Not so ago, the cable-owned spot rep firm NCC Media was all about linear. With affiliation deals covering most of the cable markets in the U.S., NCC’s world rotated around the tried, true and tested 30-second commercial.
Brokering a share of the local commercial inventory controlled by its affiliates, NCC has made a living for years aligning national advertisers and brands with the sometimes-peculiar geographies and processes of the local cable ad business. Through NCC, an automaker with a line of convertible cars, for instance, could heavy up a spot cable ad campaign in sunshine markets where buyers are more likely to cruise with the top down. The advertiser would choose the markets, supply the creative and write the check, and NCC would go about the workmanlike tasks of getting the right spot to run in the right geographies, on the right cable systems and on the right networks.
Today, that essential process is still the bread-and-butter business of New York-based NCC. Last year the company delivered (drum roll here) more than 34 million 30-second spots across roughly 2,900 cable systems, according to President and CEO Greg Schaefer (pictured). That’s more than 2.8 million spots per month, or 94,000 per day, flowing through the advertiser-to-NCC-to-local cable ecosystem.
But like the television industry at large, NCC’s world is changing. While account executives still lead with the arguments of geographic and demographic specificity that have long supported the cable spot ad business, NCC’s media mix is growing to encompass online advertising and new interactive possibilities.
Among them, a current focus is on selling online banner and display inventory tied to web portals developed by NCC’s cable affiliates. Although MSO portals are little-heralded in an environment of more glamorous websites, cable operators generate significant traffic through their customer portals that aggregate email platforms, newsfeeds, customer-care options and more into branded online vehicles. These portals are quietly becoming significant revenue contributors: Comcast Spotlight CEO Charlie Thurston told a Cable Show 2011 panel that Comcast’s revenues from advertising on its subscriber portal now exceed $60 million annually. While that’s a fraction of Comcast’s roughly $2 billion in local/spot advertising sales, it’s a huge increase from the $3 million the MSO billed for its portal just a few years ago.
Schaefer says a presence in this growing marketplace makes sense for NCC as a precursor to a broader set of digital media vehicles the cable industry is now developing.
“At the end of the day, the wonderful video offering we have through the cable system is going to be available on other devices including iPads and mobile phones, but initially that same pipe is where people get their email and venture off into the Internet, and there needs to be a way to put that together and bring that to an advertiser in a meaningful way,” Schaefer said.
The transition to online media hasn’t been easy, particularly for a TV spot sales organization that has grown up in the world of traditional linear commercials. Schaefer hired a dedicated leader, SVP James Loughran, to head NCC’s Digital Media Strategies group after realizing there were significant process and cultural gaps inside NCC. Loughran previously was VP of Sales for CBS Interactive.
“I finally had to take a reality pill and hire an SVP of sales from the digital world who understands relationships between ad networks and publishers,” he said.
Figuring out how to navigate a changing media-buying environment also has taken time. Schaefer, who joined NCC in 2002 after managing the CBS flagship station WCBS-TV in New York City, said he realizes NCC has to accommodate two types of digital buys: those placed by traditional agencies that come to NCC mainly for spot purchases, and specialty agencies that buy online media exclusively. As a result, NCC has tweaked the way it organizes its own sales force. Its traditional linear-spot sales group now sells online inventory as part of a media mix, but NCC also has created a specialized group dedicated solely to digital media sales. “Even though our linear sellers were selling (online) and getting more sophisticated, we realized we need dedicated digital sellers, too,” Schaefer said.