AT&T has long been one of Madison Avenue’s biggest spenders, throwing its commercials across TV, newspapers and the Internet. Now it’s about to become one of its biggest sellers, thanks to its recent $85.4 billion buy of Time Warner.
Starting Monday night, the telecommunications giant will go into sales mode. AT&T will kick off a conference in Santa Barbara, California, where it is expected to unveil – finally – its plans for advertisers. AT&T last year launched a new unit devoted to advertising and analytics that reported directly to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, a strong hint the company felt it would be able to offer new ways to align commercials with the content it has in hand after its purchase of HBO, Turner and Warner Brothers. “Once we complete our acquisition of Time Warner Inc., we believe there is an opportunity to build an automated advertising platform that can do for premium video and TV advertising what the search and social media companies have done for digital advertising,” AT&T’s Stephenson said at the time the new unit was announced.
The chief of that operation, Brian Lesser, is slated to deliver remarks during an event at The Ritz-Carlton Bacara that shed light on AT&T’s plans. Will AT&T offer up consumer data from its DirecTV operations that can help marketers place ads more precisely? Does it intend to accelerate a recent Turner offering that seeks to trim the amount of commercial time in certain parts of the schedules of networks like TNT and TruTV? Can it make a stronger case for so-called “addressable advertising” that uses reams of data about viewers to send them ad messages tailored to their circumstances and lifestyle?
Lesser will have to move quickly. Other media companies have been trying their own experiments. NBCUniversal has already pledged to cut back on the amount of commercials it airs in many primetime shows this season. Fox Networks Group is testing similar terrain. CBS is moving forward with a plan that will let advertisers add tailored messages to national commercials seen by viewers using certain connected TVs. A retailer with a sale at an outlet 30 miles away could add a note to someone who lives close by, and a restaurant might tout its delivery service in a particular city or town.
AT&T’s “Relevance Conference” aims to spark discussion among guests about what might be possible. In addition to Lesser, a former top buying executive from WPP’s GroupM, Stephenson will also address the crowd. Other sessions are scheduled to feature Derek Jeter, talking about his Players Tribune; Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, discussing their start-up WndrCo and a new product, “New TV,” widely expected to be based around short-form content; and a discussion with a group of the ad industry’s top media buyers in which they consider the future of addressable TV.
In years past, media companies would drill down on hard sell. In recent months, however, with consumers migrating from linear TV to on-demand streaming video, they are instead offering collaboration. NBCUniversal in November of last year convened executives from Twitter, IBM and McDonald’s to discuss a range of issues that were destabilizing the business of TV advertising. ““We’ve got a problem,” said Linda Yaccarino, chairman of ad sales and client partnerships at NBCU, at the event. If the industry can’t come together, she said, it risks seeing advertising erode over the next decade. “We can’t leave without a meaningful plan for action and follow-up.”
Fox Networks Group held a similar event on the lot of its 20th Century Fox studio in March of this year to tackle a similar task. Among the attendees were Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the National Football League. AT&T’s event will also feature Issa Rae, the star of HBO’s “Insecure,” and Turner Sports analyst Grant Hill.