After an enviable career working for traditional TV outlets, Charlie Collier surprised many a media executive late last year by leaving a senior job running entertainment programming for the Fox broadcast network to join Roku, the company that gives millions of Americans their access to the world of streaming.
He hopes advertisers will follow.
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On Tuesday, Collier, 53, now heading Roku’s ad sales and development of content on its own platforms, will be pressed to show potential sponsors why. Roku, which boasts 71.6 million active accounts, will make a big pitch to Madison Avenue as part of a group of industry “newfront” sessions. Even though NBCUniversal, Disney and their rivals won’t make similar outreach until May, presentations this week from digital players such as Amazon and Roku are seen as an aggressive bid to win ad dollars that might previously have gone to the TV companies. After all, the networks, once secure in their ability to deliver media’s biggest audience, are losing viewers to streaming, and Roku is one of the biggest facilitators of that activity.
“It behooves us to get up before they see every other presentation in the newfronts and upfronts,” says Collier in an interview.
Roku made a bold offering last week that usually comes from its traditional TV competitors. The company said it would guarantee participating advertisers reach more viewers during primetime hours than they might on various cable networks. Just as local cable systems get two minutes of time to run commercials each hour, Roku also gets a certain amount of inventory it can run in the streaming venues featuring its counterparts’ programming. But cable networks can’t send specific ads to individual households based on data and interactive technology. And the company struck a deal with Instacart that allows subscribers to go from watching an ad for a product to purchasing the real thing.
Paramount Global, Fox and others have streaming outlets as well. And they have significantly more control over how ads are woven into and alongside those programs. But Collier maintains they may be occupied with trying to keep the dollars flowing away from linear TV in house, a problem Roku does not have. Advertisers might like to hear something “instead of the ‘oh I know my linear offering is smaller than it was but move it over to my digital offering,” Collier says.
The executive has blazed paths in the past. He helped AMC become a bigger name on the set-top box by pushing the outlet into premium, HBO-like dramas such as “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” then steered it into horror with “The Walking Dead.” And while Collier has been known for his content prowess in recent years, he is also familiar with ad sales. In 2005, as general manager of advertising at CourtTV ,he devised ad pacts that required both a minimum audience size and a level of viewer attention to the commercials. “Think of a Venn diagram. It is the overlap of those who are exposed to the commercial and whether or not they were paying attention to the commercial. That overlap is really the sweet spot of advertising,” he told The Wall Street Journal at the time. “The more we can hone in on measurements to prove that not only are people just watching but they are paying attention, that gets closer to proving accountability or proving a return on [an advertiser’s] investment, and that is what we are working on today.”
At the time, the ad world was grappling with DVRs and the rapid spread of search advertising. Today, the media industry is neck-deep in discussions about how to measure audiences, and Collier’s worlds from nearly two decades ago seem to be on many executives’ lips.
In the future, says Collier, “the vast majority of TV advertising will be streamed.” And while a host of media and entertainment companies have joined the industry’s so-called “streaming wars,” he says, he believes Roku has an edge in that it can reach the millions of consumers advertisers need to get people to make cash registers ring while offering the precise placement of ads that others may be hard-pressed to emulate.
To do so, the company is putting a spotlight on how it can organize content from acorss the industry under one umbrella, at a time when many consumers are wringing their hands about how much they can spend on streaming. Roku can create destinations for enthusiasts that show off sports content .food programming or home programs. “On linear TV, if you know where to go for food content, it is time bound. Sure, they have VOD offerings, but what we can do is bring every food destination in the plane into one place,” says Collier. Roku’s own programs with Emeril Lagasse and Martha Stewart have advertising relationships with Coca Cola and Scott’s.
Roku has some of its own problems to solve. It has benefitted from its ability to help people watch all kinds of new content, but entertainment companies, fearful of plowing millions into new programming while Wall Street demands new levels of profitability, are pulling back on the number of series they are willing to launch. And Roku has moved into the business of creating appliances and devices, an extension that some Wall Street analysts find worrisome.
“The bottom line is that the outlook remains choppy for Roku going forward, which we do not believe is properly reflected in the current valuation,’ says Pivotal Research Group analyst Jeffrey Wlodarczak in a recent research note. A bullish cohort of analysts, however, believes Roku is wise to make a concerted bid for ad dollars, in the belief that the economy may improve later this year.
Though Collier is also charged with producing content for Roku, he says the company will not vie with traditional entertainment companies on quantity. “It is not about how much you spend,” he says. “It’s about how you come to market and how you create a home where creators can bring their passion projects.” He points to the recent “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” as a successful entry in Roku’s content line-up.
Roku is just one of a horde of digital players hoping to shave off a chunk of TV’s ad base. While some sales executives are optimistic about the next cycle of ad spending, several buyers suggest Madison Avenue is still worried about the threat of a possible recession. Whatever the amount being spent, Collier’s success in his new job may well be determined by how much of it Roku can capture.
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