Call it the upfront Armageddon. If there are four horsemen of the apocalypse for the advertising industry, they're all galloping toward this one.
Two of the three biggest advertisers in the world—Unilever and L'Oréal—have just called media reviews either globally (in the case of Unilever) or in the U.S. (for L'Oréal). Speculation is rising that the biggest global advertiser—Procter & Gamble Co.—will soon follow suit with its own U.S. media review.
Important reviews have overlapped the upfront before, but with such big accounts in flux, 2015 is definitely a critical year for media shops to show their worth. That puts the onus on contenders and defenders alike to drive the best deals in this summer's upfront.
Then there's the fear that advertisers, after years of veiled or direct threats to shift money from TV to digital, are following through. P&G and Unilever executives have said they're spending 30% to 35% of their U.S. media dollars on digital, with at least some of that yanked from TV. Last summer's upfront was weak, with digital rivals seeming to function as an undertow; soft ad prices since then suggest we could be in for a repeat.
Meanwhile TV sellers are fighting digital interlopers, telling agencies again and again about unviewable ads online and digital ad fraud. The last, indirect wild card is former media agency exec Jon Mandel's recent allegations that undisclosed rebates to media agencies are distorting where clients' campaigns appear. Pivotal Research analyst Brian Wieser last week downgraded WPP, Publicis Groupe, Omnicom and Interpublic on concern that, "rightly or wrongly," marketers will increase scrutiny of media deals and squeeze one of the agency industry's biggest sources of revenue.
These four factors all add up to this: sellers and buyers going into this TV upfront highly motivated to harden their bargaining positions.