditional schedule because many advertisers budget on a calendar-year basis so the buying period and budget years coincide, and because by the late fall, some ratings information is available for new programming. It is also often advantageous to negotiate quarterly scatter buys with ratings guarantees to achieve greater scheduling flexibility and a high degree of audience delivery reliability.

* How to avoid cold pizza and late nights

Network manipulation of media-buyer working hours and menus is not inevitable. To keep control of your evenings and culinary input, plan ahead.

Bring your clients over to the networks in November or January to share their goals and strategies with sellers and top management. Begin a dialogue early and continue it year-round.

Be first in line when the networks open for sale. It's rarely a good idea to buy early, but it's always a good idea to get proposals early.

Build a detailed online database of every aspect of the current year's network buys. Build a network-proposal-evaluator software system on top of this database so that when the networks offer proposals during the heat of the upfront, you can evaluate them on your wireless laptops and respond instantly.

* Don't Panic

Some media agencies and advertisers are famous for buying too early, paying too much and making life difficult for everyone else. There's almost always an alternative to making a bad deal. Plan ahead and know your options.

Gene Dewitt ... is the founder, owner and Chairman of DeWitt Media Options, a media/marketing communications consultancy based in

New York.

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