No matter which part of US media you look at, change is afoot, whether it’s the push for changes to the $20 billion upfront TV sales season, or digital, where greater emphasis on consumer privacy concerns is radically altering how brands can target. Or it could be cross-media measurement, a difficult topic on which to come to any type of consensus. Recently, for WARC’s Spotlight US, “Media strategies for a shifting US landscape,” Cathy Taylor, WARC’s Commissioning Editor US, discussed these issues with Ben Jankowski, senior vp/media at Mastercard. Jankowski is also co-chair of the Association of National Advertiser’s Media Leadership Committee, giving him perspective not just on his own brand, but on the media industry as a whole.

This article is part of the March 2021 Spotlight US series, “Media strategies for a shifting US landscape.” Read more

Topline insights:

  • There has been anecdotal progress toward the changes recommended by the ANA Media Leadership Committee to re-tool the US TV upfront ad sales market to be more responsive to marketer needs, but industry leaders know things will happen slowly.
  • One of the big industry-wide challenges is to develop a privacy-compliant way to measure across different media owner platforms; while individual companies, such as NBCUniversal, are doing a good job within their own properties, work continues slowly through the initiatives of ANA and the WFA (World Federation of Advertisers).
  • The trend toward brand inclusion/exclusion lists to keep advertising safe online has adversely and unintentionally affected content creators from minority groups, but some media platforms, such as Google, are helping marketers develop better strategies to drive more diversity around content creators.
  • Mastercard’s approach to sponsorship, which plays off of its long-time “Priceless” campaign has been focused on passion areas, such as its global sponsorship of League of Legends, now in its third year, and other activations around sports, music, culinary, and travel, among others.
WARC: The ANA Media Leadership Committee made a big call for changes last June to the upfront market, and the wish list included changing its spring timing to a calendar year, more financial flexibility, and more reliable ratings data. As we head into the 2021 upfront, it doesn't look like much has changed. Where has there been progress? And what you would like to see happen going forward?

Ben Jankowski: We started last year to put together some ideas on where we wanted to change. There are a lot of legacy elements to the upfront process that just weren't conducive to everybody. But I think last year, when we were all going through the original first couple months of the pandemic, we were trying to drive some things around flexibility, and change some other parts of the process.

We were never going to flip a switch; it was never going to completely change overnight. But we'd like to think we've raised awareness, both amongst our partners on the media owner side, as well as the marketers, to understand and appreciate where there's more options and alternatives. It's an ongoing journey. Would we have loved to have made more sweeping progress in last year's upfront? Absolutely. But I'm optimistic that over time we can try to drive some of the changes that we wanted.

What components do you feel you've made more progress on?

We've certainly raised the tide of awareness on the timing. It's hard to get hard and fast numbers of whether the percent of deals that went on a calendar year basis last year were increased from the previous year or not. There were other things, like trying to drive more financial flexibility [that we want to see change], and that's a two way street. It's not just marketers wanting more flexibility. Last year in the heart of the pandemic, it would have been valuable for everybody to have more flexibility because the networks got squeezed with options and things like that too.

It's a little bit anecdotal, but intuitively, we think we've made progress, but it's small. If you look at it on the surface, you'd say, "Man, they made a lot of noise and didn't make a lot of change." And that would be fair. But it's not like it's over. It's an ongoing journey that we will keep trying to work on.

If you look at other media types, even local TV, I can exercise options and cancel activity two weeks out. Digital is even less than that. But relatively speaking to where the money flows, the traditional way that we buy most TV is just antiquated and locks people up.

How are the traditional TV players doing with selling cross-platform?

There are varying degrees of progress. Without calling people out, a couple of networks have done a really good job of building cross-channel platforms, building in new measures, and things like that to contemporize themselves. Disney recently announced its Disney Platform to make it easier for advertisers to buy on an automated, addressable basis.

The challenge will be getting across platforms from different media owners, because marketers don't necessarily want more walled gardens; we want to be able to compare across media types. Not many consumers will just consume all Disney properties, or NBCUniversal properties. That said, it's amazing we have better ways to measure and that should be applauded. NBCUniversal with the One Platform – they invested a lot of time and energy into building that platform, and it's fantastic. The challenge is how do I compare it to what I'm consuming in everybody else's platform? That's the part where we have to do more work, and that's the biggest part of the ANA cross-media measurement work.

As marketers we also don't do enough work thinking about video in the absolute. How I compare that TV experience to all the other different ways to consume video, whether it be streaming or digital, or OTT – we need to think about it more holistically.

The temptation to find unique, bespoke metrics for every platform doesn't help marketers. It doesn't help me figure out – if I've only got one more dollar to spend – what type of platform I’m going to spend it on. It's just a long journey that we have to keep our eye on the prize and keep trying to tackle it.

How do all the concerns about privacy run into that?

If you look through any of the work that the WFA produced when it first came out with the global construct for cross-platform, or the work the ANA has done, one of the first givens is that it has to be privacy safe. No marketer can work in an environment where you compromise privacy.

How have changes in behavior during the pandemic changed media allocation for you?

It's a great question without a simple answer. We have some categories that were not positive for our business. In our case, e-commerce marked a huge change in consumer behavior. We had to pivot really fast for some things like, how can we talk to consumers about contactless payments? We used to talk about speed and safety in a different way. We would talk about identity safety. And now we're talking about safety because people don’t want to touch other people's money. In that case, it was more about awareness, because the awareness of contactless was not like the awareness of credit cards in general, and we went back to legacy things like linear TV, where ratings were exponentially higher. If we’re trying to drive much more of a commerce message, we want to do direct deals with merchants like Instacart. It's so variable, dependent upon what we're trying to do.

2020 was also a year where concerns around diversity were front and center, and some of the big media agencies are doing multicultural marketplaces. What is your take on that?

There are three things to think about. The first is we were studying diverse audiences and analyzing those audiences way before last year. We continue to feel we're doing a good job, representing across – every demographic, or across gender lines, or race lines, or traditional age or income lines.

The second is a lot of people talk about supporting, women- or Black-owned businesses, but if you're trying to really look at scale, even some of the properties that have very heavy skews towards female audiences, or race-specific audiences, they're not owned by big companies, so from a media standpoint, that’s a challenge.

The third – which is really, really important – is the unintended consequences, from a brand safety standpoint, of limiting content distribution. Every single brand wants to be brand safe. We are now learning how brand safety controls create limitations for content creators, and specifically minority content creators. Some media platforms, like Google, have done a really good job of helping us understand the consequences and how we can develop better strategies to drive more diversity around content creators. Frankly, every brand has inclusion/exclusion lists. I don't think as an industry we appreciated the impact those decisions made on content creators. Now we're much more aware of it, and hopefully that situation will change.

Mastercard is also very involved in sponsorships. What is your approach to sponsorship, and also what have you specifically learned from your global sponsorship of League of Legends, which goes back to 2018?

The original tagline of "Priceless" was rooted in a consumer insight that experiences matter more than things. Some of our competition was talking about very materialistic, very property-driven things. It was a competitive differentiator to say time with your family and your friends is priceless. And we've become very experientially driven. People who have more experience with us – they transact better, they're better customers, so we use sponsorships to really help us drive consumer engagement experiences. When we do it best, we do it with a great combination of big, huge, sponsorships and powerful media campaigns to support them.

League of Legends is a really, interesting one. The traditional perception would be the gaming audience is really small, but it's not at all. For us, it’s a great chance to get into a pretty underutilized market. There are only a couple of big, mass non-endemic-to gaming brands in there. We’ve gotten to do some really cool things, which are inherently socially driven because we're trying to find ways to engage our audiences, which may be playing or watching the game.

If you're a cardholder, we figured out how you could get easier ways to play the game. You can get hacks to win the game faster. You can get extra bonus points, things like League of Legends currency. There are a lot of different things we do to create commerce; because we're so experiential we're really trying to focus on passion areas. So, if you're a big League of Legends fan, we’re catching you in a more contextually relevant message. And it's the same for the work we do in all of our sponsorships, around sports, around music, around culinary, around travel.

Has the League of Legends sponsorship helped you with other virtual experiences during COVID?

I wouldn't say League of Legends helped us make the other things more virtual. We were already pretty active and aggressive about that. We discovered, pre-COVID, that people want to talk to influencers and ambassadors that they like, rather than talk to brands – so if Lionel Messi is a spokesperson for Mastercard, which he is, his fans want to listen to him talk. We learned that leveraging our partners’ channels is getting us more authenticity than our own channels, so if you translate that into the COVID world, we did a big volume of digital experiences. Once we're all vaccinated and go back to normal, whatever that means, it's not like we're going to stop doing virtual experiences, because I think we learned they are a really great way for us to get scale. Some of them, like Camila Cabello, did private concerts, and hundreds of thousands of people showed up, and the experiences went all the way down to more intimate cooking events, or a golf pro giving tips; we had a pretty wide range. Those aren't going to go away.

There are so many urgent needs in the media ecosystem right now. How do you prioritize what's most important?

If we think about axes, there'll be some things that are on a scale of importance versus things on a scale of speed. There's going to be some low-hanging fruit, things we can do fast to make our business better, but some of those really important things – like cross-media measurement – we always knew that was never going to be a short-term fix. I also think that issue amplifies why we need to find those uncommon collaborations in the industry. We're all on the same side of trying to tackle and solve this problem. There’s a need for those uncommon collaborations and groups like the ANA, and the WPA, and for us to organize ourselves and actually make true progress. We can't chop ourselves into pieces and try to solve problems. We have to find ways to find common ground and we're working at it. It's hard. But we're making progress.