Opinion: The upfront is dead? Long live the upfront
By the time Memorial Day rolled around, media buyers and sellers had bought and sold billions of dollars’ worth of TV advertising inventory. In many cases, inventory sold out and sellers had to turn down buyers. Across the board, deals were transacted quickly, without endless rounds of back-and-forth negotiations. The 2021 upfronts succeeded, despite predictions by some that upfront buying was dead. Indeed, this year proved that upfronts are alive and more relevant than ever. Here’s why:
Supply constraints drive upfronts, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future
While buyers make early media commitments for a variety of reasons having to do with pricing and planning, the ultimate motive is always supply constraint. If you can’t purchase the inventory you need later, the logic goes, you must buy it now. A high volume of deals before Memorial Day with a minimum of back-and-forth tells us that both buyers and sellers saw supply constraints in 2021.
But where exactly do we see that supply constraint? As it turns out, there are supply constraints around premium inventory, including premium CTV and OTT, and linear. What this means is that when you filter inventory both for premium content and data-informed capabilities, there’s more demand than there is supply.
Premium television’s supply-constrained sectors are distinct from digital media more broadly, where an abundance of inventory holds CPMs down and allows buyers to regularly take advantage of the spot market. In the supply-constrained market for premium television, sellers are getting their price, while buyers are seeing the value of upfront commitments because they know that inventory won’t be available later.
How long will the supply constraint hold for premium television? Nobody can predict the future, but the past is instructive. Historically, premium content has been difficult to produce, relative to non-premium content. Premium television shows spend years in development, cost tens of millions of dollars to produce and promote, and there’s no guarantee of success. As a result, the barrier to entry is incredibly high in the premium television content business.
We may be living in the second golden age of television, but hit shows don’t grow on trees, and they never will. Buyers and sellers understand this dynamic, and that’s why upfronts will be relevant for the foreseeable future.
Buyers and sellers are aligned on the need for flexibility/agility
The uncertainty and disruptions of 2020 hit buyers and sellers in different ways. Sellers experienced content disruptions. Live events were canceled, delayed or dramatically scaled back, making it nearly impossible to sell inventory in advance. But even scripted programming suffered because of production issues. On the buy-side, advertisers experienced supply chain issues, disruptions to marketing budgets, sudden changes to consumer behavior, and the challenge of adapting their messaging to meet the reality of a pandemic.
Across the board, these challenges have begun to subside, although they haven’t gone away. At the same time, our industry has learned a lot about the value of cooperation by navigating these challenges. From a business standpoint, buyers and sellers have gained valuable experience building greater flexibility/agility into their deals. Just as important, buyers and sellers used the pandemic year wisely to build out new media buying platforms, infrastructure, and tools in order to execute with greater flexibility/agility.
Optimism in the broader society drives media planning
Last year was a difficult year on just about every level. Nobody expects 2021 to be perfect, but the pandemic, politics, and the economy are no longer the blockers they were in 2020. As a result, we can see a renewed sense of optimism within our own lives, our communities, and society more broadly. That optimism translates into a better business environment across all industries.
But the optimism that comes from making it through such a dark period has an especially profound effect on upfronts because optimism is an essential ingredient for planning. We may not have appreciated that fact before the pandemic, but we shouldn’t overlook it now. By definition, our business is future-oriented because the deals we make in the spring don’t come to fruition until the fall. A shortage of optimism held us back last year, but renewed optimism will propel us forward through 2021 and beyond.