Tales From the Digital Content NewFronts (DCNF)

The end of April is upon us, and we are fast approaching upfront season. Scratch that. We are staring down the barrel of upfront season. Or, more accurately, the Digital Content NewFronts (DCNF) season.

Last year Digitas brought the big five (Yahoo, Microsoft, Google/YouTube, Hulu, and AOL, where I was VP of marketing) together to form the DCNF. Our mission? To show the world we had grown up, and could truly rival or complement whatever was going on at CBS or NBC.

We were upstarts. We had the scale to rival cable networks. Our home pages were like Super Bowls every day. We had a lean-forward medium. We had interactivity. We had engagement. We had Heidi Klum!

It was exciting. Each week, we’d dial in to a call with all the founder partners, and make decisions that seemed poised to change an industry.

What would we present at these NewFronts? Anything we wanted, but with a focus on video.

When would we hold our events? Prior to the TV upfronts, so those buyers would already have us in mind. One founding partner presentation per day. (Readers looking for dirt, I’m sorry to disappoint you – there was virtually no conflict among the partners over scheduling.)

When word inevitably got out about what we were doing, the question then became…who else could host DCNF-sanctioned events? Partners needed to both create content and distribute it. After all, this wasn’t Sundance! Content without distribution wouldn’t get us the TV dollars we craved.

With our charter in hand and our “slates” ready to go, we worked around the clock, we rushed to sign deals, and we sprinted to launch new products. April arrived, and the NewFronts went off without a hitch. The New York Times covered us. Programs found sponsors. TV buyers put us on the plan. The conversation had changed.

We as an industry had found a voice and built the platform from which to tell our story. We had arrived.

That was a year ago.

Today, the IAB is spearheading the effort – an evolution every founding partner supported, as it would bestow upon the DCNF greater industry credibility. While I’m dismayed to see just how lax the group’s requirements to be a partner have become (some of the partners don’t even create video, let alone specialize in it, a fact I fear will dilute the overall message to the audience of mostly video buyers), I broadly agree with Randy Rothenberg when he said the very definition of “content” is changing, and support the DCNF’s effort to be inclusive.

In a short time, we’ve seen whole companies shift their product and press schedules in order to have announcements timed to drop during these two weeks. The Digital Content NewFronts are the new Advertising Week.

For my own part, I have to admit I’m glad I’ve started my own company this year, and won’t be responsible for anything NewFronts-related except attending! Putting these events together is exhausting, and quite frankly, I don’t know how we would one-up ourselves. After all, YouTube had Jay-Z last year. Jay-Z!

This year I predict we won’t just have a slew of celebrity partnership announcements. Celebrities drive buzz and confer on the NewFronts the glamour and spectacle of their analog counterparts. But we’re digital marketers, after all, and we know there’s more to great content than that.

I think this year we’ll hear more about innovative programming formats – from live or personalized viewing experiences to programming that’s more interactive and social (think HuffPost Live or BuzzFeed on steroids).

I bet we’ll hear about better forms of targeting that build cross-platform audiences (sexy, I know). And I think we’ll see significant new product announcements. Who knows? By the time this column runs, Yahoo may have announced a game-changing distribution deal with China.

But despite the success of the NewFronts, I have a nagging suspicion that we’ve done ourselves a disservice.

Why are we, the forward-thinking, trailblazing, innovative digital creators, retrofitting ourselves into an analog construct? Even Les Moonves is mum on the prospects for this year’s TV upfronts, and he was like the violinist on the Titanic.

Why are we chomping at the bit to describe our audiences in terms of GRPs, when our own data could offer a much richer picture?

Why are we so eager to show we’re just like them?

Digital is different. Our inventory isn’t constrained. Our programming doesn’t promote appointment viewing. And the quip that there’s only so much high-quality programming available online simply isn’t true – show me a client who wants to underwrite a branded entertainment series and I’ll show you a client who will have a series ready to air in a matter of months.

In theory, we don’t need an upfront.

But the reality is that this is the moment when buyers are thinking about making large investments. This is the moment when they’re in NYC and they’re listening. Right now is when they’re ready to hear programming ideas, and ready to learn about new products. If we want their trust and their investment, we have to make it easy for them. And without the DCNF, it was hard.

So I applaud the DCNF as a moment and as an industry milestone. But I also offer up a challenge to my fellow digital compatriots: today, let’s play by their rules. Tomorrow, let’s change the game.

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