Sayonara, Upfront?


With everyone freshly back from the Memorial Day weekend, it was eerie that there was nothing but a whole lot of posturing going on in the broadcast- and cable-television upfront advertising-sales market.

That's a stark contrast from a year ago, when most cable-network inventory was sold prior to the holiday weekend — and at record-breaking prices. Some of that stock sold out even before the broadcast networks had even presented their new fall lineups to Madison Avenue.

Today, talk candidly to any cable-network president, and you won't hear much rah-rah news from the ad-sales front.

And on the buy-side, there's a growingly bellicose demand for "an attitude adjustment" with respect to how ad time is sold. One of those demanding a shift is Initiative Media North America chairman and CEO Lou Schultz, who heads up one of the largest media-buying services, with billings that surpass $7 billion. Initiative Media is the buying arm of the powerhouse Interpublic Group of Cos.

Schultz, a grizzled advertising veteran, has an impressive roster of clients. They include AOL Time Warner Inc., The Walt Disney Co. and Bell South Corp.

"This industry has been clamoring for the demise of the upfront, and we and our clients will go to market when we think it's right," Schultz said last week in what turned out to be a pretty lively phoner, which he peppered with a lot of expletives.

Schultz sees the writing on the wall for those who sell advertising time. And in his view, it's not unlike the correction that occurred in the dot-com sector and the accompanying (and long-overdue) correction in the NASDAQ.

Computer technology has enabled agencies to dissect the worth of a particular show in a nanosecond, Schultz argued. In his case, that means IM Price — a proprietary research tool that crunches every number imaginable.

What Schultz and many of his peers now want from the selling community is a return on their investment. And he's less than awed by upfront soirées, calling them "yesterday's way of selling."

Schultz wants the cable and broadcast networks to provide more quality audience research and to do a better job of branding themselves.

Nor is Schultz wowed by the cross-platform or integrated plans that many media giants like Viacom Inc., AOL Time Warner and Disney are patching together for huge clients like Procter & Gamble. Schultz says he's done about six of them, but is not impressed with the savings.

Nor are they easy to orchestrate. For example, last week P&G made news when it placed a $300 million cross-platform deal with Viacom Inc.'s 12 TV stations, CBS and three of its cable networks — MTV, VH1 and Nickelodeon. That deal was two years in the making, according to
The Wall Street Journal.

Schultz says those deals are difficult. For example, he called Disney an "impenetratable silo," although he has finessed some cross-platform deals with its ABC Unlimited multimedia platform.

Having said all that, I asked Schultz, were the upfront market to break tomorrow, would he be in it? "Probably," he replied, laughing.

It's hard to imagine the demise of a time-honored tradition like the upfront, as odd and crazy as the practice is. But then again, who'd have guessed that the dot-com sector would drop 90 percent?