ESPN vet Eric Johnson out to shake up ad sales market
TV and digital producers have spent years talking about the need to use different production values for digital video. By now, everyone in the business must know that simply transferring televised video to mobile and digital platforms doesn’t work. Mobile audiences are younger and are used to watching video differently.
Eric Johnson is betting that the same strategy will hit the ad sales marketplace. One of ESPN’s top ad sales executives for 18 years, Johnson officially left the network in January. He recently set up his own shop, called Won Worldwide, and has already started working with a handful of clients, most notably the soon-to-launch Alliance of American Football.
“We’re in a business that tends to move incrementally slow because of the nature of the way the business is built. That makes it difficult for all of us to wean ourselves off of what we know into what the unknown is,” Johnson said. “We do know — the way viewership is changing and the way we’re transacting our business currently — that the idea of just adding more into the mix is not going to be the solution.”
Johnson set up his company in the past couple of months to help leagues, media companies, social media outlets, marketers, athletes and talent form better consumer connections. He has hired around a half dozen contractors, a number that could double by the time the AAF launches in February. “Being a little bit in this space can allow me to organically think about how to connect all these different disciplines into one, and — at the same time — disrupt some of the model as it currently exists,” Johnson said. “There’s an opportunity to create better integrations that feel more custom, which, in turn, allows you to have less of them.”
Because he’s dealing with the AAF, a new league that wants to modernize the way sports are distributed and watched, Johnson is able to take more ad sales risks than traditional TV companies and bigger leagues. There’s still way too much money to be made in keeping the same business model for broadcast networks and the biggest leagues.
“A brand-new startup league has none of those expectations and an opportunity to be a little bit more innovative in the space that we’re doing,” Johnson said. “We have an opportunity to show some innovation in ways where you can still make money and just do it differently.”
When talking about their league, executives with the AAF have stressed the innovations they will roll out, particularly with regard to how it approaches media. It is focused on developing a robust app that will allow for in-game fantasy, for example.
But the league also plans to approach advertising differently, as it plans to have as much as 60 percent fewer commercials than a typical NFL or college football game. It will not have TV timeouts and will not cut to commercials after scores.
Instead the league will use a dual screen for a commercial that can run anywhere from six to 30 seconds. It also will try to incorporate brands into the telecast more often.
“There are conventions that we’re having the opportunity to rethink right now,” Johnson said. “Consumption is changing radically, and at a faster pace. People used to say, ‘Give me content for free, and I will watch commercials gladly to access that content for free.’ Consumers now have told us that they’d rather pay in instances when the commercials and marketing don’t fit well into the overall structure of the broadcast.”
Johnson’s company is set up to guide disrupters through changes that are coming to the media business. Eventually, he expects all media companies will embrace those changes.
“Things always move slower than we think,” Johnson said. “There’s not going to be a switch that’s tripped. Rather, sponsored messages will become more a part of the ultimate live games, whether they are streamed or broadcast. The opportunity to have a direct connection with fans on the back end will become increasingly more important. As the business model moves to direct-to-consumer, that’s one of the benefits.”