Aiming to jump-start automated buying in broadcasting, Publicis Media’s Frank Friedman is on track to spend $50 million this quarter in up to 60 markets with the WideOrbit automation platform and the support of the two major TV rep firms. “If we don’t push [automation] forward, we see a conflict coming our way, which is extinction,” he says.
Frank Friedman, head of local spot buying at Publicis Media, announced last fall that he was done talking about automation.
Speaking at TVNewsCheck’s TV2020 conference, he said he would cobble together an automated buying system, use it to place $50 million and show the broadcasting and advertising worlds that it can be done.
That cobbling has proved trickier and more time consuming than he thought it would, he now says. “This isn’t for the faint of heart.”
But as the New Year begins, he says, he is confident that the trail-blazing buy will happen in the first quarter, and the industry will have at least one working model for streamlining national spot sales.
Friedman has lined up hundreds of stations in most of the top 60 markets, locked in WideOrbit’s automation platform and won the support of rival platform providers and the two major TV rep firms, Katz and Cox, that have traditionally handled national spot transactions.
And he has the money. It’s coming from a quick service restaurant chain that, for the moment, wants to be anonymous.
“If we don’t push [spot automation] forward, we see a conflict coming our way, which is extinction,” he says. “If we don’t make these changes, we’ll continue to live on reduced [spot] budgets year after year, and we will not succeed.”
Automation is widely seen as key to improving the health of national spot, which has been in slow — but steady — decline for decades.
If large tests like Friedman’s prove successful, they will dramatically reduce the number of agency staffers needed to complete a spot buy by automating not only the initial buy, but also things like billing and makegoods.
Friedman and many others on both sides of the ad market believe that cutting the cost of buying spot will lead to ad money begin shifted to spot from the national broadcast and cable networks.
Automation will also make broadcasters nimbler. For instance, Friedman says, they may be able to compete for advertising that may become available in the event of unexpected weather.
And there may be a bonus for stations. The soup-to-nuts transactional process will free up sales personnel from clerical duties and reduce costly human errors.
According to Friedman, station groups involved in the project include the four network-owned ones along with Sinclair, Tribune, Tegna, Nexstar and Scripps.
“Ninety-nine percent of the stations in the top 50 to 60 markets are participating,” he says.
Both primary stations and multicast channels are in the mix.
At the heart of the project is the WideOrbit automation platform. As the provider of trafficking software for most stations, WideOrbit is in a particularly advantageous position.
To help jump-start the project, Eric Mathewson, WideOrbit’s founder and CEO, says he has agreed to forgo compensation for use of his automation system for six months.
A lingering big question is, will revenue from automated deals — which presumably will pull in more business — offset the additional cost once the six-month trial period plays out?
The WideOrbit platform also had some practical problems.
At one point, progress was stymied because the system would not allow for 15-second spots bookended at the beginning and end of commercial pods.
“We had some folks working all last weekend (Dec. 9-10) trying to solve technical issues that came up,” Friedman says. “This isn’t a perfect science. If it was easy, this would have happened already.”
Another issue involved WideOrbit’s SSP rivals, like Cox Media’s Videa and ITN Network’s new ProVantageX platform, the latter of which is beginning tests in Kansas City and a few other markets over the next few weeks.
WideOrbit didn’t want competitors to directly access information on avails in its traffic system. As a work-around, WideOrbit is allowing station clients to download avail information manually and share it with the other platforms.
That manual step in the automated process is less than ideal. But “I don’t see this as a tremendous issue,” says Nancy Larkin, SVP and director of local television at Horizon Media. “This is all a work in progress, and no one is 100% there with full integration. So, we’re still working through all that.”
Friedman says it was critical to get buy-in from the rep firms, whose roles will vary, but will include uploading station inventory into the automation platform and helping to set pricing.
The lawyers had to be brought in to negotiate agreements among the stations, WideOrbit and the reps
“That was a huge conversation point,” Friedman says. “We had to get contracts signed, and all the pieces put in place.”
The broadcasters have had to make adjustments to participate, Friedman says. “One of the big concerns is the data needs to be transparent; there also has to be a proper exchange of information. We didn’t want the machines to inhibit that process. So, we’re working through that.”
In other words, the stations’ information about inventory and the agencies’ information about business rules and deal specifications needed to flow freely through the system.
Not all is settled. “While the business rules are still in flux, giving us some consternation — specifically share transparency — Tribune is committed to automating low-value processes to increase demand against local broadcasting’s audiences,” says Angela Betasso, chief revenue officer at Tribune.
By “share transparency,” Betasso and other station executives mean making information available about the percentages of an overall media buy that individual stations are getting.
Some broadcasters want a business rule that would always make that information visible.
Other points of contention have focused on whether audience impression and CPM data would be made available.
Stations are doing some heavy lifting in another area that they see as basic to full-blown automation.
Sinclair, Tribune, Tegna and Nexstar announced their so-called TIP (TV Interface Practices) Initiative a few weeks ago.
With the TVB’s support, they are trying to come up with standard definitions of certain terminology used by the platforms.
And they want to develop an API [application programming interface] that will allow the buying and selling platforms to “talk” the same language, though the platforms will each retain their own “secret sauce.”
“We’re very supportive of that initiative and other initiatives that are pushing for open standards,” says Shereta Williams, president of Videa. “We believe an open ecosystem is better for everyone.”
But WideOrbit’s Mathewson is casting a skeptical eye on the TIP effort, contending that TIP will be creating software that WideOrbit has already developed.
“What their stated objective is, we’ve already built it; it already works. We’ve invested tens of millions of dollars in the infrastructure,” he says.
Brett Jenkins, chief technology officer at Nexstar, says: “We think it’s probably better for the industry if there’s a standard way for these systems to talk. The systems can still compete and do their own thing, but it opens things up to a little more interoperability.”
Other agencies are taking notice of the stations’ new attitude toward automated selling that the Publicis project highlights.
“I actually think that a lot more of the TV station groups have leaned in,” says Jennifer Hungerbuhler, who is EVP and managing director of local video and audio investment at Dentsu Aegis’s Amplifi media investment unit.
“All the players are responding very rapidly. But we’re still finalizing best practices and business rules. And as a result, it’s not going as fast as we’d like.”
“It takes time to get systems in place where everybody’s happy, says Horizon’s Larken. “But 2018 could be a very big year.”