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NewFronts Return Slimmer, But No Less Controversial

Barring any last-minute defections, NewFronts organizers will have successfully avoided the turmoil leading up to last year’s digital content hypefest, when a series of big-name companies dropped out or dramatically scaled down their involvement before the event got under way.

Digital players such as Hulu, YouTube and Vice are all slated to pitch Madison Avenue power brokers at this year’s slimmed down NewFronts, which kick off April 30 as a complement to TV’s annual upfronts. This year’s lineup is smaller overall but more tightly focused on premium content companies. The IAB polled members after last year’s NewFronts and downsized the New York portion to one week, shifting the second half of the annual gathering to L.A. in October.

“The general feedback was that two weeks is too much — too many presentations,” said Anna Bager, exec VP industry initiatives for NewFronts organizer Interactive Advertising Bureau. The scaled-back New York event “should be easier to digest.”

Founding partners Yahoo and AOL will once again present their programming wares at the event, albeit in the merged form of Verizon-owned Oath. And Vice is back following founder-evangelist Shane Smith’s decision to skip his company’s event last year.

Twitter, which stepped into Yahoo’s open slot last year, is also returning, and will be joined by newcomers Viacom and ESPN. BBC News, Disney Digital Network and Conde Nast will also present. BuzzFeed and Warner Digital Network, two of last year’s pullouts, have not signed up for this year’s festivities, however.

Digital video outlets want to wow buyers and snare their share of growing online ad coin. Total digital ad spending is projected to climb 18.7% to $107.3 billion in the U.S. this year, according to eMarketer’s forecast issued in late March. The research org projects TV ad outlay will edge down 0.5% to $69.87 billion during the same period.

Some critics question the need for splashy NewFronts presentations, given the fact that digital buys don’t necessarily fit the upfront model. But its defenders praise the ability to showcase a visual medium and for the ad biz and creative companies to meet in a focused way. “The ritual is useful and valid,” says Jason Kint, CEO of trade org Digital Context Next.

“The event speaks for itself,” says Bager before citing the level of participating companies and innovations on the ad side it has helped bring about for both the digital and TV worlds. “Clearly it is moving the industry forward. Whether it happens there or throughout the year doesn’t really matter.”

She expects over-the-top viewing to be a hot topic this year, along with brand safety and user-data protections. “That was a big part of the conversation last year,” she says.

Since then, Facebook has had to testify about Cambridge Analytica, and YouTube was recently revealed to have exposed major brands to extremist content, despite policies intended to prevent ads from such placements.

Given those news stories, brand safety is bound to be on advertisers’ minds, Kint says. “I don’t know how you escape that.”

Another tension: Google and Facebook’s dominance in the digital ad realm. Together the companies, dubbed a digital duopoly in the tech community, are expected to haul in $60.9 billion of the $107.3 billion digital ad spending eMarketer projects in the U.S. this year. Google’s expected $39.9 billion ad haul this year dwarfs the $1.2 billion eMarketer projects for Hulu, for example.

Bager expects the fall NewFronts in Los Angeles to have a stronger focus on emerging media such as podcasts, with the New York market intended for bigger buys.“Hopefully we can build a narrative across the year,” she says.

The shift has already had one consequence: Jukin Media, which had planned on presenting at the New York event for the first time, will present in L.A. instead. IAB maps out its NewFronts schedule so far in advance that some realignment comes with the territory, especially given how dynamic the digital market is.

But Bager concedes last year’s changes took on greater velocity when founding partner Yahoo pulled out of the event begun in 2012. “That started the whole conversation going,” she says.

As organizer, IAB tries to give presenters as much latitude for designing their festivities as possible. Participants cook up their own presentations and handle the invite portion.

Says Bager: “If we can avoid drama, we would like it.”

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