TV & Streaming

At CES, pre-upfront talks are clouded by marketing budget uncertainties

“This is the year of a million scenario plans,” one media buyer told us.
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Morning Brew

· 4 min read

Las Vegas is famous for gambling. But that doesn’t mean the marketers visiting casinos during CES last week were ready to make many bets with their 2023 ad dollars.

At the Vegas-based tech showcase held last week, conversations between media companies and agency partners often looped back to 2023’s uncertain economic picture, attendees told us—and on how much advertisers will be willing to commit in the coming months for the 2023 television upfront season. So far, it’s anyone’s guess.

“This is the year of a million scenario plans,” Amy Ginsberg, chief investment officer at Havas Media Group, said. “I think that we’re all sitting here and saying that we think spending is going to be down year over year—but [by] how much? Clients are very much waiting to make those decisions, because they don’t know either, and they don’t want to get caught having spent all this money and not being able to get it back.”

Raja Rajamannar, Mastercard’s CMCO, said that conversations with other marketers and brands revealed a “little bit of tentativeness across the industry, and a little bit of hesitation” around investing ad dollars.

“Unless you as a CMO know how much your CEO is going to let you spend, or your CFO let you spend, how are you going to commit?” he told us.

Hold up

CES often serves as the official media industry kickoff event ahead of upfronts, a presentation-laden week in May during which billions of advertising dollars are earmarked for media conglomerates like Disney, NBCUniversal, and Paramount.

This year, as with prior years, plenty of conversations during CES were centered on planning for the upfronts, Dan Robbins, VP of marketing at Roku, told us. (Other major media companies, including NBCUniversal and Netflix, also had top executives in attendance.)

Robbins painted an optimistic picture for streaming investment this year based on industry trends that have accelerated.

“If you think about last upfront, a lot of these ad-supported streaming services had just launched or were just being announced,” Robbins explained. “For marketers, I think this upfront is going to be a really pivotal point where most brands are going to say, ‘I’m actually starting with streaming, and that is the first thing on my agenda, because that’s where the consumer is.’”

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The timing and format of upfronts themselves continue to be a pain point for some marketers, especially after they learned in the beginning of the pandemic that having dollars locked up in spending commitments can backfire, Tim Lardner, client strategy partner at digital marketing agency PMG, said.

“We have some customers where the only marketing that they weren’t able to cut during [the early days of Covid-19] was what was already committed,” Lardner said. “And then that money was just wasted.”

Moving forward

Media companies have emphasized upfront deal flexibility as marketers have begun to demand it. At CES, agency execs continued to emphasize a desire to move past distinctions like “TV” and “digital” in strategy as they plan for a variety of possible investment strategies for clients depending on the economic picture.

“We’re in a huge time of change right now, and I think it’s really important for us to look forward and not sink back into the ways that we’ve always done things, because [they’re] not going to be successful anymore,” Ginsberg told us.

Since the upfronts are still a necessity for now, execs we spoke to said many client conversations at CES centered on the measurement options that may help advertisers track marketing spend during a potentially challenging time. Executives from Warner Bros. Discovery, for example, were on the ground at the convention this year, seeking to emphasize the company’s audience-measurement deal with VideoAmp ahead of May’s upfronts.

“That conversation that we’re having is, how do you protect your full-funnel marketing investment [and] make it accountable to your actual business in 2023?” Lardner said. While there’s still “no silver bullet,” he said, “I think we’re starting to get there.”

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