How brands are living up to BIPOC media commitments in the upfronts
Minority-owned and targeted media companies are playing a larger role in this year’s upfront dealmaking, as brands and agencies alike look to uphold commitments to shift more marketing dollars into Black, Latino and other diverse media channels.
With upfront deals wrapped for a majority of the media giants, attention is now turning toward BIPOC-owned channels, with many media owners calling the demand and interest from advertisers “unprecedented” in the wake of the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder and the renewed social justice movement.
Over the past year, Black media leaders like Byron Allen have been calling on Madison Avenue to allocate more dollars to Black-owned channels that have historically been a small or nonexistent part of upfront conversations. In response, media agencies and top marketers like General Motors, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s have pledged to do more.
While there are very specific efforts being made to invest in Black-owned media, overall the industry is also making an effort to spend more with any media channel that has diverse ownership.
BNC, an acronym for the relatively new Black News Channel, had been expecting that there would be incredible interest for the network in this year's upfront, but David Fitzpatrick, VP of revenue says “it’s exceeding what our expectations would be for a start-up network.”
Launched as a 24/7 news network for Black Americans just weeks before the pandemic hit, BNC, which is helmed by former CNN executive Princell Hair, quickly found its footing thanks to a combination of having more people stuck home watching TV and a surge of news events relevant to Black communities. The network's biggest investor is Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan.
BNC saw this as an opportunity to educate the marketplace on its content, hosting about 20 individual upfront presentations this spring for holding companies and brands to familiarize advertisers with its wares that include both flagship news shows, such as “Prime with Charles Blow,” as well as its lifestyle, entertainment and travel programming.
“Last year, and through this year, is the first time in my lifetime that I’m seeing a true commitment,” Fitzpatrick says. “Many to most of the brands are taking the right steps to ensure that there is equity.”
While Fitzpatrick doesn't think sentiment will completely change over night, he says things are “moving in the right direction” with “numerous brands and agencies” backing up their pledges with investment.
Citing the ongoing nature of BNC’s deal-making, Fitzpatrick declined to provide any hard numbers regarding its inventory or revenue, though he was able to confirm that the company has not yet sold out of airtime. “But I would say that we are well on our way to having an incredibly strong upfront,” he says.
First time commitments
Latino-owned Canela Media, which owns ad-supported video-on-demand newcomer Canela.TV and held its first-ever upfront presentations this year, expects to complete its negotiations in the next week or so, says Andrés Rincon, senior VP of sales, adding that around 30 first-time marketers have made commitments with the company during this year’s ad haggle.
Rincon credits a variety of factors with the “phenomenal” success of Canela’s 2021 upfront, chief among them: the fact that “multicultural and minority-owned companies have really been at the forefront of a lot of these conversations,” he says.
“I think in terms of Canela having a seat at the upfront table, the social injustices of the last year really played a big role,” Rincon says, adding that such networks “usually don’t have the chance” to showcase their offerings to buyers until the end of upfront season.
Some of the top-buying categories that made deals with Canela this summer include quick service restaurants, retail, automotive and tech. Fuse Media, another Hispanic-centric media brand, also reported “high demand” in these segments, saying in a statement that, “Pricing is also strong and being packaged with our growing AVOD/FAST Channels.”
That closely mirrors the advertiser makeup seen in some major networks’ upfronts, due in part to the strong post-pandemic rebound being experienced in those categories. But despite that heavy buying, Rincon echoes the same sentiment expressed by other executives Ad Age has spoken with: “We’ve also seen a few who are doing it just to check the box.”
One of the most promising points of progress seen by media companies this year is the desire from brands to strike multi-year deals, which underscores efforts to work towards more long-lasting change.
“For the most part,” Rincon says, brands seeking to engage with Canela have had “genuine conversations that have translated into multi-year, bigger commitments.”
Similarly, Revolt has received over $50 million in upfront commitments, many of which are multi-year deals, says Michael Roche, executive VP of sales and partnerships, at the cable network owned by Sean “Diddy” Combs. It has also seen 50 new national advertisers buy into the network.
“We have more than doubled our upfront commitments and the sheer volume of advertisers has much more than doubled,” Roche says, noting that select brands have come to Revolt with more ambitious plans than a straight upfront buy. This includes three-to-five-year deals that include everything from developing new intellectual property and creating custom series, to working with Revolt to identify areas that have disparity in the presence of the Black community, like gaming.
To this end, Revolt will be working with brands to help change the face of the gaming industry and create more opportunities for Black gamers to forge deals and sponsorship opportunities.
Minority-owned versus minority-targeted
While much of this year’s push has been to reallocate ad dollars into minority-owned media companies, meaning those operated and managed at an executive level by people of color from the communities they serve, there’s also strong demand for ad inventory in minority-targeted media companies that are deeply focused on a multicultural audience segment and usually promising larger reach, but owned and helmed by white-run corporations.
“Most brands and most agencies, they’re looking for minority-owned,” says Jason Hall, executive VP of sales for Estrella Media, a Spanish-language video company geared toward U.S. Latinos that is no longer minority-owned. “But they know that minority-owned is not going to get them to where they need to be, and that they need to utilize minority-targeted. They know with a combination of both, they’re delivering the mass reach that they need for their clients.”
“I’ve never seen a market like this one,” adds Laura Fisher, Estrella’s senior VP of sales and previously a 21-year veteran of Univision. She confirms that the company is not sold out of inventory, partially because they wanted to hold back some inventory for the so-called “scatter” market, when marketers can buy inventory closer to air date, but is enthusiastic about advertisers’ commitments to reaching multicultural viewers—particularly in-language.
Univision, which historically has wrapped its upfront negotiations after deals already have closed with its English-language counterparts, concluded deal-making in conjunction with those channels this upfront season, says Donna Speciale, president of advertising sales and marketing at Univision.
“We had a historical upfront, and I know everybody’s probably using the term, but for us it’s real,” Speciale says, adding that 2021 brought the Spanish-language broadcaster its “highest upfront volume in five years.”
The media company, one of two dominant players in the Spanish-language U.S. TV market (along with NBCUniversal’s Telemundo), saw a surge in investment in both its linear and digital properties, partially due to roughly a dozen first-time advertisers that signed on with Univision, as well as a high retention of legacy advertisers.
"There was not one client that came off the books this year in the upfront,” Speciale says.
Put your money where your mouth is
It’s no secret that holding companies and brands have historically overlooked minority-owned media companies, with such channels receiving just a fraction of the roughly $10 billion that is committed during the upfronts.
Brands that were absent in the minority-focused advertising game have argued that Black, Hispanic and other racially diverse audiences were reached through their general market buys.
But earlier this year, media mogul Byron Allen, who owns The Weather Channel and several other media properties, issued an ultimatum to brands and their agencies: shift a portion of your marketing budget into Black-owned media, or see you in court.
In letters of intent sent to numerous advertisers in March, Allen called for directing a minimum of 2% of all ad budgets into Black-owned media brands. Despite Madison Avenue’s platitudes, he said not enough conversations were translating into actual change, and that when progress on “diversity” was touted, it often meant deals with businesses led by women, not the Black community.
Allen says about 90% of the market has "been awakened and has leaned in" to Black-owned media.
IPG Mediabrands hosted a so-called Equity Upfront to highlight Black and other minority-owned-and-targeted companies to its clients, and later pledged to invest a minimum of 5% in Black-owned media across all of its clients in aggregate by 2023.
Since then, IPG Mediabrands’ Magna struck a deal with Black-owned ReachTV, to bring its clients opportunities for sponsorships and content integrations, among other things, on its nearly 2,500 screens in approximately 90 airports across North America and the United Kingdom. ReachTV also struck a deal with NBCUniversal, making it a part of the media conglomerate’s pitch to advertisers (NBCU also provides sales support and market intelligence to the company).
These types of deals are helping ReachTV sell between 60% and 70% of its ad inventory in the upfronts this year, says Lynwood Bibbens, who founded the company in 2016. In prior years, ReachTV typically did not play in the upfront marketplace.
Other evidence of at least a step in the right direction is the promise by at least 20 GroupM clients to direct no less than 2% of their annual ad budgets toward Black and diverse media in the next year.
Similarly, brands like General Motors, which earlier this year Allen called out by name for its poor track record of diverse-minded advertising, pledged to direct 8% of its media spending to Black-owned companies by 2025, while Verizon promised 2% of its ad budget to minority media placements.
One media agency executive notes a “significant” increase in spending with Black-owned media, quantifying it as “quadruple” the spend of prior years. Of course that is coming off small bases, and from a dollar perspective, the agency executive notes it’s “not massive amounts of money.”
Concerns about scale and reach, as well as a general lack of solid Nielsen measurement and analytics tools—things that media sellers have come to expect from major networks so they can assess the value of their investments—remain the biggest hold up in closing the gap between minority-owned media companies and general entertainment networks, according to media buyers.
Some steps have been taken to remedy these hurdles, such as Nielsen’s move in November to expand its broadcaster reporting policies to include estimates of non-subscribing minority-owned and nonprofit stations, but BIPOC media executives seem to agree that there’s still a long road ahead to measurement parity with the largest entertainment companies.
Awareness has also played a part in restricting ad spend with multicultural TV and video companies, as several such brands have newly entered the marketplace or rebranded their offerings over the last several years.
Impact Network, which centers on inspirational content for a Black audience, retooled its model this year to become commercially viable and is creating more content to support brand interest, says Impact’s chief brand officer Royal Jackson. While Jackson has seen more interest from brands, that hasn’t amounted to actual dollar commitments just yet, with the biggest challenge being awareness. “Most don’t even know Impact exists,” he says.
BNC's Fitzpatrick also notes that some of his network’s upfront presentations hinged on advertisers that were initially unfamiliar with their offerings. But despite the educational efforts that are still necessary to move the market forward, Fitzpatrick believes connecting with Black audiences will be an imperative for brands well into the future.
“I think the pace is only going to get better,” he says.