Discovery Takes Upfront To Media Agencies

Joe Abruzzese, the respected president of ad sales for Discovery Communications, has been through a lot of upfront presentations In 2015, Abruzzese says, it’s time to make a change.

In recent years, Discovery has held one of cable’s highest-profile and jam-packed upfront events. In addition to getting pitches from a dozen Discovery networks in less than two hours, media buyers last year alone encountered marching bands, wild animals and Oprah Winfrey herself before enjoying cocktails.

There will be no big event this spring, Abruzzese says. Instead, Discovery will take its upfront message—“Up-Close and Personal”— to buyers, holding a dozen presentations at media agencies.

“Our total selling approach is geared toward getting closer and closer to clients and what they need,” says Abruzzese. “Our business is changing. Whether it’s new metrics or programmatic buying or clients trying to get more out of their money or the upfront, it’s changing. We’ve always tried to get in front of things. Sometimes the market comes to us. Sometimes you have to bring the market to the clients.”

After years of higher spending and higher prices, last year’s cable upfront was surprisingly weak. Dollars spent dropped 6% to $9.6 billion, according to the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau. Several cable networks cut back on their ad sales staffs, including Discovery, which is expected to report a 4% decline in fourth-quarter domestic advertising revenue.

Discovery shifted its annual sales conference from Florida to New York earlier this month, in part to make sure it was spending money wisely in this environment. “We wound up having four great days of meetings,” Abruzzese said, adding that because staffers weren’t out of pocket, they didn’t lose selling days.

Cancelling the glitzy event and switching to the new format is designed to yield more give-and-take with clients, Abruzzese says. “We have always had strong attendance at our stage presentation, and when we go to the agencies it’s always an excellent turnout at all levels—so that sparked this idea for us,” he says. “Doing the presentations in-agency makes it more personal and opens it up to a two-way dialogue. We can tailor the presentations to the agency and clients’ needs.”

Network execs and media buyers have long questioned the usefulness of opulent presentations. NBC tried an agency-by-agency approach in 2008 but eventually returned to a Radio City Music Hall presentation. Last year, NBCUniversal opted to throw a huge event for all of its cable networks, instead of holding individual presentations. To be sure, sales execs and buyers are constantly conversing, whether or not they share a drink at a noisy party.

“Already we’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from the agencies,” Abruzzese says. “They say ‘It’s about time somebody did this.’ They have to go through 30, 35 presentations. This makes a lot more sense.”

Abruzzese wants to keep the agency meetings about an hour long. At agencies with more female-focused clients, for example, TLC and Investigation Discovery will get more attention. At another agency with more male-skewing brands, Discovery Channel and Velocity could be stressed. “With 12 networks, that makes a little more sense,” he says.

After its presentation in Chicago, Discovery plans a cocktail hour and some network talent will be on hand. Talent might also make some appearances at agencies in New York as well.

Last year, Discovery changed its sales structure. Instead of small sales teams representing individual agencies, larger teams are pitching pairs of networks that reach similar audiences, such as Animal Planet and Destination America.

At the same time, Discovery is looking to stay on top of technology affecting the ad sales business. Abruzzese says the company has tested programmatic ad sales. “We’re just getting started. I think it works great for us, and it’s very good for cable. It removes prejudices about network size and dayparts. With programmatic, it’s wide open,” he says.

The next step is dealing with data. “We’re figuring out what data agencies are using. Is there a thread that runs through all of them? Every time we use data for our networks, we look better. Our audiences are kind of sticky, which is helpful,” he adds.

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.