Buyers on Seven upfronts: 'Audacious, articulate with a laser-like content focus'

Josh McDonnell
By Josh McDonnell | 29 October 2019
James Warburton at the 2019 Upfronts

Seven, in the last of the major three commercial upfronts presentations of 2019, came out swinging, boasting a 30% increase in investment into content, a promise to refresh and rejuvinate primetime and new trading platforms for media buyers.

Seven's new CEO, James Warburton, was highly critical of his new network's performance in primetime throughout 2019 and promised to introduce new content in 2020 that would be heavily targetted towards the 25-54 age demographic.

While the Tokyo Olympics also remained a major part of the overall conversation, continued commitment to the AFL and its second year in cricket was also made, with Seven revealing the Australian hit "Howzat" by Sherbert as the song of the 'Summer of Cricket'.

To get a better understanding of what all this means for the future of the network in 2020, AdNews spoke with industry leaders to find out more on what agencies made of Seven's plans for the new year.

Commenting on Warburton's comments around primetime, many buyers agreed that it was refereshing to hear a CEO take responsibility for a poor performance but at the same time commit to improving the situation.

"It was good to see some humility from a network that has led the way for many years. James was honest and humble and it was a refreshing introduction which really set the tone for the evening," Amplifi chief investment officer Michael Bass says.

Wavemaker senior director investment and activation Aaron Hampson-Smith agreed, adding that Warburton recognised that formerly dominant primetime tentpole programming had become tired.

He says he provided confidence in the network’s commitment to refresh existing formats and give new formats an opportunity to find an audience, with a particular focus on the important 7.30pm timeslot.

PHD chief investment and commercial officer Lucy Formosa Morgan says it was good to see him stand up and speak the truth about the network's performance in one of the key areas of TV.

"Seven have definitely had a challenging year, with audiences back double digit year to date so it’s raised questions with agencies and advertisers about their ability to deliver the audiences we’re buying and after," she says.

"James was speaking the truth so good on him for standing up and doing just that. If the content on a network is strong, people will watch but unfortunately this year just hasn’t been Seven’s year."

OMD Brisbane group trading director James Lucas labelled the comments as "audacious and honest", noting that Seven's lack of success in primetime has allowed the likes of Nine and Ten to find their own successes at 7.30pm.

"James tackled the elephant in the room from the moment he walked on stage and in doing so was able to build the trust required for the team to deliver the key points of the night with confidence," Lucas ays.

"Seven has struggled recently in the anchor 7:30pm timeslot, which has allowed Nine and Ten to come out with hits of their own this year, such as Lego Masters and The Masked Singer."

One buyer who doesn't agree with Warburton's approach was Hyland founder Virginia Hyland, finding that comments "a tad disaapointing".

She says the comments sounded more like "marketing spin" and that it painted a picture that marketers and agencies had been "duped" in 2019.

What I heard was that we had been duped as buyers and marketers in 2019. That we shouldn’t have been spending any more on Seven this year because the content was poor. I don’t agree that all Seven decisioning this year has been poor," Hyland says.

"It seemed a little like marketing spin – this year we made bad choices but next year is going to be amazing. How do we trust from these comments that next year is truly going to be amazing. What if the results are the same as 2019?"

Programming reinvention

GroupM chief investment officer Nicola Lewis says committing 30% more investment and giving stage time to production partners like Eureka and Endemol is a really important signal Seven are putting content front and centre, and recognising those premium producers.

They’ve introduced some good new formats that will bring people in to the Seven ecosystem and then spread them out across each of their platforms," she says

"There was a real irreverence in some of the content that we haven’t seen from Seven for a while - Pooch Perfect, Plates of Origin and Mega Mini Golf - which speaks to a strategy to bring in a younger audience, but I do wonder how those formats will resonate with current Seven audience."

Publicis Media Exchange managing director Sarah Keith says Seven had a clear objective, and it was reassuring to know that they have a "laser-like focus" on investment in content, while not over relying on the Olympics.

"A couple of strong formats, family friendly like Mega Mini Golf is a strong bet. Plate of Origin needs a little more work. Great idea but need to see how that plays out over a series," Keith says.

"The content approach we saw from Seven demonstrates they are determined to change. It's going to be an exciting year, both for consumers in terms of what available to view across the three FTA networks and from a media point of view. It feels genuinely competitive again."

Wavemaker senior director, investment and activation Aaron Hampson-Smith praised the decision to refresh existing, but tired, tentpoles MKR and House Rules which he says should help to at least stem audience declines and will potentially re-engage former viewers.

He added the return of shows like Farmer Wants A Wife may attract an audience seeking a more wholesome dating show up against Married At First Sight. 

"Much of the new programming affirmed Seven’s commitment to intensely target the P25-54 demo, with Mega Mini Golf, Big Brother Revolution and Pooch Perfect all likely to attract new and younger viewers to the Network," Hampson-Smith says.

"If Plate of Origin with Gary, Manu and Matt can find a strong audience post-Olympics, it will provide Seven with the key H2 tentpole program it’s been looking for over the past few years, to compete with The Block and Ten's Bachelor franchise."

Hatched Media general manager Stephen Fisher highlighted that the entire year is centred around the Olympics which he says is going to give Seven a "huge platform" to hinge content around both before and post that event.

He also says that while the content slate looks strong and the reworking of some of its tentpole shows is encouraging, the proof will be in the delivery.

"Plate of Origin was clearly the big news and it’ll be good to get some more detail, but it will do well simply because of interest in the talent and the fact it’s a new format in the food space with that talent," Fisher says.

"They have a very, very strong sport backbone right through the year with Cricket, AFL and Olympics which is very compelling and will allow them to give new programming the best opportunity for success through promotion.  My tip?  Mega Mini Golf will be 2020’s Masked Singer."

Despite her critic of Warburton's comments, Hyland says shows like the return of Big Brother looks "promising".

She says there is a whole generation of viewers who won't know the show's format, and, based on the success of shows like Love Island, it could perform well in the younger demos.

'We all know how popular dogs and cats viewing is on YouTube so I think Pooch Perfect with strong talent such as Rebel Wilson could be a hit – fun, light hearted with dearly loved pets. Plate of Origin may be hit or miss," Hyland says.

"I don’t think just because talent have moved from Ten to Seven that the show will be a guaranteed ratings success."

Bass says the content changes are "a good start", however argued that there was still more work to do.

"Time will tell if recycling old formats was the right decision, but we're yet to see how Seven will bring those formats to life. Big Brother comes with legacy in this market, however we're in a completely different television landscape to when BB launched in 2002," Bass says.

"Moving forward, I’m hoping to see a refreshing new genre or some creative risk, rather than more reality shows. That may be something for later in 2020 or early 2021 though." 

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