Three years ago after the second annual Digital Content Newfronts (DCNF), in an open letter to the digital sellers (Hulu, AOL, Google/YouTube, Yahoo! and Microsoft), the mega agencies urged sellers to step up their game. The buyers had one big request — make hits or form a collective that could aggregate views from “semi-hits” and provide real scale for the buyers. “We know that not every show will be a runaway hit,” they said. “We want to invest in your programming. We want hits.”
The perspective was to replicate the television Upfronts, to drive economic values for digital video up, a proposition iab Chief Randall Rothenberg retorted wasn’t easy to achieve given agencies’ rigid approach to cross-platform strategy.
By now, one might have expected the now two-week-long conference to have sorted through its identity issues and to be adding real value for buyers. In reality, the Newfronts are barely a stones-throw farther than in 2013, and while agencies have shifted their strategies, the digital video sellers have lagged in breaking out.
But this isn’t the only issue. The scorecard from year to year on actual releases and renewals is depressingly scarce. Deals are announced that have zero follow up or accountability on performance; ad-supported digital video businesses have yet to see a significant “breakout hit”; there still isn’t a strictly defined metric of what even classifies a “hit”; the built-if-sold model isn’t viable for the long-haul; publishers, now reliant on subscription models, are no longer sellers but hybrid buyers and sellers; brands are increasingly becoming publishers, all of which raisies the question — Do brands even need the media buying-against-programming aspect of the Newfronts, and do publishers need them back?
All this, and I’m left thinking — Newfronts need a major facelift.
When it was founded in 2012, the Digital Content Newfronts’ “mission [was] to shape a new and practical marketplace for connecting the wealth of native digital content with brand marketers and their media and marketing agencies,” according to the first release, where it was also noted that digital sellers wanted a bigger piece of the anticipated $39.5 billion online ad spend for 2012.
But it seems as the Newfronts progress, they deviate farther from the original mission of being a marketplace and closer to a D-measuring contest, wraught with tech presentations, influencer hype, showboating, and false promises. “We still haven’t stabilized,” said one industry executive, “And I think this is the year people thought we’d break through. A lot of programmers are still following a built-if-sold model.”
When you look at the presenters on this year’s docket — New York Times returns from a complete team re-org between last year and this, Yahoo!, one of the founding companies, is doing a closed-door event as it stands on the sale block, Maker Studios is doing an advertiser-only showcase without presenting shows, according to a source. Wall Street Journal, which was on the docket for the last three years, has opted out. Buzzfeed, Vice, and Woven are basically creative agencies for video rather than programmers, which leaves AOL/Hearst/Verizon, Time Warner, CNN’s Great Big Story and Hulu as the primaries, and Machinima and maybe Fullscreen and YouTube (Red) as fledgling programmers with promise. Overall, the hype around the 2016 Newfronts is lacking.
Further, as brands become native video publishers themselves, and MCN’s transition from talent houses and production shops to publishers and distributors, the clearly defined roles of buyer and seller have become blurred.
“It’s definitely a retrenchment year for the portals,” said Eric Day, from Trium/INE Enertainment, a sentiment echoed by John McCarus, one of the original execs behind the establishment of the Newfronts, who said that he believes the television Upfronts and digital presentations are closer to merging than ever, as evidenced by CNN taking the Lin Digital spot on the schedule this year, and Vice moving into television.
Digital Dealmaker Jason Newman says the shift is one on his radar as well and that he’s been “seeing the gap close between traditional and digital. There is no longer a difference.”
Where there’s a definable gap, however, is in the quality of content being presented.
“We’re still very nascient in premium digital video content, despite the fact that there are more dollars being allocated to digital than ever. When advertisers go to the Upfronts, they should be thinking that they saw something similar in quality as what they saw at the Newfronts, but in many ways, we’ve taken steps backwards, in that regard,” said another executive involved in the various presentations.
Brands, like Target, though, are committed to making big, annual up front buys for digital, good quality or not. And presenters continue pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into their presentations without active commitments to producing the programming showcased. “I always appreciate when distributors introduce programming that they are investing in; built-if-sold presentations, in my opinion, hurt the industry, “ said Digital Dealmaker JC Cangilla, from New Form Digital. “I’ve been proud that the programs New Form announced last year and this year are all “going” — none are built-if-sold.”
The point Cangilla makes is sound, but it will come down to the advertiser dollars spent across those shows, renewals, and ultimately, a series of big hits by multiple distributors to really separate the fools from the gold.