Five takeaways from this year's advertising NewFronts, upfronts

Singer, Mariah Carey performs during the 2016 NBCUniversal Upfronts
Paul Drinkwater | NBCUniversal | NBCU Photo Bank | Getty Images

The digital content NewFronts and network upfronts, where media companies show off the best of what's to come for 2016 and 2017 for potential advertisers, have finally wound down. Here's some of the main takeaways.

Quality is key and digital says it has it

Digital media companies especially emphasized that they could make premium-quality content just like TV, and deserved those ad dollars.

BuzzFeed pitched advertisers episodic series like "You Do You" and "Broke." YouTube talked about partnerships with sports leagues like the NBA and kid's shows like "Sesame Street."

Among the hybrids, Vice touted the fact that it will launch 20 channels by the end of the year, saying it was "the fastest growing network in the history of TV." Hulu brought out its creators and original show stars like Mindy Kaling, Amy Pohler and Hugh Laurie.

"This is the challenge from day one five years ago with the (digital content) NewFronts," said Ben Winkler, chief investment officer at ad agency OMD. "Can we match the quality and can we match scale? We don't call it broadcast for nothing."

Winkler admits that for the first few years, NewFront presenters couldn't pretend that they were on the scale of television, so they focused on their quality of content. But, it wasn't on par with TV.

More recently, platforms like YouTube and Hulu have shown that you can have high-quality shows that exist only online.

"The creation of that content seems to be shifting from people in their bedrooms turning the camera on themselves to sophisticated high-investment studio content that you want your brand associated with," said Winkler.

Still, some media buyers are skeptical that all online products are just like what you would see on the small screen.

"Quality short-form video or internet video has suffered from a quality gap," said Charlie Fiordalis, chief digital officer at media agency Media Storm. "I would be wary of making direct comparisons from traditional to digital video when it comes to actual minute-by-minute ratings."

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More companies are working together

Instead of proclaiming that media companies could bring audiences to their own homepages, more were willing to reach across the TV-digital divide and partner.

Linda Yaccarino at NBCUniversal's upfront talked about BuzzFeed and Vox entering the portfolio. Univision brokered a deal with Netflix to air some of its originals. The two are also working together on an upcoming series about Mexican drug lord El Chapo.

Even digital companies weren't afraid to say their content is getting reach on other platforms. BuzzFeed was proud of its food network Tasty's reach on Facebook, while NowThisNews showcased its Snapchat presence.

"There is no way that you an ignore consumer behavior," said Dan Ackerman, senior vice president of programmatic TV at AOL. "It has been already demonstrated that, yes, I want to access premium content, but I'm going to access it where and in the different ways that I want to."

Branded entertainment is the future

While digital has been preaching about its ability to create custom content that delivers brand messages, broadcast networks really publicized this year that they could do that on TV as well. And many networks weren't afraid to cut commercial time to do it.

Fox highlighted how it could do seamless product placement integration, like putting Pepsi in "Empire." At Turner's upfront, it talked about content studios like CNN's Courageous and the new Team Coco Digital Studio, which will tap into Conan O'Brien's team to create materials on behalf of brands. Team Coco's program is mostly focused on digital and social, but Turner is open to broadcast integration.

On the digital side, everyone from The New York Times to Playboy said they could make videos to fit advertisers' messages.

"The old story was we'll take your ad and shove it in front of your audience," said Winkler. "Now, it's we're going to work with you to make something great. It's much more sophisticated conversations."

Miley Cyrus and Alicia Keys during the 2016 NBCUniversal Upfronts
Paul Drinkwater | NBCUniversal | NBCU Photo Bank | Getty Images

Virtual reality content for everyone

Digital is betting that virtual reality will become the next big advertising medium. NewFront presenters from The New York Times to Refinery 29 all had VR experiences for attendees to experience. Hulu said that audiences spent 12 minutes per session on its VR app, compared with the average of two minutes for other VR media companies.

National Geographic's NG VR studio is using the technology to give a more immersive behind-the-scenes experience. The Economist is also producing more VR films.

Networks, on the other hand, didn't talk about virtual reality. But, with the way things are trending, it's only a couple of years before it becomes inevitable.

Data might not be in the forefront but it's still a big part of the conversation

During last year's upfronts and NewFronts, everyone was hit over the head with how every media company had proprietary data insights and could use that to better target advertising. Even ESPN dedicated a whole presentation to lampooning the fact that everyone was talking about crunching numbers without any deep meaning.

"From a pomp-and-circumstance perspective last year it was woven into everything they were talking about." AOL's Ackerman said. (Broadcast) needed to transition television into a more data-driven mindset because it was coming out of the NewFronts."

The fight for ad dollars

The message is still there, but it was more about how to use it to buy better ads. Ackerman pointed to deals like Univision partnering with ONE by AOL to bring programmatic (or automated) ad buying to television.

NBCUniversal announced NBCUx for Linear TV earlier this year, its first foray into programmatic ad buying on television. The network also touted Audience Studio, which includes a data management technology platform to help target ads. NBCx for Linear TV is part of the data offerings that makes up Audience Studio.

"You have seen a move away from big data towards advanced ad products," said Media Storm's Fiordalis. "I do like the continued march towards data-driven insights, but the real data I'm looking forward to is for programmatic TV."

Defy Media said it could hone in millennials and Gen Z and help marketers find the exact audience they wanted. The same message was heard at digital networks like AwesomenessTV and StyleHaul.

"The shift may simply be that having access to data and using it is table stakes," said OMD's Winkler. "It's no longer the differentiator. The expectation is media buyers don't want to think about data. They want to think about their client's business. They want broadcasters to help them deliver results by targeting the right people. "

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC, and is an investor in Buzzfeed, Hulu and NowThisNews.