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Interpublic Group Plans Upfront Sessions for Media Focused on Black Consumers (EXCLUSIVE)

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TV companies have found a way to get an early crack at Madison Avenue billions. Now one of the nation’s biggest media buyers hopes to do the same for media businesses focused on Black consumers.

Each Spring, the nation’s biggest TV companies work for millions of dollars as part of a process known as the “upfront.” Now, Interpublic Group’s large IPG Mediabrands unit will during the week of March 15 kick off what it calls an “Equity Upfront” —  a different version of the big sales sessions that help set up advance ad deals for TV and digital media —  that seeks to match Black-owned media as well as media outlets that aim for Black audiences with some of the company’s clients.

The big ad-buying operation, which manages some $40 billion in ad spending around the world, will bring together more than 20 media companies such as Entertainment Studios’ The Grio, ViacomCBS’ BET, Essence Communications and Urban One with advertisers that include Aetna/CVS, American Express, Johnson & Johnson and BMW.

“This is the first of its kind, but it is definitely not meant to be a one-off event,” says Joy Profet, executive vice president and chief growth officer of Magna, Mediabrands’ media-intelligence unit, in an interview. “There is the expectation this will grow into an industry standard,” and plans are in development to spur discussions between advertisers and Latino, Asian and LGTBQ+ media as well.

Media outlets focused on Black audiences typically have not gotten the largest share of Madison Avenue’s purse. BET, for example, took in an estimated $203 million in 2020, according to Kagan, a market-research firm that is part of S&P Global Market Intelligence. Urban One’s TV One won around $70 million. CNN, meanwhile, secured $715.4 million.

To be certain, the outlets focused on such audiences are smaller than their general-market counterparts. But some big advertisers have shown definite interest in reaching Black consumers. In 2018, consumer-products giant Procter & Gamble struck a pact with ABC that made it part of the central storyline in an episode of the comedy “Black-ish.” P&G has over the years devised other initiatives aimed directly at Black consumers.

The “Equity Upfront” will take place just as many TV and digital outlets start making outreach to advertisers as part of a decades-old cycle that gives them price incentives to buy commercial inventory several months in advance of when they might need it. Over the years, others have tried to emulate the idea. A host of large digital companies take part in a series of presentations known as “NewFronts” each year.  In 1999, Hearst’s “O: The Oprah Magazine” held an “upfront” in a bid to get marketers to consider running ads in the periodical’s pages before it launched in 2000.

Executives at IPG Mediabrands were spurred to consider the idea after examining both consumer data as well as last year’s protests around the death of George Floyd while in custody of police in Minneapolis. “We definitely wanted to make ourselves more accountable, make sure our clients truly recognized the importance of this audience,” says Dani Benowitz, U.S. president of Magna, in an interview.

Madison Avenue’s treatment of minorities has come under scrutiny multiple times in the past, with advocacy groups and others scrutinizing the number of people of color employed by major ad agencies. This has surfaced even though many advertising executives acknowledge the growing influence of those very same groups of consumers.

According to Mediabrands research, Black consumers wield $1.4 trillion in spending. And yet, says Profet, more than half don’t feel represented when they see many mainstream commercials. ”We know that when brands represent them from a cultural perspective or an identity perspective, this audience will respond,” she says.

Because some of these media outlets are often smaller, they don’t always get consideration from large media buyers. This event may help to change that. “They don’t necessarily have the scale that others do to get access to our clients,” says Benowitz. “This is going to help them put together better opportunities.”

Executives hope to hold monthly sessions, and, over time, expand their efforts. There are even some hopes that some of Mediabrands’ competitors might join.  “It is a long-term initiative for us,” says Profet.