As COVID-19 Upends TV Ad Sales, Networks and Buyers Enact New Strategies

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Key insights:

The rapid spread of COVID-19 left the TV industry reeling and in “uncharted territory,” as execs and buyers began navigating the ad sales fallout of sports cancellations, which began two weeks ago and continued through yesterday’s Summer Olympics postponement.

Now that networks and marketers have had a week or two to regroup and strategize, they are carefully moving forward in the current climate, though currently taking a short-term view of the “new normal.”

“We’re trying to take things two weeks at a time, versus making big changes,” said Peter Olsen, evp of ad sales at A+E Networks. “We dealt with [last] week and [this] week as one chunk, then we’re looking at [the weeks of] 3/30 and 4/6 as the next chunk.”

After all, less than three weeks ago, A+E Networks was still planning on holding its annual upfront event tonight. Those plans were of course scrapped, and the company has shifted its upfront messaging from upcoming programming to highlighting its COVID-19 social initiatives.

As networks and buyers alike navigate this uncertain COVID-19 landscape, they tell Adweek they are making the best of what just a couple weeks earlier was an unfathomable situation.

“We need to provide solutions more than anything else. If that means we have to get creative, then let’s get creative.”
Gibbs Haljun, total investment lead, Mindshare USA

“We are partners with our clients and we are partners with our publisher and vendor community,” said Gibbs Haljun, total investment lead, Mindshare USA. “We are trying to find solutions that work for everybody, because when this all settles down and gets back to normal … we need to be able to look each other in the eyes and say, ‘Hey, we did good work in trying times.’”

Right now, “we need to provide solutions more than anything else,” said Haljun. “If that means we have to get creative, then let’s get creative.”

Category upheaval

Buyers told Adweek that the fallout from COVID-19, which has prompted many states and cities to require its residents to self-isolate, and closed businesses throughout the country, has upended several categories, particularly travel.

But several other brands are also impacted, including automotive (car manufacturing has stopped, and people staying at home don’t need new cars right now anyway), retail (most stores have shuttered, though some brands are pivoting to pushing their ecommerce offerings), restaurants (again, most have been closed) and theatrical (all major film releases over the next two months have been postponed, including Black Widow and F9).

Additionally, some brands are seeing disruption to their supply pipeline, including toilet paper and paper towel manufacturers, and are therefore also looking to suspend or push their current buys.

As buyers worked to determine their Plan Bs following the sports and March Madness cancellations earlier this month, “it’s not a one-size fits all,” said one buyer, speaking anonymously. “We’re going through it client by client and understanding what their needs are and what [the network’s] needs are.”

Some clients opted to push their media buys later in the year, in the hopes that the MLB, NBA and/or NHL would resume play. Others with seasonal spots were willing to reexpress their buys into other programming and others asked for their money back.

“You can’t replace an NCAA [March Madness basketball tournament], in size, commitment and stature,” said another buyer. “Depending on what your needs were, you did what you had to do.”

After taking a few days to regroup, buyers registered their requests about moving, canceling or shifting their clients ad buys with the respective media companies a week ago.

“The immediate needs were taken care of. Now we’re talking care of everybody else and we’re starting to think longer term,” said a buyer.

That includes focusing on those brands who are reevaluating the tone of their current ads amid the pandemic, and are revamping their messaging, including some retailers who are shifting to promoting their online shopping offerings.

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