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Robots & ROIs: The future of the fronts

In an on-demand, multi-screen, real-time, data-driven, programmatic world ... are the fronts even necessary?

2016 MTV Upfront at Skylight At Moynihan Station
Charlamagne Tha God speaks at the 2016 MTV Upfront in NYC last month.
Mike Coppola/Getty Images

As many of us suffer through the upfront and newfront season (didn’t we just finish the last one?), the time has come to pose a question:

In an on-demand, multi-screen, real-time, data-driven, programmatic world ... are they even necessary?

Is there a real market need to presell your inventory in whole chunks, or is this a fixture of a bygone era with a series of overhyped, overcrowded, star-studded cocktail parties with lots of speeches and IMAX-size video screens?

What about the newfronts? Are they something "new" and innovative, or just a copycat lower-rent version of their TV cousin without the actual "upftont" media deals in many cases?

And if neither is necessary, as many of you may suspect, what's the alternative?

I have partaken in both, previously at Viacom and most recently leading AOL’s 2015 Newfront showcase. And during that process, it hit me — there should be no upfronts or newfronts. It’s not where media is heading. Instead, we need to create an allfronts model.

There should be no upfronts or newfronts. It’s not where media is heading. Instead, we need to create an allfronts model.

For years, traditional media has somewhat paid lip service to "digital," although I’m not really sure how much most of them really got the realities of digital. Well, maybe they got it, but didn’t really know what to do with it! The thing is — "digital" no longer exists in a box, it is not (or at least should not be) a "department" or a floor in your office. It's not a function like accounting. It’s everything, it’s everywhere, it's every day, and it’s a mindset.

It’s time to unbundle, recast and re-bundle, and start to take opportunities to the market in a way that reflects how audiences are consuming media and how professionals are buying media. And go to the market not once a year but at different times in different locations with different ideas, formats, distribution and innovation. Content365 meets Audience365.

This already seems to be slowly happening. A&E Networks said last month that it will abandon the glitzy presentations altogether this year, and NBC condensed broadcast and cable into one event. (In previous years, NBC Universal held three upfront presentations, one each for NBC, Telemundo and its cable entertainment portfolio.) And channels like Freeform are taking innovative approaches and offering all platforms with different content formats and even on-the-ground live events. This is a start.

Big TV at least seems open to change, and some of the smarter ones I know are even desperate to change. Having a lot to lose has focused them.

The digital players on the newfront side have been slower to evolve — while they have been copying TV — TV has been evolving. The death of TV has been greatly exaggerated, and the future of media as all-digital can’t be avoided. This presents a unique opportunity for companies ready to innovate and take a leadership position.

Digital and traditional media must be combined for all audiences, advertisers and profit margins alike. I have coined a term for this: "convergent coexistence." This means that no one form of media devours another. It all converges and coexists.

And, sure, there needs to be showcases. Dog-and-pony shows are still a necessity. But let’s do them smaller, more focused and year-round in many cities, not just New York and LA.

The death of TV has been greatly exaggerated, and the future of media as all-digital can’t be avoided.

Everyone in this business needs to innovate and do it fast to survive.

In a Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple world, many companies will need to partner and/or acquire to stay competitive, and biz and corp dev may become the rock stars over the next few years, as consolidation and strategic deals will win the day.

If your company is not in a position to go on an acquisition spending spree like some have and more will, then do innovative partnerships, get creative, go to the market in different way. NBC and AOL did this last year by combining a bunch of their assets and taking them to the market, and I expect to see much more of this (the recent Viacom/Snapchat deal is a great and forward-looking example).

No one company can satisfy all the marketers and all the marketing that needs to be done in today’s world, and deliver all the audiences, screens and behaviors. So get over island nations and be good neighbors and even better partners. Define ROI wins as many places as you can, and manage expectations.

But, hey it’s still the media business, and the "show" part of show business must and will go on. Otherwise just hand the keys over to the cloud and go to the spa!

Fans and audience are the ultimate part of the equation that seems to be missing from the whole "fronts" idea. Social media enables and embraces consumers, users and viewers and they’ve earned a seat at the table. Brands are going direct to content creators, and content creators are going direct to fans. The whole notion of traditional distribution — and with it, traditional inventory — is being upended, and in the middle of all this, celebrities are becoming their own nation states, social media hubs and market makers. Kimye, anyone?

The whole notion of traditional distribution — and with it, traditional inventory — is being upended, and in the middle of all this, celebrities are becoming their own nation states, social media hubs and market makers.


So before you jump out a window, let's get ahead of all this. Here are some key takeaways:

Allfronts: Create the Allfronts365. (I can hear the groans from a bunch of you saying, "What? Upfonts all the time? Every day?" No, that’s not what I mean, settle down.) Let's innovate and reorient the models. Technology has had its way with media over the last 10 years. And that’s not such a terrible thing, but its time to push back and react a little bit, and more importantly be proactive. Getting steamrolled by tech advances every six months just isn't fun. Let's leverage the muscles that started most of these media businesses in the first place — the innovation and creativity. Just as content is going 365, so should the buying and selling. More programmatic, more geographically diverse, more multicultural — don't just roll the big ideas out one week in May, stagger the rollouts year-round.

Fandom: Bring audience power into the mix by testing content against fan bases before it's trotted out, and have a system that incorporates value delivered by user-created content in relation to the driving premium content. Come up with new social ratings and indexes around things like the "conversation" power of content and interactivity index. Then add these new metrics to pricing and performance along with existing metrics.

Celebrity: Bridge the gaps with the emerging direct-to-fan celebrity nation-states (or "celebnations," if you like shorthand). This is a worrisome trend — the more celebs who go direct, the less likely they are to need distributors, and the more likely they are to need direct advertising partners. This could be a bad news for networks and publishers. The solution (and I may have to eat my words on this in some future job, but here goes!): Cut the talent in — don't just give them fees. Just as companies need to partner, we also need to partner with fans and talent and brands in new ways — that’s the new media economy, whether we like it to not, and whether we have upfront parties or not.

Data: Fine, data is like the new black. You can’t have a conversation today without the D-word rearing its head. We all get that data is important. But lets not be blinded by data, either. It’s part of the puzzle, not the entire puzzle. I worry that some people and companies think it’s the entire puzzle, and the entire solution, too. Any allfronts moving forward need to incorporate the integration of the right data in the right way. That may be stupendously obvious, but there is actually too much data available, and this will become the big challenge as we find ourselves overwhelmed — at least until true machine learning shows up! And it's not just consumer data that is leveraged for targeting. It’s the larger way we can measure the effectiveness of our programming and media in a universe that has expanded beyond our capacity to understand it in a very short period of time, and continues to expand at an alarming rate.

Partnerships: I hit on this already, so I'll just recap. Five things are important here: Partner. Partner. Partner. Do it smartly. And then partner again.

So I’ll finish up and let you get back to Snapchat. Looking at our upfronts and newfronts going forward (and they will go forward), let’s make them allfronts. Because without having a clever algorithm that can replace insights and value for the 365 buyers and planners, and without the representation and participation of the new audiences, they are just a parties.

And to repeat a famous saying, an opinion without data is just an opinion. Thanks for reading my opinion.

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Dermot McCormack is the co-founder and CEO of 2D Productions, and formerly head of video at AOL and EVP of connected content for Viacom Music and Logo Group (MTV, VH1, CMT and Logo). A media veteran and thought leader with expertise in cross-platform content creation, product development, social media and distribution, McCormack is at the forefront of new media and innovation, particularly specializing in the intersection of marketing, technology and digital media. Reach him @dermot100.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.