TV Upfront

Initiative hosts reverse upfront, pitching clients to media sellers

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Initiative U.S. CEO Amy Armstrong
Initiative U.S. CEO Amy Armstrong Credit: Courtesy Initiative

Media agencies are receiving a barrage of pitches from TV networks and digital publishers as this year's upfront parties and pitches start in earnest. But Initiative, turning the tables, hosted its second annual presentation on Tuesday to a room of media sellers.

The IPG-owned agency provided about 700 sales executives from TV networks and digital publishers like NBC Universal, CBS and Google, among others, guidance on what its clients—including Amazon, Lego, Dr Pepper Snapple Group and Arby's—are looking for from media sellers during the spring bonanza.

In 2017, after several years of few new business wins and employee turnover, Initiative kicked off a revamp of the agency. This included hiring Mat Baxter as global CEO and Amy Armstrong as U.S. CEO. It also appointed regional presidents in the U.S. and set out to help brands become cultural leaders. Since then it has won global media duties for Carlsberg Group and Lego, and retained Amazon's business after a competitive review.

"We had to really rehaul ourselves—we had to change our reputation externally and internally," Armstrong says. Initiative hosted its first so-called "reverse upfront" last year.

The theme for this year is "comeback," Armstrong says. "Although we're feeling really positive momentum, the thing about a comeback is it has to be sustainable."

Initiative isn't the only media agency adding yet another event to the very crowded upfront calendar. Omnicom Media Group hosted its own three-day presentation last month, when it invited media partners to pitch directly to buyers and their clients.

While these two agency "upfronts" were different in format, the emergence of agency-hosted events during a time of year that has historically been dedicated to TV networks and digital publishers parading their content in an effort to sell commercial inventory for the next season, speaks to the drastic changes taking place in the industry.

For one, media agencies and marketers are looking for more personalized solutions and immersive opportunities than they get during the glitzy dog-and-pony shows taking place at Radio City Music Hall or the Beacon Theatre. Some media sellers, like Viacom, have listened to these criticisms and have stopped hosting stage shows altogether, opting for more intimate dinners with agencies and their clients.

While Omnicom's event sought to help the agency get a more comprehensive view of the media marketplace in a way that's relevant to its clients, Initiative's presentation was designed to give media sellers deeper insights into brands' goals that can allow the sellers to develop client-specific solutions. It was essentially a souped-up RFP.

Media sellers in attendance praised Initiative's presentation.

"The work that goes into this is certainly not overlooked. ... Their work at this is really noticeable and the result is a more thoughtful and meaningful set of opportunities that we create for their clients," Dan Lovinger, exec VP of advertising sales at NBC Sports Group, wrote in an email.

Similar to traditional upfronts, Initiative's presentation kicked off with a video intro, but instead of a montage of hit comedies and dramas, it highlighted its "new vision, new product, new talent and big wins."

Armstrong talked up some of Initiative's new programs that help promote a positive work culture and transparency both internally and externally. She also received a round of applause when she noted that 50 percent of Initiative's leadership team is female.

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