Seven was the best upfront of the lot according to one exec, but are there too many singing shows? Media buyers review 2021 upfronts

In this series, senior media buyers review each network's 2021 upfronts presentation, weighing in on what they got right, what they missed, and how the virtual events stack up to the 'real life' versions. Yesterday, Seven was the last of the three commercial networks to present its vision for next year.

In just over a year as CEO, James Warburton has earned a reputation for being brutally honest at the two Seven upfronts he has helmed. In 2019, he confessed the network was “weak, inward focused, tired and stagnant” with “a string of poor programs and failures”. And yesterday, he admitted that “COVID didn’t single us out, but it sure as hell affected us more then our competitors”.

Despite that, the broadcaster is in good shape, Warburton assured media buyers, issuing them with a challenge: “If you read differently, perhaps look at who owns the publication that’s obsessed with writing about us.”

Seven’s 2021 and 2022 slate

The network revealed its fifth tentpole program – joining Big Brother, Farmer Wants a Wife, Australia’s Got Talent, and The Voice – at the very end of the presentation; after 11 years of dormancy, Australian Idol will be back at the start of 2022. It last aired on Ten in 2009. But is three talent shows and two singing competitions in one lineup too many?

Seven also said goodbye to a number of shows: My Kitchen Rules, Plate of Origin, and House Rules have all faced the axe.

Warburton acknowledged the first half of 2020 wasn’t up to scratch, but made a final promise: “No more excuses from us … don’t bet against us.” Here, media agency executives decide how they’re betting on Seven heading into 2021.

What are you most excited about?

Nicola Lewis, chief investment officer at WPP’s Group M: I was impressed with the focus on advanced products, particularly EAVE and platform developments at RED IQ, and how the network is focussed on making sure the ad experience is always being optimised.

Seven focused heavily on demonstrating they took journalism seriously. There was a very strong commitment to the tentpoles that Seven launched, or enhanced, this year to make them bigger and better next year which is always positive.

Seven went heavily into integration opportunities. It was very clear that every time they spoke about a format, it was cross-platform, leveraging digital, social, and advanced products. And, of course, they made a deliberate point of showcasing the strength of their talent.

The confidence around Tokyo was the right thing to do, until they hear otherwise, and the narrative around Tokyo being a ‘digital Olympics’ gave a solid positioning and will make sense to a lot of brands and clients who have already bought into the Olympics or are now looking at it for 2021.

Paul Wilkinson, head of investment at The Media Store: There was so much in that presentation it’s impossible to pin down one thing. After a testing year for Seven, undoubtedly the hardest hit by COVID, they seem to be coming back brimming with confidence and with a real focus on delivering the strategy they laid out in 2019: A new general entertainment content to bring a younger audience back to Seven, back-to-back sports confirmed through to 2025 in some cases, an enviable data offering, #1 news programming, community support throughout Australia, a growing BVOD platform and making trading as easy as possible.

They even covered off e-commerce… there’s a lot going on down at Seven.

Warburton presenting at yesterday’s upfronts

Craig Cooper, chief investment officer at Dentsu’s Carat: The upfronts had a multitude of surprising and delightful moments this year, and definitely felt more grounded in its delivery.

One of the announcements was the return of Australian Idol in February 2022, which is being revived after more than a decade. The network will be in an unique position by holding the reins of the three biggest franchises in this genre. The ability to schedule Australian Idol, The Voice and Australia’s Got Talent so that there is no overlap or competitor network ambushing tactics should surely ensure audiences are engaged and entertained all year round.

CMO Charlotte Valente broke open their data capabilities within 7 Red IQ and it was seriously good news for advertisers. It felt robust and a tight story which should enable agencies and clients to realise a tangible outcome when partnering with the network in this space.

A smaller, but still innovative element, was the announcement of Seven’s e-commerce functionality through 7+. This will see the integration of a QR code to drive shopability of products or services and is a big win for brands and consumers who have adapted to a more prioritised e-commerce offering (and acceptability of QR codes) in a post COVID-19 world.

Nick Durrant, general manager of investment at Mediabrands’ Magna Global: One of the most exciting things we saw from Seven was the spirit of partnership and collaboration that came shining through.

They were constantly referring the programming back to the opportunities it creates for our clients and peppered the whole event with case studies of successful ideas and integration. The Seven sport spine looks particularly strong over the next 18 months, which gives them plenty of scope for promoting their new shows. It was also great to see another strong programming-led upfront, placing content front and centre, including a couple of new dramas in RFDS and Australian Gangster (admittedly not that new but we might at last get to see it).

Idol will be back in 2022

Anthony Ellis, managing director at Publicis Media Exchange: The single most exciting part of the presentation was simply the opportunity for audience growth in 2021 for Seven. Often with these presentations, there’s a desire for innovation and to present the next new thing which I believe is a distraction if you can’t get the core of the business right. This is the ability to create a content slate that attracts and engages Australian audiences at scale. I believe that Seven is well positioned to do that in 2021.

Nicholas Chin, head of digital at OMD Sydney: In a year where, self-admittedly, Seven have had a challenging time, it’s clear that they have been very smart about where they invest their time and resource. I don’t think anyone was expecting the sheer volume of announcements that they made – they managed to cover all bases from data through to innovation (right to the last second of the preso). And each announcement, from all parts of the business, was razor-focused on audience growth and experience.

Was there anything you hoped to see but didn’t?

Paul Wilkinson: Not at all. I thought that was the most well rounded upfront of the season.

Craig Cooper: My Kitchen Rules and House Rules have been a steadfast part of the networks slate for many years, but they were both omitted in this year’s upfronts. It would be interesting to hear what the network has planned for these properties (if anything) beyond 2021.

Sunrise hosts David Koch and Samantha Armytage appeared during the presentation

Nick Durrant: No, I feel this was a very comprehensive presentation. They placed their content and the opportunities it creates for media buyers front and centre and showed us a clear programming strategy and spine.

Anthony Ellis: No.

Nicholas Chin: We got a teaser of some ecommerce features and new ad formats but I would have loved to have heard more.

I was surprised not to hear more about the new people-based data matching features, in Seven’s partnership with Liveramp. It’s a fantastic part of their 7 RED IQ offering and, for clients who have their own audiences, unlocks a lot of potential in addressability.

What was your overall impression?

Nicola Lewis: James [Warburton] came across as honest, and authentic in how he addressed this year’s unexpected challenges.

Seven has experienced solid growth over the past 12 months with a solid content slate and strategy for 7Plus, which enables them to differentiate content from the main broadcast experience. We’ve seen throughout COVID there has been an uptake in consumption and sentiment around nostalgic content series, and from genres consumers might not have connected with before.

Paul Wilkinson: I was genuinely impressed. Of course, the production was always going to be exceptional, but I was really pleased to see that that they are taking some programming risks coupled with a balance of tried and tested formats.

As a trader, I love that they are providing their audience growth predictions. I think it showcases the confidence they have in their suite but also highlights the focus they have on strategy to improve their delivery and overall viewer profile – not to mention how it helps us plan.

I feel they covered off each pillar of their strategy, from content, to data, digital & trading – we got to see exactly how they are positioning themselves for the future. They gave thorough insights on what Seven IQ is – how it works – and gave examples of how you can use it which is something other networks did not do. They also provided a clear and concise explanation on Seven IQ around what we can do with data they have available.

My only concern is the amount of re-cycled programme formats – I can’t say I was particularly excited about the return of Australian Idol…

Craig Cooper: Solid and safe. It feels like 2020 has been their watershed year, and they have put everything in place for a successful 18 months, which includes not one, but two, Olympics telecasts.

It was refreshing to see Home & Away, Better Homes & Gardens and 7 News get their share of the limelight this year. These are hard-working and foundational network properties that deliver consistent ratings and relevant alignment opportunities throughout the calendar year.

News.com.au, an extension of the 7 News product was also featured heavily, and for good reason. It strengthens the editorial integrity of the network especially with younger audiences and helps raise the bar on investigative journalism with the likes of Spotlight Investigations. With high digital audience levels, the network has an opportunity to leverage this news content hub with relevant brands next year.

Seven’s Charlotte Valente

Nick Durrant: This was a strong performance from Seven. They are looking to forge partnerships, they were honest and addressed their first half performance, and they presented a clear and strong programming slate for the next 18 months.

We might disagree over how some of those programmes may perform, as I am slightly concerned with the number of talent competitions, but their plan is clear.

Anthony Ellis: Seven didn’t shy away from the challenges and disappointment of 2020. However, they were also able to build confidence through an impressive tentpole strategy of programs that clients are able to integrate into, whilst also being underpinned by a huge year of sport.

One of the concerns for me was the potential over reliance on the talent/singing show genre, which could face audience fatigue.

Seven predicted growth and backed this up by offering guarantees to clients. The network also announced the launch of 7 RED iQ which provides an ability to provide greater targeting at scale to drive more effective campaigns which I see as positive. Overall, I thought Seven did a great job.

Nicholas Chin: It was very, very honest, but incredibly clear that there is a strong, well-thought-out plan in place. There are some dependencies, like the cricket and new tentpole programming landing, but what came through was that Seven are being smart about their product decision making. They are putting skin in the game, using their own data and their knowledge of the audience to guide programming and ad experience. This gives me confidence that they can punch through 2021, and likely beyond.

How do you think the network has performed in 2020?

Nicola Lewis: Last year, James presented a reinvigorated year of content ahead, to reach younger audiences. This year was hard for Seven, as programming has not performed consistently or to the degree they said it would, but they have stability in the spine of their content, and strength in news and sport.

Seven’s sports lineup

Last year, Seven talked about wanting to be the easiest network for agencies to deal with, and that’s something that excites us. We haven’t seen the growth in Code 7 this year so into next year I’d like to see that come to fruition.

Paul Wilkinson: They have had some serious challenges, and James Warburton was honest and candid about that, just as he was in the 2019 upfronts.

Their content slate was impacted much more heavily than any of their competitors but they lived up to their reputation of reliability and honesty and delivered on all the elements within their control. Hats off to Kurt Burnette, Nat Harvey, and the rest of the sales team.

Craig Cooper: Seven has been fairly honest about 2020. H1 didn’t perform in line with their market expectations, mainly driven by lack of audience affinity with MKR. The have looked at 2021 as a way to claw back lost audiences with a suite of new and varied programming.

With all the troubles that have befallen Seven in 2020, to be only a small audience percentage margin off the #1 network ranking is testament to not only the agility to fix underperforming properties, but also the importance of a clear strategic direction for the future of the network.

Kurt Burnette, Charlotte Valente, James Warburton, and Angus Ross

Nick Durrant: Seven themselves acknowledged that their first half was not good enough but once football came back, they have been performing more strongly. They have also had a couple of programming wins from their big bets. Big Brother has helped and SAS currently seems like it could be a really strong show – it’s certainly winning in my house. If Holey Moley can carve out a family niche in Q1 2021, then their schedule next year is looking stronger already.

Anthony Ellis: Seven has been severely impacted due to COVID – arguably moreso than most – and has bounced back in the second half. This is why I am optimistic that the network will have some significant audience growth in a number of areas in 2021.

Nicholas Chin: Seven’s BVOD growth has been a real success story in 2020, they have done a great job in attracting a really loyal audience outside of the tentpole programs. In a challenging year, this has not only sustained their share but also helped to grow it. With more investment into the platform in 2021, this should make for a very competitive space.

How did you think Seven fared in the virtual context – did you feel like you missed out on anything versus what a face-to-face upfronts offers?

Nicola Lewis: It’s really hard to deliver everything in a virtual format but Seven divided the time well between content and product. Given the challenging year Seven has had in terms of audiences and content, it would be remiss of them not to spend their time focusing on content. They did that and made sure they gave enough time to all key genres, including news, current affairs, drama and sport.

I would expect nothing less than for Seven to focus on their sporting talent, sporting calendar, and the ways brands can engage consumers in their passion through integration and sponsorship packages. They showed a sophisticated approach to how they are driving audience growth in key demographics and how brands can integrate into their content as they grow.

Paul Wilkinson: I think that was the best upfront of the season and there was some stiff competition this year as Nine and Ten also delivered impressive presentations. However in terms of covering the bases, I feel that Seven provided the clearest insight into the business moving forward.

Chief sales officer Kurt Burnette

Craig Cooper: Seven delivered a comprehensive and authentic upfronts platform for the next 18 months that fits perfectly with their heartland Australian heritage. The virtual experience offered a wider client and agency net for the network to capture and allow audiences to, dare I say, work ‘Better Together’.

Nick Durrant: I thought they did not miss a lot being in the virtual space. They used their talent well and the visual nature meant they were able to get a lot of information over, probably more than in a live event. It also had some real zip to it which kept me engaged all the way through.

Anthony Ellis: There’s no doubt that the virtual events across all major media organisations lacks the buzz that a typical upfront offers. However, the virtual format allows for more information to be delivered in a digestible way. Overall, I think that the media industry has done a great job in adapting to the change.

Nicholas Chin: The virtual forum helps to give all of our planners and buyers access to the announcements, rather than just a select few – so the online setting is probably much more useful in that respect. While an in-person event may help you get under the skin of the announcements a bit more, the ‘Inside 7’ website was a very good way of providing that extra level of info. I do miss the aperols, though!


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