Clear Channel Tries an Upfront for Radio and Outdoor Ads

Packages Can Also Include Digital Media, Endorsements From Ryan Seacrest or Glenn Beck

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LOS ANGELES ( -- Clear Channel, the country's largest radio and outdoor media company, is rolling out its first cross-platform upfront pitch, planning to visit agencies in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York in the coming weeks to get its sometimes-overlooked media platforms more consideration from national advertisers.

John Partilla
John Partilla
The upfront is a continuation of efforts by John Partilla, who joined the company as president of global media sales last summer after five years in a similar role at Time Warner, to make it easier and more attractive for big marketers to buy radio time and outdoor space.

Eleven days into his new role last summer, Mr. Partilla was candid with Ad Age about the challenges of selling both radio and outdoor, each of which had long been difficult for advertisers to buy and to measure.

But after settling in at Clear Channel, Mr. Partilla realized that the complicated structure of the company's own local and national sales teams wasn't making things any easier.

After working to improve the company's own sales structure, Mr. Partilla led the company into its first Gold Sponsorship of New York Advertising Week last fall, where it gave away $1 million in free advertising for an integrated campaign, and laid out plans to continue experimenting with ambitious sales tactics like contextual radio ads for clients such as Geico, Walmart and Visa.

"We're getting in the right offices with access to the right customers because we have a better story to tell and we're telling it more effectively," Mr. Partilla said. "We're a little easier to buy and more measurable."

The predominantly local outdoor industry fell 0.7% to $1.31 billion in the first quarter, according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, due to double-digit spending declines among automotive and insurance marketers.

But radio is making its way back. Clear Channel has just enjoyed two consecutive quarters of radio revenue growth that's outpacing the industry -- including double-digit gains in national spot revenue, an important area as local automotive, retail and certain insurance advertising continues to suffer the results of the recession.

First-quarter local radio revenues were only up 2%, according to the Radio Advertising Bureau, while still accounting for $2.5 billion of radio's total $3.7 billion take during first-quarter. Channel accounted for about $623.2 million of radio's first-quarter revenue, roughly half of the company's $1.26 billion take during the time period, according to estimates from Justin Nielsen, a senior analyst for SNL Kagan.

And now Clear Channel is visiting agencies to pitch cross-platform opportunities to national advertisers for the first time, offering packages that combine national radio inventory; custom content across Clear Channel's growing digital portfolio; outdoor inventory in markets such as New York's Times Square, Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and the Las Vegas Strip; and potential talent endorsements from personalities such as Ryan Seacrest, Steve Harvey and Glenn Beck.

Clear Channel is also holding a contest in which it will track each upfront buy's effectiveness and co-author the winning client's submission for the Cannes Lions, paying for up to six employees to make a trip to the France festival.

The approach seems to be getting Clear Channel executives in front of the right agency people. A recent presentation at the New York offices of MPG put Mr. Partilla, New York general market manager Joe Puglise, Clear Channel Digital President Evan Harrison and other key executives in front of top MPG buyers for radio, outdoor, digital and even TV.

Clear Channel was wise to bring the upfront approach -- a staple of selling commercial time on television -- to its radio and outdoor assets, according to Bonnie Barest, exec VP-group account director at MPG. "TV has set the benchmark for that kind of thinking," Ms. Barest said. "But it's better for our clients to see the full picture of what's available."

Kim Vasey, director of WPP's Group M Network Radio Group, has not yet seen a presentation but called Clear Channel smart for putting its various resources and inventory together.

But no matter how many new buyers and planners see Clear Channel's upfront, several buyers told Ad Age that budgets still aren't available from clients to determine the logistics of executing the cross-platform campaigns Mr. Partilla and his team are pitching.

And one buyer suggested all radio groups, not just Clear Channel, have been better accommodating clients' needs, and that the maturity of Arbitron's personal people meter ratings has made the medium easier to buy for all radio clients, independent of any one company's strategy.

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