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By Michael Bürgi | April 8, 2024

Are those drumbeats in the distance? In many ways that makes sense because the upfront season is upon the industry — that time when linear TV ( the OG of the upfront event), digital and platforms (the NewFronts), gaming (the PlayFronts, which just took place) and even podcasting (Podcast Upfront) host events and parties to showcase their content wares.

But maybe those drums signal the beginning of the end of the upfront process, something that may have outlived its usefulness because so much of what’s showcased has changed. It’s an interesting premise floated by a veteran industry executive who’s long lived in the intersection between content and marketing.

Shannon Pruitt is currently the global CMO of Stagwell’s Brand Performance Network, but has had decades of experience as a branded content executive with stints at Dentsu, Horizon Media, Warner Bros. TV, Fremantle and The Honest Co. Pruitt posits that the function and value of the presentations themselves has changed because of the explosion of content.

The upfronts, Pruitt reminds, began in the 1960s as a means for the three (!) broadcast networks to show their programming schedules so that advertisers would have a chance to think about how to invest in the coming season. Then, with the advent of the major digital companies (Facebook, YouTube and a host of content across the internet), the NewFronts turned it into a showcase of platforms.

Today, Pruitt adds, with the addition of podcasting and gaming, etc., it’s a matter of properties  — owning the rights to content, from women’s sports to which studio makes what show — because the same content can live in multiple places in an on-demand world.

In other words, we’re a long way from a three-network prime-time programming grid.

“You’re no longer in a programming era and you’re no longer in the platform era because everyone’s in a multi touchpoint ecosystem at any given time,” explained Pruitt. “So do we need all of these separate weeks to think about what our marketing ecosystem is going to look like and how we’re going to spend our money? Because really, the whole point was originally to schedule out your dollars through leverage and tonnage to be able to invest so that you know where your money was going and you were going to get a discount, right? We don’t live in that world anymore.”

Pruitt stopped short of suggesting that all the parties and presentations should go away, but she does argue there’s a positive environmental impact to either reducing the number of events and parties.

What’s vital to point out, argued a few investment executives at holding company media agencies, is the need to distinguish the presentations/parties from the actual marketplace, in which well over $20 billion in ad dollars are committed.

“Everyone keeps calling the presentations ‘the upfront’ and the marketplace ‘the upfront.’ The presentations are a very elaborate sales piece — the upfront marketplace is really a futures market,” said the head of investment at a major holding company.

The executive’s point is that for the last several years, that holding company had already made significant commitments in upfront spending before any of the presentations had even taken place. “I wish that people would start talking about a futures market than an upfront,” the exec added.

“Even though the industry and the landscape has changed so much, it still does provide meaningful value for our clients in terms of not only costs but also innovation and access,” said Sharon Cullen, chief investment officer at Omnicom’s Hearts & Science. “It’s gone so much beyond what it used to be, in just having new inroads that it allows us to be able to access not only content programming, all the data access that is so critical today.”