SparkFront Marks Changes Hitting the Ad Business

Chicago media agency Spark invited the top video ad sales people in the Midwest to drinks at what it called a SparkFront Thursday afternoon. The fast-growing shop prides itself on being innovative and announced changes in the way it buys video.

About 120 people attended the event. Spark laid out its plans for communicating with the buyers during the upfront and laid out what it expected the networks to do for its clients.

Over the last few years, media agencies have been forced to change the way they do business as shrinking ratings and digital technology makes it harder to reach audiences in the traditional way. They've been merging their TV, cable and digital buying teams and increasing their alliances with companies that compile and analyze data. Often that has pushed executives with digital experience to the top of the organization.

At the TV networks, similar talk has been heard, but over the past few months, real change seems to be taking hold too. This week Viacom consolidated the ad sales efforts of all its networks under Jeff Lucas, who will probably wind up with a smaller organization when the restructuring dust settles. Similar activity took place at Fox Networks, which announced plans to merge broadcast and cable ad sales late last year, also reducing the size of its sales force. Ad sales folks were also laid off at Discovery Communications and AMC Networks.

One network sales exec said it feels like he's now got three jobs, selling broadcast, cable and digital, while learning how to gather and interpret data.

"We are in a period of transition. Our jobs are not going to be the same next year as they are today. They are definitely different than they were a year ago and they're going to change at a very rapid pace," said John Muszynski, the B&C Hall of Fame media buyer who is now the head of investment at Spark.

He noted he'd had a discussion about Fox ad sales executive with Dan Rank and that they both felt that "this will be there year where change is not just talked about, but behavior will change."

"This will be the year that goes down in the history books as the year things will be different," Musyznski said.

At Spark, the latest change comes as TV and online video will be bought by the same buyers. Previously members of the TV team bought video on TV while digital buyers bought online video while collaborating closely.

"John's team is now assuming all responsibility across video. That can be video that's inside the home. It could be video outside the home. It could be mobile video. Anything where there's a screen, John's team will be looking at it," said Shelby Saville, managing director for digital at Spark.

"The reason is that we are about the consumer and we are structuring in a way that allows us to 100% follow the consumer and not the media and not the tactic and not the device. This allows us to take a consumer approach and an agnostic approach," she said. "We'll look for you to come to us with that in mind. We're buying an audience, we're buying consumers. We'll stop talking about the device we're doing it on and we'll stop talking about individual screens. And start talking about how we're reaching them and what we're going to do to engage with them and get their attention."