TV Upfront Isn't Going Away, So Make Sure You're Getting the Most Out of It

MPMA Audits Show Wide Disparity in Prices for Buyers

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Challenges to the upfront come along, comet-like, about once every 15 years, blazing into the marketing world's consciousness, briefly threatening the TV trading ecosystem, then fizzling out-of view and mind.

There was the ill-fated attempt by JWT to withhold clients' budgets in 1975-the agency ended up paying more for less in that year's scatter market. There was a 1991 push, led by P&G, to abandon the upfront in favor of a continuous TV market. Then in the past year, the bold Chrysler marketing duo Jeff Bell and Julie Roehm advanced the idea of replacing the upfront with a stock market-like trading system.

In addition to these efforts to unseat the comfy controllers of TV pricing there has been a drip, drip of discontent. This magazine has called for upfront change on several occasions.

With good reason: The upfront, which can account for upward of 80% of prime-time sales, has yielded higher TV prices even as ratings have fallen, leaving advertisers paying more for less; it is a closed market in which often only the sellers know what prices are being charged; and it forces marketers to commit millions of dollars on the basis of a schedule that's likely to change, and on a calendar that doesn't mesh with their companies' financial years.

But I'm not repeating the call for an end to the upfront.

Why not? Because, for now at least, that seems futile. TV owners aren't about to give up a chance to book $9 billion in sales, and although many marketers have trimmed their TV budgets in the last 24 months, few, if any, are willing to risk staying out of the upfront. Unless they stay away in droves, or pare budgets much more dramatically, the TV burghers won't budge. And TV is still too important to most of them to make such moves. Only new technologies-VOD, PVRs, addressable TV-will wrest power away from the upfront kingpins, and it will take time for those technologies to take hold.

Until that time comes the best thing marketers can do is focus on their own companies' upfront performance.

Sounds obvious I know. But some don't pay close enough attention and perform poorly as a result, according to Media Performance Monitor America, the U.S. offshoot of John Billett's powerful global media auditing business. Since arriving on these shores a little over a year ago, MPMA, has landed 10 major clients, including three of Ad Age's top 10 megabrands, representing over $2.5 billion in TV expenditures. In examining these marketers' media spending what it has discovered is that there is an incredible +/-25% spread in terms of what advertisers pay for identical time and space in the upfront. Yes, the same theoretical package that costs one marketer $75 dollars costs another marketer $125.

Multiply those figures by the hundreds of millions spent in the upfront and you have some seriously big winners and losers.

Nor is this simply a case of major marketers getting better deals. Stunningly, Billett's analysis so far suggests scale is not a key factor. There are some huge players paying above-market rate, and many small players beating the market handsomely-a fact several media buyers acknowledged to be true.

So what do the upfront winners have in common in John's view? In short: They ask the smartest questions; they recognize the upfront is a relationship business and try to get the best individual buyers working on their account; they push hard to get value for money; they vary the inventory they buy enough that they don't become predictable; and they often include some element of performance-based pay in their media shop's compensation.

It's a better plan than raging against the upfront machine. Well, for the next 15 years anyway.

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