Relevance Conference Is AT&T’s Way of Introducing Its Advertising Business

AT&T IS gathering some of the top people from the media world to christen its new advertising business and debate the state of TV advertising.

The unit, headed by former GroupM executive Brian Lesser and originally called AT&T Advertising Analytics, will be rebranding this week at what the company is calling the Relevance Conference in Santa Barbara, Calif.

“We realized there isn’t advertising without analytics and data anymore,” Kirk McDonald, chief marketing officer for the unit, said. “It was a little like saying we were color TV. All TVs are in color.”

Making Ads Matter

At a time when many marketers are questioning the effectiveness of TV advertising and consumers are avoiding commercials on ad-free streaming services like Netflix, the AT&T unit’s ambition is to make advertising matter.

“While data and technology have sort of surfaced to enable our ability to get the right message to the right audiences at the right times, we’re still sort of driving it like a 16-year-old kid who borrowed their dad’s Chevy,” McDonald said. “It’s jerky and you can’t quite get first gear right.”

Advanced advertising today gets a lot of things right. Consumers get information about brands they’re interested in, but sometimes those viewers are over-targeted and continue to get ads for those same brands even after a purchase is completed.

“Consumers are voting with their time and attention, so how do we engage in better ways to allow brands to have the conversation they want and allow consumers to experience the content they want?” McDonald said.

“We think AT&T is really well-positioned, given this arc of change as we become a modern media company, to tackle that.”

About 200 people from media agencies, marketing companies, marketing tech and advertising tech companies and programmers will be able to demo some new AT&T ad products, but only a handful of the speakers at the three-day conference will be AT&T executives, including Lesser and AT&T chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson.

The bulk of the program will tackle industry-wide issues. Attendees will hear from former baseball star Derek Jeter, now a content maker as a founder of the Players Tribune; actress Issa Rae of HBO’s Insecure; basketball star-turned-sportscaster Grant Hill; soccer player-turned-influencer Abby Wambach; LeBron James business manager Maverick Carter; Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post; and Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, who have raised $1 billion for a new mobile video streaming service.

AT&T will also be sharing the results of two new studies. One is the inaugural AT&T Relevancy Report, a survey of 3,000 consumers which found that 66% of consumers wish advertising was more relevant to their interests and lifestyle, while 57% said ads are not relevant to them. The other is more industry-focused, looking at the way advertising is bought and sold.

Fixing what’s wrong with TV advertising has been the theme of a number of gatherings recently. Linda Yaccarino, chairman of ad sales at NBCUniversal, held an industry-wide meeting on the future of advertising in New York last year, and Fox’s ad revenue president, Joe Marchese, brought executives to the company’s studio for a discussion earlier this year.

McDonald said AT&T Advertising expects to have this sort of conference annually.

“We don’t assume we’re the only solution,” he said. “We know there are other really smart ones.”

Open for Business

AT&T is building a platform it would like other companies to use. Executives from NBCUniversal, Fox, CBS and Viacom are expected to be in attendance.

“Our job is to build a new kind of advertising company, a marketplace for premium content,” McDonald said. “We want to make sure that the way we deal with inventory sources, even our owned-and-operated inventory sources, is done in a way that is in the best interest of the consumer and then the buyer. So to the degree that we can create technology that enables a more effective buy, a more efficient sell and a better experience for the consumer, that’s what we’re going to do.”

One of those owned inventory sources is Turner, acquired when AT&T bought Time Warner.

“Our visions are so aligned,” said Turner ad sales president Donna Speciale, who has been campaigning for more targeted advertising and creating a better experience for consumers. Turner has been among the leaders in introducing advanced advertising products that target specific audiences rather than demographic groups.

AT&T expects the data it is bringing to the platform to boost the effectiveness of Turner’s ad inventory, and raise the amount of money it generates.

“We’re in the process of doing a lot of testing right now with their data,” Speciale said. “I’m not going to bring anything out to market until we do the testing, so right now, fourth-quarter [2018] is all about beta-testing with our product. The goal in 2019 is to bring some examples and case studies to CES and then show how the data enhances our products.”

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.