Upfronts 2016: Viacom 'Datafront' Puts Research Center Stage

Counterprogrammed against ABC, session explores demography, bias and purchase intent
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Complete Coverage: Upfronts 2016

In a decidedly odd counterprogramming move during the biggest week in the TV ad business, Viacom opted to convene its first "Datafront" in the middle of broadcast upfronts, directly opposite ABC's Lincoln Center pitch to media buyers.

The event at the company's Times Square headquarters offered an hour-long collection of keynotes exploring the evolution and future of ad targeting. While it featured the requisite jokey videos, comedian emcee (Natasha Leggero of Comedy Central's Another Period) and open bars, the Datafront played more like a mix of grad-school seminar and company town hall. The goal, above all, was to assert that Viacom's well-fortified research team is more relevant than ever as networks court Madison Avenue's billions.

Related: For Some, Fewer Spots May Mean More

The flag-waving came at a precipitous moment for Viacom, which is seeing ratings erode across its portfolio of cable networks. The company's stock price, at about $39 a share, has also dropped to nearly half its year-ago levels amid heightened Wall Street scrutiny and a complex succession/medical competency proceedings involving controlling shareholder and longtime ex-chairman Sumner Redstone.  

"Data has always been present" in TV's ad-sales negotiations, said Ross Martin, Viacom's executive VP of marketing strategy and engagement. But now, researchers "are moving from the back room to the board room, and that's exciting."

Bryson Gordon, Viacom's executive VP of data strategy, discussed how Viacom is trying to "reverse-engineer targets for advertisers" using "a system that learns from its experience."

Related: Network Sales Execs Expecting Big Upfront

The company, after research pegged the number of times viewers flipped the channel at 104,698,784,936 per year, examined the effect of targeting of the ads subjected to that itchy trigger finger. Spots deemed to be properly targeted made viewers 15% less likely to flip, Gordon said, and viewers who ranked as the most frequent flippers consumed 68% more ads than the average viewer.

The most substantial section of the event focused more on demography and intent. In addition to touting a new partnership with American Express designed to use the company's data to predict luxury purchases, speakers looked at the question of bias.

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Viewers relate things strictly to their own contexts and social environments, said Lily Durwood, a PhD candidate at the University of Washington, which can alter how they view certain demographics. They may assume certain things about a typical college student, for example, "the same way that people in Antarctica think a penguin is a typical bird," she said.

Kodi Foster, Viacom's VP of data strategy, said racial and socio-economic biases are often confirmed by the echo chamber of social media. Recent research finds that 61% of millennials use Facebook as their primary news source.

That circumstance can cause pitches to boomerang on brands if the strategy and planning of their campaigns goes awry or is not thorough or thoughtful enough from the outset. "If you miss who you're targeting with your message, they're not going to ignore you. They're going to torch you," Foster said. "If I don't like something, I hate it, because we're becoming less and less empathetic" as a society.