WBD’s Jon Steinlauf on Holding an Upfront Sans Stars, CEO

WBD’s Jon Steinlauf on Holding an Upfront Sans Stars, CEO

As upfront week displays wrap, Adweek’s postmortem chats with each advert gross sales chief proceed. We’ve already spoken with NBCUniversal’s Mark Marshall, Fox’s Marianne Gambelli, TelevisaUnivision’s Donna Speciale and Disney’s Rita Ferro. Next up is Warner Bros. Discovery’s Jon Steinlauf.

In its first full yr as a merged firm, Warner Bros. Discovery is about to unveil Max, the mixed Discovery+ and HBO Max streaming service. And although streaming performed an enormous function within the firm’s Wednesday morning presentation at The Theater at Madison Square Garden, it additionally leaned closely on unscripted, information and sports activities content material, with solely executives showing on stage as a result of ongoing Writers Guild of America strike.

Steinlauf talked in regards to the strike-prompted shift away from onstage expertise (and why CEO David Zaslav was additionally MIA), the corporate’s Max streaming technique and why—following a 2022 upfront the place “we probably did not perform at the level of expectation” provided that the WarnerMedia and Discovery merger closed simply weeks forward of talks—the corporate is in a a lot stronger place heading into this yr’s negotiations.

(This interview has been edited for size and readability.)


Adweek: You made it by way of upfront week. Looking again, what are you most happy with from this yr?
Steinlauf: I feel what we have been in a position to accomplish was a really seamless run-through for all the content material. My a part of it, and my direct report Shereen Russell’s [evp, ad sales and inclusive content partnerships] a part of it on the very high, was designed to speak in regards to the points which can be necessary to advertisers as we enter the upfront window. Shereen dealt with the variety, fairness, inclusion alternatives in our firm. That was one thing that we had by no means performed earlier than. We had by no means devoted a piece throughout the upfront to range. That’s a press release to {the marketplace} that we wish to be a pacesetter in that space, and there’s a rising demand for sponsorships of content material that’s both created by, seen by or has a solid or theme round range, fairness and inclusion. If there have been one community proper off the highest of my head that stands out in that space extra so than anything within the trade can be TLC, by way of presenting underrepresented teams in a optimistic gentle on many, many collection on the community. I give Howard Lee loads of credit score. He’s been the brains behind TLC for a very long time. Then, in fact, OWN is one other a part of the story, as is the NBA, as is CNN. And we’ve U.S. Hispanic networks right here too. What I used to be making an attempt to do within the first 12 or 13 minutes, I used to be speaking lots about foreign money, superior promoting and streaming. And not simply streaming from an advert perspective.

Max is sort of right here—how a lot of a job do you anticipate it to play throughout WBD’s conversations, and what did you need entrepreneurs to remove? 
What’s occurring with Netflix, Disney+ and HBO Max is you’ve gotten three properties which can be making an attempt to work their means into the ad-lite enterprise. And to get into the ad-lite enterprise, you need to have subscribers. The deal at $9.99 that we’re going to place on the desk for shoppers is fairly compelling. It’s going to have nearly every part we do as an organization. It’s going to haven’t simply lite promoting however very focused promoting. You’re getting advertisements which can be extra focused to the person family than viewer. I used to be making an attempt to say to the viewers, “Put your consumer hats on, and think about what this product is at $9.99,” and into the longer term, direct-to-consumer and streaming will develop and share towards conventional. We simply wished to have one product on the market that we felt we might deliver the whole portfolio collectively. There’s not loads of transparency about streaming companies and viewership and subscriber bases. It’s been a troublesome space for the advertisers to actually navigate. We wished them to know that the $9.99 product was going to be the main focus of loads of our upfront conversations, after which we see it scaling within the subsequent yr or two. We see that over time the that customers will come to AVOD as a result of they’ll see the advantages of AVOD. It’s a problem once you’re making an attempt to take a model like HBO into streaming with an AVOD layer. Because as quickly as you say AVOD, ad-supported and even ad-lite, the very first thing individuals take into consideration, “Is it going to be like linear? Is it going to have lots and lots of ads and lots of interruptions and billboards and promos?” And it’s not what individuals would understand ad-supported tv networks to appear to be.

Warner Bros. Discovery introduced forward of time that it might solely be executives on stage—how a lot of your presentation was impacted by the strike?
We needed to go to video for Guy Fieri. The featured movies have been changing what would have been stay on stage expertise appearances. You noticed Anderson Cooper. We would have had a stay presentation from information expertise. A few individuals mentioned to me afterwards was Chris Licht [CEO of CNN] speaking to Anderson Cooper in actual time, “Was that a zoom or was that prerecorded?” That’s what you wish to have occur. I instructed Chris this morning that’s precisely what we wished. We wished individuals to assume that they have been speaking to one another stay whereas they weren’t. But then you definately’re getting the influence. The closest you could possibly get to what would have occurred had there not been a strike is Anderson Cooper would have been up there with Chris. And you noticed we did with the Inside the NBA staff. It additionally was plausibly stay to have Charles and Shaq and Ernie and Kenny doing what they did as a halftime present. That was one of many inventive concepts is put the 4 of them collectively, file them a few days in the past, have them do what they’d have performed on stage and make it a halftime present as a result of they’re often called the halftime present. There would have been extra Max expertise. You noticed two-plus minutes of And Just Like That. Maybe there might have been some stay presence from that collection. I can’t actually say precisely what it might have been, however in case you have a look at the video segments that we offered, some changed what would have been stay appearances.

That’s precisely what we wished. We wished individuals to assume that they have been speaking to one another stay whereas they weren’t.

Jon Steinlauf, on making the prerecorded upfront movies from expertise appear to be livestreams

You did have expertise seem in prerecorded segments. Was there a considered shifting absolutely to digital?
Never, completely not. Now that the mud is settled on these three days, persons are speaking about, “What did this week mean to the future of the upfront presentation week?” I’ve been working on this trade a very long time, and I keep in mind once I first began, there was ABC, CBS, NBC; that’s all we had. But each took a day, and each took a resort house, and there have been 400-500 individuals. That’s all they wanted to speak to at the moment. This trade was lots smaller. This is a convention that goes again to as early as 1970. Now, flash ahead to 2023. We simply completed our first week ever the place we have been impacted closely by the strike. The reveals should not what they was, however that’s what makes this week necessary is it’s a celebration of not simply the normal tv community enterprise but in addition the streaming companies which can be necessary to advertisers. That’s why Netflix wished to leap in and do no matter they might do. Clients preserve coming in, and within the final three days, Warner Bros. Discovery has had 100 consumer conferences. I might evaluate this to CES. I might evaluate this to Cannes. I might evaluate this to the Super Bowl as a degree on the calendar the place the advert neighborhood and the tv and streaming neighborhood converge. We had an unbelievable quantity of individuals there yesterday. This strike, the picketers and lack of expertise didn’t preserve individuals house. We could make a compelling present simply with our seven or eight high executives staying inside their lanes. Having Casey Bloys right here yesterday, in my view, he’s most likely essentially the most profitable inventive government within the tv trade at the moment. He’s by no means been in an upfront presentation earlier than. He’s by no means offered on stage to advertisers. The motive why he was right here is as a result of Max is turning into a extra necessary a part of our firm to advert gross sales.

Would you do it otherwise and think about having any sports activities or information expertise on stage? I’m additionally curious in regards to the choice to not have David Zaslav on stage. What was the pondering there?
David made the choice. I don’t assume it was strike-related. I don’t assume he selected to not go up on stage due to the strike. I feel he selected to not go up on stage as a result of he has performed it for a very long time. And he’s been CEO of Discovery since 2007. I feel he wished to cede that function to different executives within the firm, as have loads of his friends. When you concentrate on CEOs of those firms, it’s actually Brian Roberts; it’s Bob Iger; it’s David Zaslav. He appears to be like at what the function is of the those that he considers to be his friends to him. If they’re letting their executives get the publicity, we had Bruce Campbell [CRO] on stage. You have to choose and select who’re one of the best executives that you really want the viewers to change into extra acquainted with as time goes by. There have been some articles about we might have used David on stage as a result of he’s a star CEO to compensate for the dearth of star energy up on that stage. But he was there. He’s not making an attempt to say the advert enterprise just isn’t as necessary to us because it because it was.

And then the opposite a part of the query?
If we return subsequent yr, I might say the expertise technique is up for dialogue. We simply got here out of a few conferences this morning the place we’re making an attempt to postmortem to say what works, what didn’t work out, the identical sort of questions you’re asking. We’ll assessment it, however I don’t assume this turns into the norm. I don’t assume we simply say let’s go with out expertise now that we did one with out expertise, and we acquired fairly good press about it, and we acquired good attendance. Is that the tip of expertise on the upfront presentation? I might say no.

This time final yr, the merger had solely simply been accomplished earlier than upfronts. Now, you had a full yr to arrange. What have been the foremost variations between the 2 years?
The largest factor is we perceive one another’s enterprise. The means mergers work in our trade is there could possibly be no communication between Warner[Media] advert gross sales and Discovery advert gross sales whereas the regulatory course of was unfolding. It closed on April 11, so not solely did we’ve to prepare for MSG in 2022—we had a restricted period of time to prepare for that—however we additionally had very restricted period of time to start out sitting down and strategizing about, “What do you do with GroupM? What are you doing with OMG? What do you do with Publicis?” The backside line is we didn’t have sufficient time final yr to have the ability to put the appropriate technique collectively figuring out what the histories have been with every of those firms, and we did one of the best we might. We had some successes. We had some failures. We most likely didn’t carry out on the degree of expectation. It was an earlier market final yr, I don’t know when it’s going to maneuver this yr, however the market moved on the sooner facet. We additionally had that working towards us, and we had a lot work to do to mix forces and to mix portfolios. This time round, we’ve been collectively for 13 months. We now work in the identical constructing in virtually each metropolis. I’m sitting right here proper now in Hudson Yards. We have about 400 New York-based salespeople all collectively—identical factor in LA, identical factor in Chicago, identical factor in Detroit, identical factor in Atlanta. We’ve structured our groups in a means the place we’ve individuals working—what we name quads. There’s a staff that’s working on a set of networks, one other set of networks, one other set of networks and loads of our standalone devoted digital staff. They know one another, work collectively, strategize collectively and are available to the entrance along with full information of every part occurring at every company’s portfolio.

You touched on this a bit, however what are you able to inform us about early negotiations to this point?
All I’ll say to this point is the demand is optimistic for us in sports activities. I see a shift to sports activities. I’m seeing that the scores are staying fairly agency within the sports activities world, and there’s loads of fast attain. We’re seeing the advertisers saying our sports activities budgets are going up, or we’re placing extra manufacturers into sports activities, or we’re placing extra manufacturers which can be twin to even female-skewed by way of its concentrating on into sports activities. I feel that would be the style of our enterprise that’s going to be most profitable on this upfront can be sports activities, and I feel the side-by-side with sports activities can be streaming. Overall demand is probably not up all in once you depend every part, however with CNN, we’re heading into an election yr, so we all know that brings sponsors in several methods for protection of the election cycle. The advertisers are taking note of CNN, figuring out that the scores are about to take off as they at all times do in election cycles.

Will we see WBD again on the upfront subsequent yr?
Will we current within the upfront subsequent yr? Yes.

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