Digital media’s big show loses some glitz just as streaming explodes. Maybe that’s not a bad thing

The Interactive Advertising Bureau’s NewFronts digital media marketplace is all-virtual for the second consecutive year as the pandemic again throws water on some of the glitz of one of advertising’s biggest confabs. Even in the absence of blockbuster showcases at Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden, attention is turning to the annual series of presentations following a lockdown period that saw streaming reach new heights and with the addition of heavyweight presences like Amazon, which is presenting for the first time after plans for a debut fizzled last spring.

While a degree of spontaneity and human connection is inevitably lost in the virtual format, not all media buyers miss the hectic qualities that previously defined the show. In fact, some are welcoming the a la carte qualities of a digital series of NewFronts presentations compared with the usual crush of star-studded events and cocktail hours at tony Manhattan venues.

“Operational efficiency is the name of the game,” said Whitney Fishman, managing partner of innovation and consumer technology at WPP’s Wavemaker agency. “I want efficiency with my time, my clients’ time and I want efficiency with my money. My client doesn’t care, frankly, if six months from now they got a selfie for Instagram with some [celebrity]. They care that they’re doing something that’s first-to-market.”

A no-nonsense iteration of the NewFronts proceedings, which this year run May 3-6, would make sense given some of the trends impacting digital media. Differentiating on programming and star power alone isn’t enough to make a compelling pitch to brands amid a glut of streaming content, experts said. Instead, media buyers are looking for partners that bring value around privacy, measurement and diversity, as well as innovation on the product side of the business when it comes to commerce and personalization.

“We’ll see a continued focus on measurement: Closing the loop and helping to validate the capabilities of streaming services, whereas we still see that largely missing in the broader video ecosystem,” said Adam Gilbert, head of partnerships and performance at Interpublic Group’s Initiative. “CMOs today, they’re more accountable than they’ve ever been and every dollar is scrutinized.”

Streaming supernova

The virtual NewFronts presentations carry some upsides for publishers and platforms as well. Cost considerations such as renting out a physical venue and putting on an elaborate stage production are no longer a factor. A wide range of presenters is apparent on the 2021 slate, which features more than 30 digital media companies.

“There really is a unique expansion that we’re seeing right now. When you think back to the cable industry boom, we’re seeing the same thing here in the streaming ecosystem,” Gilbert said. “It will be interesting to see how that kind of continues to evolve — if that expansion continues — or if we reach a point of supernova.”

Some of the usual suspects, like YouTube with Brandcast, are returning. But the 2021 show also brings newcomers in categories such as original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) with the addition of Vizio, the TV maker that went public in March.

“I think we’re almost creating too many walls again versus creating interoperability.”

Vinny Rinaldi

Head of investment and activation, Wavemaker

The more eclectic pool speaks to how digital and streaming media are now de facto modes of content consumption. Streaming was obviously popular prior to the pandemic, but its ascent rapidly accelerated as consumers entered lockdown and sought outlets that could fill the void in live programming caused by COVID-19. Adoption translated to older demographics typically viewed as clinging to linear offerings, according to Vinny Rinaldi, head of investment and activation at Wavemaker. It’s a turning point marketers have anticipated for years, but the truncated timeline causes its own growing pains.

“You’re adding in digital players, you’ve got retailers joining the NewFronts. There are just so many things now,” said Rinaldi. “We obviously have to play and are playing across everything. But I think we’re almost creating too many walls again versus creating interoperability.”

Stars aligning

Media buyers will be watching certain sectors closely. OEMs like Vizio or Samsung Ads could lob distinctive pitches around privacy since they actually own the screens ads run on. With cookie deprecation and other changes to identifiers continuing to command the industry conversation, brands will have their eyes peeled for platforms that can sell forward-thinking approaches to targeting and addressability.

“What if IP addresses become a focal point of where this industry is really focusing on privacy? That’s going to offer up interesting relevance to these OEMs … because they scrape a screen and have contextual relevance,” Rinaldi said. “As we think about the future state of the less-precise, more addressable context of the screen and what people are consuming, it’s going to be more important than ever.”

The NewFronts season has at the same time lost Hulu, a staple presenter since 2012. The streamer’s owner Disney has folded the service into its upfronts roadshow, a noteworthy break that highlights how digital natives and traditional media companies are thinking differently about the streaming race, experts said.

“That shows you a marked progression of what Disney is trying to do as it relates to demonstrating their omnichannel approach to video planning, buying and investment,” Gilbert said of the Hulu move. “It’s just being able to sell a portfolio, and through that, try to demonstrate or suggest to advertisers that there’s going to be greater leverage and greater opportunity for bigger, more robust partnerships.

“All of that is really gearing up toward saying we can provide you a bigger picture than just the streaming space,” Gilbert added.

“The stars are aligning for a platform like Amazon to come in and really make a strong case for connecting the old consumer journey.”

Adam Gilbert

Head of partnerships and performance, Initiative

On the other hand, a noteworthy addition to this year’s presentation roster is Amazon, which wields an immense share of the streaming market across its Prime Video, IMDb TV and Twitch offerings — not to mention formidable power in hardware, advertising services and e-commerce.

“The stars are aligning for a platform like Amazon to come in and really make a strong case for connecting the old consumer journey, having a line of sight into the streaming space across multiple platforms and being able to directly enable e-commerce opportunities on those platforms,” Gilbert said. “It makes it a no-brainer for any kind of retailer or CPG-focused account.”

Commerce in the spotlight

Details on what Amazon will trot out at the NewFronts are scant, but a spotlight on commerce would be unsurprising. Plenty of other players will likely center aspects of their presentations on shopping capabilities to seize on the pandemic-driven e-commerce boom. Networks including NBCUniversal have similarly bet bigger on linking TV programming to a shopping cart.

“I truly think we’re at an explosion about to happen in commerce. It just goes hand-in-hand with how we’re consuming media,” Wavemaker’s Rinaldi said.

Recent product output from platforms like TikTok and Snapchat speak to a desire to fill consumers’ appetite for e-commerce. ByteDance’s viral video-sharing platform, which first appeared at the NewFronts last year, has been doubling down on shopping, deepening partnerships with retailers including Walmart to encourage young users to buy products directly through its service.

Narrowing in on brand integration could be appealing as more consumers shun ad-supported platforms and adopt additional ad-blocking behaviors — trends blue-chip marketers like PepsiCo are increasingly trying to account for in their digital media strategies.

“It’s more about the experience perspective. Every platform, whether it’s TikTok, NBC or whether it’s truly Amazon, the world’s biggest commerce [player], you want to have an easier ability to just buy,” Rinaldi said. “By integrating that into content, it’s going to become powerful.”

Tough pills

An upshot from the 2021 NewFronts is that the digital media space remains highly fragmented and lacking in the type of standardization linear TV can offer. These are long-sticking frustrations for media buyers, but maybe not a factor consumers really care about.

“We talk a good game about evolution and embracing the future, but on the back end, most of us are just so afraid about what it means for how we operate, what it means for our place in the professional world,” Wavemaker’s Fishman said.

“We need to understand that, if the consumer doesn’t differentiate between a Netflix, a Hulu and an ABC News, we need to embrace that and be much more fluid in how we approach it,” she added.

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