“We can all think of a time when we were watching a great show, only to be bombarded with six to seven ads, the interruption taking us out of the experience.’”
OpenAP CEO David Levy was sitting onstage contemplating how best to weave brand advertising into a streaming-centric, on-demand TV era that was fast approaching. This was at the Sundance Film Festival at the end of January, just weeks before the impact of COVID-19 took over most of our lives.
“If brands are going to be part of great storytelling, how do we use technology to help them do that in a relevant way but then also get out of the way so that consumers stay connected to the story?” Levy asked.
It’s true that a panel discussion in Park City, Utah, feels like something out of a parallel universe right now. But the questions couldn’t be more pertinent or urgent. If we were all frustrated by being interrupted with too many nonrelevant ads back in those halcyon pre-coronavirus times, what about now, when escapism is everything?
Indeed, it’s a bizarre and uncertain time. With millions of Americans left sheltering in place doing more than their share of TV bingeing, viewership has surged. But with live sports on hold, the Tokyo Olympics postponed and the broadcast networks’ Upfronts moved off the schedule indefinitely, many tentpole events advertisers and publishers were counting on have been shelved, at least temporarily. And more important, the stark and tragic news that has dominated media coverage is far from the ideal content that lends itself to brand marketing. As a result, advertisers have had to completely rethink their ad strategies—both in terms of creative messaging and in actual media buys.
If there was ever a time for the TV ad industry to be bold and lean in to reimagining the consumer ad experience, it’s right now. The question is, does the industry have the tools it needs to do so—both from a measurement and technical standpoint, not to mention the will power needed to embrace huge operational change?
Rather than signifying the end of TV advertising as we know it, we at OpenAP believe the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic could lead to a new type of audience-first revolution—with advertisers using more precise methods to reach their consumer out of necessity. The way TV advertising is executed is set to radically change, perhaps for the better for those who see the world with optimism. Here’s why.
The rapidly shifting landscape
Before coronavirus dominated our lives, streaming video was dominating the attention of the TV world. Commercial-free OTT platforms like Netflix and Amazon have pulled more and more eyeballs away from traditional linear TV and even premium cable networks. Late last year saw the launch of another major subscription-based streaming service—Disney+. The immediate success of Disney+ was just the latest signal that ad-supported TV continues to be challenged on multiple fronts.
Then came social distancing. Live sports—TV’s most powerful ad and audience vehicle—are suddenly off the air, throwing viewership up for grabs. People are watching more local TV news. And they’re turning more to streaming platforms and gaming devices.
It’s not easy to see what this means for advertisers in the near term and when the effects of the pandemic subside. Yet even the staunchest advocate of TV advertising would have to admit that with so many ad-free options to choose from, being bombarded with countless commercials during a single episode could tarnish the viewing experience of even the best ad-supported shows.
The good news is that the number of ad-supported options available to viewers is surging and many stuck-at-home consumers are likely discovering them. Traditional networks have long had their own connected TV apps, and Hulu has been a leader in ad-supported streaming for a decade. NBCUniversal rolled out Peacock, while its parent company Comcast acquired the free streaming platform Xumo. ViacomCBS has already built a large base of subscribers CBS All Access, and the company has been heavily promoting the free Pluto TV during the lockdown. Plus, Fox recently snatched up Tubi TV, which has a deep library of free ad-supported shows and movies.
It’s clear that the more consumers gravitate toward different platforms and become their own programmers, the days of the monoculture are over. Marketers were already starting to demand more precision targeting and intelligence from their TV advertising before the crisis. The shift toward audience buying would only seem to accelerate as the economy suffers—considering that CMOs and CFOs will be pressured more than ever to prove that every dollar is being spent effectively.
At the same time, during this new golden age of television, marketers still want to align themselves with premium, culture-defining content (the kind of fare that comes out of festivals like Sundance). By targeting more specific audiences using TV ad technology, brands can extend this strategy to help yield more targeted shows as well.
“We believe that an ad-supported model is crucial to really enable everybody to be able to hear these great stories.” —David Levy, CEO, OpenAP
Measurement is everything
Before current events overtook the industry, one of the biggest issues for TV advertisers was the lack of cohesive and standard measurement across different platforms. Without that industry standard, instead of effectively reaching their customers, marketers end up with inaccurate or incomplete data. That doesn’t exactly encourage most to shift their budgets out of proven vehicles.
This challenge is only becoming more pressing as people’s viewing habits have been thrown into flux by extended stay-at-home orders.
Still, we are increasingly convinced that savvy marketers are ready to evolve their TV advertising strategies; the business’ future depends on connecting people with relevant and premium content at an audience level. Brands and agencies are able to define very specifically who their target audience is, but activating that targeting information across linear TV, VOD, OTT, etc. is doubly complicated when each individual network, platform and service has different standards for measuring data. This lack of uniform audience data threatens to hold back the long-awaited advanced TV advertising boom.
"Our biggest issue is measuring across different platforms," said Levy. "If you're going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars and you can't even get a really clear idea about who you reached and how you reached them, it's very troubling.”
The need for standards extends to both metrics and ad formats/mechanics.
Levy continued: “Part of what we’ve done at OpenAP is create standards in partnership with TV networks around how we can make the ad experience better for consumers—and have a much more sustainable ad-supported model going forward. If you can standardize and create an audience segment centrally—then devise a plan across all the different networks—you can start to evaluate your plan in a much more holistic way that will make it easier for the buyers to actually execute across television."
Achieving a truly data-agnostic and open measurement standard across networks will ultimately help drive scale to data-driven TV advertising with a simple goal of helping brands reach the audiences they want. “How do we still tell great stories through a medium that's likely going to be free or close to free, but ad supported?" Levy asked. He’s bullish on Peacock, which NBCUniversal has begun rolling out to Comcast subscribers prior to a wide launch planned this summer. NBCUniversal promises that Peacock will leverage the data to improve the ad experience by cutting down on the usual amount of ad time and include much more interactivity between viewers and brands.
“The opportunity some are seizing is to rethink what that ad experience looks like,” Levy said. “And Peacock is a great example of how we can create new initiatives that are direct to consumer, ad supported and actually put the viewer first.”
Going forward—the new TV normal
There’s little doubt that our lives have been turned upside down thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, and the weeks and months to come may prove to be just as unpredictable.
We will get past this current crisis. But there is no going back to the way things used to be. The state of TV advertising was fast evolving before the pandemic, and the lessons we learn from this experience will shape the future of the industry.
The advertising community's main challenge remains: How do you get in front of your customer in a relevant way and have an honest conversation that feels native to the experience? As a society, we have unfortunately been confronted with staying at home to literally save lives. Yet the silver lining for the TV industry is that it has been presented with a rare opportunity to meet this challenge of improving its relationship with viewers.
Giving consumers options, including ad-supported services, those with a very light ad experience or premium ad-free subscriptions, offers brands the chance to make a better holistic experience for consumers at a time when we're all watching more TV. Plus, the technology and data available to marketers right now should finally enable brands to deliver ads to these audiences that they actually care about.
Imagine a world where consumers and advertisers both win. The future suddenly got a lot more hopeful.