MBPT Spotlight: Spark Plans Upfront Event to Open Better Lines Of Communication With Network Sales Execs

Legendary media buyer John Muszynski of Chicago-based Spark wants to buy his TV ad sales pals a drink. The salesmen could probably use it. Muszynski also thinks he’s giving the network guys a better opportunity to pitch their wares to his staff and clients.

The TV ad market has been a struggle lately. Ratings are down and marketers are shifting spending from TV to digital, social, mobile and programmatic in pursuit of fickle consumers and more accountable marketing vehicles.

According to Muszynski, it’s to the point where it’s getting harder for TV salesmen to get meetings with busy media buyers during upfront season. Some agencies have set up blackout dates when buyers simply won’t see salesmen. Others are trying to communicate electronically—emailing requests and expecting responses—without in-person, one-on-one discussions.

“Everyone’s dealing with the fact that there are so many different partners out there,” Muszynski says. If you tried to see them all, “your buyers for three months would be in meetings all day long and not doing any work.”

Muszynski wants to get sales organizations on Spark’s side so it gets access to the best shows and marketing opportunities. It also wants to be more accessible. “However, I also have a business to run, so I’ve got to find a solution.”

Muszynski says he’s come up with a four-phase process for getting his planners, buyers and in some cases clients, to have open communication with the networks leading up to the upfront market.

The first step will be to turn the tables on sales execs by inviting them to a Sparkfront on March 5 at the University Club of Chicago. The agency held a Sparkfront last year as well.

“Last year’s was pretty much a thank you and here’s what you should expect from us,” Muszynski says. Spark will thank its network partners for a great year again, but “this year it will be a little bit more of, here’s what we’re going to be looking at, here’s our approach, here are the changes. But we’ll have them come together in a nice setting, buy them some cocktails. We throw a little bit of a party as we lay out how things are going to go this spring.”

Muszynski says Sparkfront is mainly for the top management of the sales organizations in Chicago, but if New York people want to come, they may.

And he says the event will not only be for TV companies. Other video providers—such as YouTube—are also invited.

Part two of the plan is called Spark Confidential. The agency will invite network account executives and planners for a briefing about each of its clients. The vendors will find out which clients will be in the upfront, when they’ll be running marketing programs, which products are being introduced, what demos they’re looking to reach and other hot-button issues.

Some clients don’t have time to discuss value-added campaign elements, while for others, value-added determines whether or not they’ll run a schedule with a network. This gives the salespeople a chance to find things out quickly and not waste time.

Competing networks will be in the same room, getting the same information, And by doing it all at one time, Muszynski hopes to eliminate a number of one-on-one meetings that at this stage of the process probably don’t need to take place, saving time.

In phase three, the networks come to the office and do presentations. But rather than the usual upfront dog-and-pony show, “we’re going to be very specific on what we’re looking for,” Muszynski says. The checklist includes new programming; promotional plans; and new digital extensions, such as websites or apps. “You can talk to us about anything you want, but these things you need to tell us,” he says. Spark execs will still go to network upfront presentations with clients.

The last phase Spark is calling Office Hours. Closer to the upfront, in late-April and early-May, Spark will have several mornings where an agency client team—possibly even a client executive—will sit in a conference room for 90 minutes and answer questions from salespeople. There may be more than one group of salespeople in the session, so question shouldn’t be too specific.

Muszynski says all of these new contact points are not designed to replace one-on-one meetings. “When the vendor has a specific idea that would be right for a particular client, those meetings will happen,” Muszynski says. “What I’m saying is when you do have a one-on-one meeting, that you have it with the client that it makes sense for. And that you make that meeting incredibly productive.”

All of this won’t change the fact that if a network’s ratings are down, Spark is likely to be looking to spend less with that network. That’s a simple fact some network sales execs have trouble getting their heads around. “That’s going to be an argument I’m going to have for the rest of my career,” Muszynski says. “I don’t think that one’s going away.”

Muszynski expects sales organizations to notice lower budgets and say they’re not going to be able to work with the agency unless the spending is flat or up. “The first one that says that will get ‘thanks for opening that can of worms. I’d like to talk to you about your audience shortfall and about how despite the fact that you’re losing all this audience, you continue to look for CPM increase. So I think I’m being very generous in giving you 2% less than last year when your numbers are down 20%,’” he says.

And if the network still doesn’t want to do business, a buyer can always say, “If you don’t want my money, I’ll take it elsewhere,” Muszynski says. “Every single agency is going to have those conversations this year. You can’t get around it.”

Of course, cocktails could make the medicine go down easier. “I don’t like to look at it that way, but it probably is true,” Muszynski says. “We truly appreciate our partnership with our sales community.”

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.