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The TV Upfront Turns 60; It’s Time for a Better TV Ad Experience

This year, the TV upfront will celebrate its 60th anniversary. In 1962, broadcasters started moving their TV premieres to September to time with automobile production schedules. Since then, the estimated $60 billion U.S. TV advertising market has revolved around this futures market.

However, as we enter the streaming decade, it’s time for a better TV advertising experience. Earlier this year, Procter & Gamble Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard issued a call for innovation to end the current upfront. Traditional TV buying leaves the consumer experience in pieces — limited personalization, frequent waste, lost relevance.

So, what might a better TV upfront look like in this streaming decade?

Personalized

Kristina Shepard

Guest blog author Kristina Shepard is head of agency partnerships and national brand team lead at Roku (Image credit: Roku)

The largest screen in the home has built businesses for decades. The secret sauce is that TV goes “wide.” Sight, sound, and motion bring us together for collective cultural moments, from a favorite finale to a sports championship. These tentpole events create a common knowledge. We know that our neighbors, co-workers, and friends enjoyed the same shows and the same ads as we do, and this reassures our buying and entertainment decisions.

In the decade ahead, TV upfronts will also go “narrow.” Marketers will deliver personalized experiences on the TV screen that blend and play within shows and movies. Viewers may get a coupon on top of a traditional :30 second TV spot, others may get an offer to easily add a product to their cart, and still others will see traditional TV ads replaced in real-time to make them more relevant. For instance, a broadcast network might help an automobile advertiser swap out a linear TV creative featuring a minivan truck for one with a sports car — all on the fly based on the audience. Original programming will focus on the audiences that want free and those that want subscription. The result is a TV upfront that feels more relevant, more current, and more resonant for consumers, content owners, and brands alike.

Full-Funnel

Today, there is a vibrant chase for an updated TV currency. This overlooks a key development: many advertisers have already forged their own currency by planning and measuring TV streaming on business outcomes. This full-funnel measurement includes audience guarantees on age and gender demographic ratings, guarantees on incremental reach, and planning on cost per acquisition on store visits or app downloads. The result is a TV upfront that starts with the bottom line.

The more direct the consumer data, the more precise the results. Platforms and publishers that hold a personal connection with viewers will offer more precise delivery, stronger control groups, and clearer testing and attribution.

These data signals will prove even better when they connect the consumer journey across devices. Otherwise, measurement falls into guesswork. Advertisers that focus on scale and direct consumer relationships will win the upfront of the future.

Flexible

This is an exciting future for TV advertising — personalized, full-funnel, and flexible. And to paraphrase William Gibson, this future is already here — it's just not yet evenly distributed. When TV upfronts celebrate its 70th anniversary in the decade to come, we can look forward to an industry transformed for the better. 

In describing past TV upfronts, Pritchard asked, “Do we buy anything else this way? The only thing I can think of is toilet paper during the pandemic. Buy as much as possible from as many stores as you can, because you can’t predict how long you might be stuck at home.”

The future of TV upfronts is also flexible. Imagine adjusting your entire TV commitment just two days out to meet changing markets. Or shifting your media spend from your luxury vehicle to your entry-level sedan in real-time as chip shortage conditions change. Or avoiding make goods for under-delivery because demand and supply in TV advertising are perfectly matched. Leading marketers are focused on this today — prioritizing commitments with platforms and publishers that offer flexibility and dynamism. In the decade ahead, this will become the norm. ▪️

Kristina Shepard is head of agency partnerships and east brand sales, Roku