Let’s be upfront: We can’t go back to traditional TV buying

The following is a guest post by Jo Kinsella, president of TVSquared. Opinions are the author’s own.

Pundits like to point out that COVID-19 jammed 10 years of e-commerce growth into just 10 months. Less talked about is the way the pandemic did the same for the TV industry and the impact that change has had on marketer expectations for linear and over-the-top (OTT) and connected televsion (CTV). But make no mistake, COVID-19 had a profound impact on both viewer consumption and marketers’ expectations of it, and there is no going back to the old ways of planning and executing TV buys once life returns to “normal” — whatever that may be. One of the key lessons that has resulted from the past year is that in a highly fragmented TV landscape, the upfronts need to majorly adapt to become more relevant to advertisers.

The pandemic and TV viewing

The 2020 lockdowns led consumers to watch more TV, with binge-watching becoming the new national pastime. Late-night comedy hosts joked about watching the entire catalog of Netflix and Hulu, but laughs aside, digital TV viewing minutes shot up 25% from the first quarter to the second in 2020, and by 75% from Q2 2019. As a marketer, regardless of who your audience was, you knew they were consuming content on some form of TV.

Not only did consumption go up, but viewing patterns also changed. Naturally, there were some mega hits, but a Nielsen study conducted with Billboard and MRC Data revealed that 54% of consumers started rewatching episodes of old TV favorites. For many marketers, that trend was a missed opportunity to reach audiences via less crowded, less expensive impressions.

At the same time, the TV market itself became more fluid. In fewer than 18 months, the market has seen the launch of numerous streaming services — including Peacock, HBO Max, Paramount+, Apple TV+ and Disney+. That’s all in addition to Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, all of which create original content.

To the consumer, linear, CTV, streaming and advanced TV all melded into a single acronym: TV. Marketers needed to align with the consumer’s way of thinking. They have an unlimited ability to watch whatever they want, whenever they want, forever changing the game for the traditional highly priced ad spots sold primarily during the upfronts.

The pandemic’s impact on marketers

Once the pandemic hit, many traditional TV marketers approached higher-priced buys with great trepidation. With travel, hospitality, cruise lines, live sports and concerts on hold, some slashed their budgets. Those who could still participate in the economy with budgets to spend questioned the wisdom of placing big bets in high-priced buys without knowing where their businesses, or audiences, would be.

But that was not the experience for every advertiser. Emerging brands, including many that fell into the direct-to-consumer (DTC) category, saw the pandemic as a rare opportunity to grow their companies, and looked to TV as the perfect vehicle to reach their audiences at scale.

“We were in an interesting place because a lot of other brands were trying to shift budget away from the marketplace, but we wanted to invest in it because we still had an opportunity for growth within our industry,” said Stephanie Junge-Filipeka, senior director of brand marketing at The Zebra, during a March session at IAB ALM. “For us, it was all about how do we scale at this very opportune moment?”

The industry responds

Prior to the pandemic, digital TV had a (albeit inaccurate) reputation as a tough place for marketers to spend their budgets. Many thought they couldn’t target their precise audience at scale and that the channel lacked reliable measurement and attribution. That perception changed once the pandemic hit, however, and advertisers followed their audiences. Overnight, every TV dollar spent needed to count in terms of media efficiency and business outcomes. Advertisers focused on cost optimization and metrics that go beyond reach, doubling down on performance and outcomes. This put pressure for all forms of TV to become more like digital, from flexibility to transparency and measurement.

It’s remarkable how well the industry succeeded in rising to the challenge. As CNBC noted recently, “Digital reigned supreme: Flexible buys, an ability to switch out messaging and direct-response buys that clearly showed return-on-investment were in high-demand by many advertisers who often had no idea what the next month, or even the next week, would look like.”

Not quite programmatic, but close

Getting to a programmatic-like experience is certainly a goal for marketers, especially for those accustomed to the algorithmic-driven optimization the technology offers. The industry hasn’t quite yet reached massive adoption, but all signs show it’s getting closer.

“We have the ability to do analysis on our buys daily. We’re not quite operating as if we’re on a programmatic buy, but trying to get as close as we can to make those optimizations,” said Junge-Filipeka. These analysis and optimization capabilities have prompted The Zebra to lean into TV, and ultimately grow its market share.

Brands, especially emergent ones, have experimented with publishers and testing which ones help to drive business goals. At the pandemic’s onset, DTC brands expressed interest in a single publisher, but began to experiment with others once they saw the analytics capabilities. Soon they were optimizing media strategies, buying inventory from up to 20 publishers and adjusting daily based on results.

The rise of CTV, programmatic buying and addressable brings us back to my opening point: the upfronts need to adapt to stay relevant in an environment where marketers have access to precise data on reach extension, net-new households reached, actions taken and an accurate picture of the customer journey.

Marketers have seen the art of the possible, and they are keen to balance buys across all forms of TV if that’s what it takes to keep their audience front and center, regardless of where, when or how they’re watching. Over the past year, they’ve seen these opportunities work for them, and I don’t know a single marketer who won’t be loath to forfeit the flexibility and optimization that increasingly defines their media spend. If the upfronts can help them further these goals, they’ll continue to be relevant.

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