A Network Marketer's Guide to Surviving Upfront Presentations and TCA Sizzles

"See you all again in June," a colleague likes to tell me every year right around this time. As a network marketer, he may be smiling when he says it, but he's only partially joking. He knows the clock is already ticking on the road to the upfronts—a high-stakes, all-consuming journey that will take him to those fateful days in spring, when his presentations may spell the difference in his network's ability to lure its share of the billions of ad dollars spent annually.

And if the upfronts aren't enough to take his focus, he's also well into planning for the winter and summer TCA tours, where the nation's most discerning critics (most of whom have already consumed way too much TV for a lifetime) will vet the films and sizzles that could make or break a network series before it even hits the air. 

As the holidays approach, the pressure builds, with those on network marketing's frontlines focused keenly on the best stand-out approaches to surprise jaded reporters or secure that coveted ad spend. Knee-deep in strategy, they'll assemble ammunition in the form of research, clips and—of course—a creative team capable of finding a standout way to bring it all together. It's a breakneck pace that will continue until the stage is set, last edits made and presentation rooms are filled. 

Among the challenges is an increasingly crowded and disrupted landscape in which networks must not only compete with each other but with digital players, all vying for smaller pieces of the same pie. 

Sounds pretty stressful, right? Yet, wearing the vendor hat in this equation, I have actually grown to love the annual pushes behind the TCAs and upfronts. I mean, when else does a creative agency like us get so many opportunities to work outside the 30-second form, create something out of nothing and see it all transform the next fall season? 

I've also acquired a keen appreciation for the process, both when it works for network marketers and when it doesn't. Over the years, I've identified nine essential tips to help network marketers not only survive these presentations, films and sizzles, but actually thrive throughout the process without losing their sanity or hair (if you had any to begin with) along the way:

1. Get your schedule ready, then get ready to change it

This is not a linear process. Knowing that the timelines and programming can, and usually will, change in a heartbeat, develop a schedule that can ebb and flow around team needs and availability.

2. Understand your approval process

Ad sales, creative, management … everyone has a voice in this process. Understanding how it works for your network and disseminating that information to your creative team is essential.

3. Broaden your brand picture

It's not enough to simply know the content. You've got to have a thorough understanding of your network's brand DNA, its overall ultimate message and theme, as well as the audience you're trying to reach. If you've worked with the same brand year after year, don't take them for granted. Things very well may have changed. Get the bigger picture before you get creative.

4. Tap new sources for creative inspiration

Marketing series that are often at their concept or pre-production stages, you'll have little or nothing to work with. Prepare your team to tell the story from scratch—stock footage, small shoots, design, interviews and images/clips "acquired" from other shows and films. And stave off the same-old, same-old blues by filling up those reservoirs of inspiration. Look for new storytelling devices. Find inspiration in the deep cuts of Netflix with short films, viral videos, documentaries, even B2B presentations from other businesses. Creativity counts.  

5. Enjoy the often-wild ride

You might be chugging along in one direction only to have your entire creative brief change in moments. The most successful among us learn to expect the unexpected, and not cling too tightly to ideas now off the proverbial track. 

6. Ditch those musical clichés

The "song of the moment" is not only typically the first to go, but it may also be the one most repeated throughout the upfronts, becoming a cliché instead of a powerful link to your message. Keep in mind that there are multiple tapes, producers and vendors, so a well-chosen, original soundtrack is critical. Embrace your inner Spotify, but if you see your chosen cue trending on pop hits, you may need to dig deeper. 

7. Become one with your venue

What you create for one setup may not work the same for the next. Will your presentation take place in a concert hall with multiple screens? Or will it happen in the form of intimate meetings in conference rooms? Will your network provide online streams? Make sure your creative fits.

8. Go the extra mile

Easier said than done, right? In the end, it's about finding unique storytelling and visual devices knowing that your buyer will have seen hundreds of these presentations. Push yourself. Push your team. Go the extra mile to make sure your presentation cuts through the noise.

9. Laugh often, and don't forget to eat

Armed with a good sense of humor and plenty of yummy takeout menus, you'll do far better on any direction-changing, asset-challenged roller coaster ride of a project. I mean it! 

Chris Sloan
Chris Sloan is founder and chief creative officer of 2C Creative.