NBCU’s ad sales chief rips Google, Facebook for ‘grading their own homework'

Algorithms can’t compete with the human element at major networks, Yaccarino says.(NBCUniversal)

Linda Yaccarino, who heads ad sales for NBCUniversal, kicked off broadcast upfront week with a sharp-elbowed presentation at the start of the company’s Radio City Music Hall pitch to media buyers.

“We don’t get to grade our own homework,” she said, taking a dig at digital rivals Facebook and Google. Compared with TV networks, which are measured by Nielsen, digital networks are more self-regulated but have gained favor with some advertisers given the precise targeting they offer.

The downside, of course, is that digital automation and programmatic technology has ended up placing brands on YouTube next to highly objectionable content. “Brand safety is a really low bar, and some companies can’t even do that,” Yaccarino clucked. 

Algorithms, Yaccarino added, may power the viewing experience on YouTube or Netflix, but they can’t compete with the human element at major networks. Would an algorithm “ever take a chance on a rookie show like 'This is Us'?”

With roughly 75% of the year’s $72 billion-plus in TV advertising set to be locked up in advance (or “upfront”), the week’s presentations have high stakes. Last year, NBCUniversal combined its ad-sales efforts across broadcast and cable under Yaccarino, and accordingly combined what had been two distinct upfront pitches into a single one at Radio City. This was the second year of the all-in-one upfront.

Not everyone in the audience connected with the pitch. Ben Winkler, chief investment officer at ad agency OMD, told the New York Post that NBCU appeared to be missing an explanation about how to compare the value of digital with that of TV.

“Is a 10-second vertical on Snapchat as good as a horizontal sport on 'This is Us'?” he asked. “The apples-to-apples measurement isn’t quite there, and I’m not sure everyone wants it to be.”

While she pressed the TV advantages, Yaccarino repeatedly noted NBCUniversal’s digital investments, including stakes in BuzzFeed, Snapchat and Vox Media, and a new ad partnership with Apple News. 

NBCU wasn’t the only company taking shots at digital. Uptown at the Beacon Theatre, Fox brought Seth MacFarlane onstage at its upfront. He used an original song to promote a similar message. “Only network ads will do,” he crooned. “Social platforms ain’t for you. ‘Cause who wants their ad placed under an emoji of a poo?”