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Upfronts 2017: Advanced Ads, New Leaders Head Viacom Pitch

In its upfront pitch, Viacom is saying that new management has fostered a collaborative attitude at the company that will produce better products for clients.

New head of ad sales Sean Moran is highlighting Viacom's advanced advertising capabilities, programming changes at networks including MTV and soon-to-be-launched Paramount Network, as well as its continuing ability to reach young viewers.

Because those young viewers were among the first to abandon traditional TV for digital entertainment options, Viacom's ratings suffered, as did revenues and profits that led to the ouster of CEO Philippe Dauman last year.

Viacom International head Bob Bakish replaced Dauman and has been trying to engineer a turnaround story by focusing on flagship networks—MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., Comedy Central, BET and Spike, which becomes Paramount Network in January.

Bakish and the new heads of those networks have met with the large media agencies over the past couple of weeks at a series of upfront dinners.

Moran says Viacom has shifted its advanced advertising group, including its targeted ad unit Viacom Vantage and its content unit Viacom Velocity, to be a part of the ad sales team under him.

"We have the widest swath of youthful audience that exists out there. We've always had to be ahead of the game to deliver that audience a value and then deliver that same audience to the brands," Moran said. "Now we're doing this with advance advertising and we're looking into how that touches branded content, distribution strategies and measurement."

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The advanced advertising group includes more than 50 people with different skill sets. One recently hired staffer is a neuroscientist who has been working on how memories are formed. "He will work with brands around how to create resonant messaging," Moran said.

Viacom expects to have hundreds of millions of ad revenue go through its advanced advertising group, he says.

For some clients, Viacom is offering to throw all of its assets into the pot with a product it is selling in this upfront called Epic.

What it does is it brings campaigns across the portfolio to be able to launch a product, like a new release for a studio. Epic extends to the capabilities of Vantage and Velocity, it includes BET, which is usually sold separately, and it includes Viacom's global properties.

Epic got a smaller-scale test run with the movie Deadpool. Fox put all of its release budget into Viacom and the movie opened with $135 million at the box office.

Another client has signed up for an Epic campaign in the near future.

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"Clients were looking for a way to interact with the scale of Viacom and we didn't always make that easy," Moran said. With Epic, "we've been working with clients on shaping this so that a few times a share we can put all of our efforts for each channel behind it in a unique way that gets their messaging out en masse that no one else could match."

Viacom, which has been criticized for overstuffing some of its networks with large amounts of commercials, is reexamining its consumer experience, particularly with the Paramount Network, which is being described as a premium entertainment channel.

"Kevin Kay, who is the president that's leading this network, is all about collaborating with the right clients who want to help launch this channel in a very different way," Moran said. "And we've had a lot of great talks with studio partners who see a whole new way of messaging for some of their top releases next year. And there's a bunch of other categories who want to jump in."

Will that mean fewer commercials? "We're examining the idea of fewer commercials, but what I'll say is we're examining the idea of how to make the commercial experience more enjoyable and more effective and more engaging," Moran said. "If we do that correctly then that's going to translate into an overall better content digestion."

Across the company Viacom is more focused on the commercial experience than ever before because of its young-skewing audience, Moran says. "I think that less commercials is one solution on certain networks and that's being looked at, but the whole reinvention of the experience, and I think that starts with the creators, along with a conversation with the folks in charge of the brands at the clients, is what's going to give us a unique position in this."

At MTV, one focus will be live programming, which advertisers like because viewers are less likely to skip commercials. MTV will be launching a new studio overlooking Times Square. It will be where Total Request Live used to be filmed but three times larger.

Moran says advertisers are interested in being the sponsor of the studio, with telcos, movie studios and beverage companies involved in the discussion.

"We're going to have a few hours live every day, coming out of that studio," Moran said. "And for every hour we're going to be programming in a linear fashion, [MTV] is also going to be programming to all other digital platforms as well."

Viacom will also be urging clients to sponsor live experiential events, such as the upcoming Comedy Central Clusterfest three-day comedy festival in June. Moran says that's already well sold.

The company will be bringing Nickelodeon's Slimefest to the U.S. from Europe and adding festival aspect to the MTV Movie Awards and the VMAs.

After last year's fairly booming upfront market, Moran expects this year's upfront to be positive as well.

"When we look at indicators in terms of where the economy sits, the earnings calls by categories as well as what we're starting to hear from folks in terms of a trusted environment we provide, we're encouraged," Moran said.

When it had a stranglehold on young viewers, Viacom's ad rates were among the highest in cable. But as ratings decline, Viacom took smaller price increases in order to try to maintain its sales volume.

Moran was cagey in talking about his pricing plans for the upfront.

"We want to create the best deal," he said. "What this market depends on is how people are going to be seeing the supply, how people are going to be seeing the content, how people are going to see the relevance and on top of that the value of the age of the audience they're going after. I feel pretty good about our pricing strategy going in, but I think that's going to be a little closer to game time in terms of how that's fully revealed."

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.