One of the first things Sean Moran had to do after becoming Viacom’s new advertising sales chief was sell the Video Music Awards, one of MTV’s big annual events.
Moran, a well-respected 20-year MTV veteran before being named head of marketing and partner solutions in July, has a tough assignment, with Viacom embroiled in ownership issues, low ratings at networks including MTV and Comedy Central and a long run of declining ad revenue. Getting sponsors for the August 28 awards show is a relative walk in the park.
Moran has been selling the VMAs for decades and says he’s seen them evolve from a show where marketers buy a few spots to an event that reaches out to fans not just via cable but through digital and social channels and works with sponsors to create sophisticated data-driven programs and original content to connect brands with music fans.
Last year, ratings for the VMAs were down sharply on MTV, but Viacom was able to accumulate a total of 9.8 million viewers by simulcasting the event on 10 channels, down 5% from 2014. That was bolstered by a wave of 76 million social views, including 47 million tweets globally and 12 million more on Snapchat.
That seems to have made advertisers happy and this year’s show is already sold out, according to Moran. Official sponsors include Pepsi, Taco Bell, Trojan brand condoms, the Trust anti-smoking campaign, Twix, Verizon, Taco Bell, which is presenting the Best New Artist award, and Orbit gum, presenting the professional categories.
The activity on those digital and social platforms generates incremental revenue, he says. “We know with this audience that ratings only tell a portion of the story,” says Moran. “That reflects why it’s been so vibrant for so many years and continues to sell out every year.”
The VMAs are a microcosm for the issues facing much of the TV industry. With new streaming entertainment options many millennials are cord-nevers, and hard to reach with traditional TV. That’s especially hurt Viacom and its youth-oriented channels like MTV.
Viacom’s ad revenue has been falling, creating a key financial issue at the media company, which is the subject of an epic battle for control between key shareholder Sumner Redstone and CEO Philippe Dauman.
Despite the corporate drama, Viacom garnered higher volume and prices during the recent upfront ad market. Moran says clients are less concerned with boardroom battles than with “how their consumers are touching our fans and how we’re delivering on that.”
Moran says “we have folks knocking down the door to be part of the most advanced data offering in the industry.…As long as we keep having best-in-class offerings like Vantage and Velocity, the conversation will move in the right direction.”
Viacom Vantage offers data-targeted advertising. Velocity uses data to create and distribute branded content for clients.
In his new job he’s reconnecting with some of his high-level contacts at clients and agencies. He plans to announce some “tweaks” to Viacom’s ad sales structure after Labor Day.
While MTV has struggled with a lack of compelling content, it is under new leadership this year with former Discovery Digital executive Sean Atkins as president. New programming will begin showing up on the network soon.
“We’re very excited about what his team is bringing forth,” Moran says. “MTV still has a lot of touchpoints people want to be a part of. And the way Velocity brings those fans through has made some of the top clients and categories continue to invest.”
Critics say that MTV no longer dominates youth culture the way it did when it was the place to go to see Prince videos, Beavis and Butt-Head and The Osbournes. But Moran says that for at least the night the VMAs air, MTV is the center of the millennial culture universe—and advertisers know it.
“There’s no other place in the world like it for youth culture,” Moran says, because of “what transpires, the celebrities that touch it and the way it lives on even for weeks afterwards.”
This year’s VMAs will be special, originating live from New York’s legendary Madison Square Garden. Britney Spears, whose VMAs moments with Madonna and a huge yellow snake are legendary, will perform live at the VMAs for the first time in nine years. Kanye West, who has also blown up the internet with VMAs antics, is a nominee. And Moran says that with the show airing on 10 networks again to make it accessible, TV viewership should be in the same ballpark as last year. Social media should continue to explode, he says. “We expect big numbers again.”
Viacom’s advanced advertising capabilities will be figuratively on center stage. Viacom Velocity, which creates branded content and the Viacom Velocity Network, which distributes that content, will have its own production truck at MSG, shooting live content for client partners for Facebook Live, Snapchat, Instagram and other social platforms.
“The VMAs is where we experiment with new social partnerships every year,” says Chris Ficarra, executive VP of Viacom Velocity. Velocity will create hundreds of pieces of content for clients and this year for the first time will use paid media to distribute its content so it reaches the right customers. Viacom has forged partnerships with a number of data companies to provide third-party reports so that it can guarantee digital and social impressions and make sponsors comfortable putting their ad dollars behind that content.
“This year you’re going to see us take our most aggressive approach,” Ficarra says. “All of our activations are meant to give fans more of the VMAs and by our clients locking arms with us to do that they come along for a much deeper, richer ride.”
For example, MTV announced the nominees for top video of the year with a 19-minute video featuring street artists on Facebook Live that drew 2.7 million views for its sponsors.
Moran says this year’s VMAs will also have a deeper relationship with Snapchat. Viacom has a deal to sell ads and create content with Snapchat, whose new head of global sales is Jeff Lucas, Moran’s predecessor and boss at Viacom. Moran notes the high-profile transition has been unusually friendly. “We’re already working with him and his team on the next generation of product between Snapchat and Viacom,” Moran says.
Moran says that because of the event’s timing a lot of VMAs sponsors made the decision to sign up 18 months ago, before last year’s upfront. And already at this year’s upfront, “people are clamoring to be part of the 2017 show,” he says.