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Upfronts 2012: Let the Games Begin

It’s only January, but it’s already upfront time for the people who put together the presentations designed to lure the $18 billion in advertising dollars that media buyers will parcel out starting in late May for the 2012-13 season.

Network execs are assembling reams of research, culling clips from shows and looking for ways to make their massive strategy plays interesting and original—even unforgettable—to buyers who have seen it all many times before. Some presentations networks assemble will be aimed at a single buyer or client. Others will be shown in giant venues like Radio City Music Hall. And as CBS chief Leslie Moonves likes to remind us every year at his May presentation in the historic venue: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

“Media buyers have seen hundreds of these presentations. You have to make your stuff stand out and be very entertaining and memorable,” says Andy Baker, VP and creative director at National Geographic Channel. “Make them smile. Make them get a goose bump. Really wow them. I’ve worked on upfront every single year for the last 10 or 11 years, so I’ve learned a little lesson in each along the way.”

“In terms of the day-to-day, it’s probably front-ofmind about six to eight months of the year,” says Patrick Trettenero, creative director at USA Network. “And the rest of the year, we’re either analyzing what we just did, or starting to think about what we’re going to do the next year.”

Buyers are also getting into upfront mode. “We’re getting to around that time in late January where people are starting to think a little bit about ‘Hey, it’s going to be upfront pretty soon,’” says Gary Carr, senior VP, executive director of national broadcast at Targetcast. “Within the next month or two we’re going to have to make presentations to our clients talking about where we see the market. That’s what’s going on right now.”

New tactics are already at work. This year, networks are waiting until March before holding events. During the past two years, MTV was among the early birds, putting on a show last February at the Hammerstein Ballroom featuring music by Bruno Mars. The network was struggling and wanted an uncluttered time to explain its new strategy to buyers. Now, with ratings up, MTV will step up to the plate in late April to be more in the thick of things.

Some networks, like NatGeo, will hold meetings with individual agencies and clients and forgo a major event. Others like FX will focus on fun, inviting buyers for a night of bowling with the network’s talent. Many nets will rent out a restaurant, a loft, a theater or arena and put on a show and try to deliver their sales message while entertaining clients.

As ratings and ad revenue for cable networks have grown, their presentations have become more elaborate. Top-rated cabler USA Network will hold an event during what has traditionally been the broadcasters’ week (this year starting May 14), joining Turner Broadcasting and ESPN.

“More and more cable networks are doing lavish presentations at nice venues with entertainment,” Carr says. “Those networks get a lot of money. They’re getting billions in sales and they’re putting on better and better shows and they’re taking some of that primetime money.”

Broadcasters Are Baaaack

As for the broadcast networks, they cut back during the recession but are now also partying like its 1999. NBC, which stopped doing big presentations in 2008 and 2009, put on a full-scale schedule presentation last year on Monday morning of upfront week, followed by a luncheon with its stars in attendance. NBC would not discuss its 2012 plans. Fox takes its swings after NBC on Monday afternoon. Fox also throws a big party in Central Park Monday evening.

ABC will once again gather buyers at Lincoln Center to present its new schedule and sales pitch Tuesday afternoon of upfront week. The network has been sending many attendees home hungry and thirsty from that session, hosting an afterparty for only big buyers and clients.

Those big schedule announcements still deliver more than the shrimp usually served afterward (though some have judged a network’s upfront by the size of the shellfish).

“For someone who does what I do, it’s important to be presented with the schedule and know what the programming is going to look like,” says Chris Geraci, president of national broadcast at OMD. “I still think that it’s a pretty efficient use of one or two hours.”

But for both the broadcast and cable networks, a lot of the detail work gets done in smaller meetings and presentations long before negotiations over CPMs start in May and June.

“On a client-by-client basis, I would think that the meetings that happen well in advance of that week in May are the more important ones because [the networks] hopefully have done their homework about why something might be good for a particular advertiser,” Geraci says.

Chris Sloan, copresident and executive creative director of 2C Media, which creates presentation materials for broadcast networks, cable networks and syndicators, says networks have become much more strategic. “In the old days they would spend $300,000 on these gigantic song-and-dance pieces,” Sloan says. “It’s a different age. There’s just so much more accountability now, and the economy’s obviously played a part of it.”

Still it is showbiz, so a lot of attention is put into getting the mix of information and entertainment just right.

“Our first couple of years, as we were introducing the brand and the channel, we had to work really hard on the sales points and giving data of why they should advertise,” says NatGeo’s Baker. “And now our sales team says let’s tell great stories and show our great visuals because we believe that when people see the great shows, they’re just going to want to buy us.”

Last year, USA put on a big, broadcaststyle upfront at Lincoln Center. “In an effort to make it very specific to USA and to our brand—Characters Welcome—we made the choice to not have a single executive on the stage during the presentation,” says Trettenero. The statistics were also kept to a minimum. “We’re the No. 1 cable network for six years in a row now. Quite frankly, how many times do we need to repeat that?”

But all the rest of the details were revised almost obsessively.

“We fuss over the design of the cocktail napkins at our upfront event,” Trettenero says. “What I can tell you, and I’m sure this is true for every network, is that there are a lot of cooks in that kitchen. And that includes the network executives, the sales executives, the [account executives] who are in the trenches having to actually develop those relationships and make those deals, all of the creatives who are working night and day. And we’re all in it together.”

Don’t Mess With Success

So, what tends to make an upfront presentation successful?

Media buyers and planners tend to be a young group, so it’s important that a presentation be current in terms of language, pop-culture reference, editing techniques, special effects and music.

“You can’t do anything that’s old fashioned and corny and feels like your father’s upfront,” says Trettenero. “These days, the buyers are hipper and younger than the network’s audience.”

Music is important in presentations. “We’ve always worked really hard to make sure the music we’re creating is unique and different and also connects back to the brand,” says NatGeo’s Baker. “You’re always mining different sites to find pieces of music that other folks aren’t using.” That can be tricky. Last year it seemed almost every network played Katy Perry’s “Firework,” making it a bit of a cliché.

Speaking of clichés, it’s also good to avoid overused buzzwords. 'Transmedia’ was used so much last year that by June, no one really knew want the word meant, Trettenero says.

The alternative approach is humor, especially when it’s self-deprecating. “The more times you can bite the hand that feeds you, that still creates relevance to a buyer because you’re able to laugh at yourself, like when Jimmy Kimmel comes up and eviscerates the network” at ABC’s upfront, Trettenero adds.

NatGeo’s Baker notes that printed presentation materials are becoming digital. Upfront Websites are increasingly common, with games, prizes and other incentives to keep buyers coming back.

And, buyers and network executives say, another important attribute of a successful upfront presentation is brevity.

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