Media companies aren’t impressing advertisers with sales excellence at the rate they used to. I’ve watched the top sales organizations fall on average 10 percent in advertiser ratings over the past five years, most notably in their understanding of clients’ businesses and with some stalwart brands declining as much as 20 percent.
That spells trouble at a time when sales prowess increasingly determines a brand’s most profitable sales opportunities in the programmatic age.
While advertisers are committing more money to programmatic advertising, which typically returns less profit to the media brand, they are also creating cross-platform deals with select media partners before issuing any RFPs on the remainder of their budgets. Those advance opportunities are critical for media and are often the only chance they get to sell bespoke connections between an advertiser’s brand and their audiences at full value. The ante is sales excellence.
There are two related reasons media brands are waning on sales excellence. Advertisers’ demands for performance and return on investment have risen higher than many sales organizations can leap. And as non-programmatic revenue stays flat or declines, most management teams have cut staff and programs to reduce the cost of sales. Higher-paid veterans have left, taking with them the experience of fully understanding an advertiser’s business, bringing the content and audience to life and recommending the most powerful ways to connect with them via the medium.
The younger sellers left behind are stretched thin. They have to represent several properties, which require time to master, with fewer senior sellers to watch, mimic and learn from. They also have less support as media companies have downsized insights and focused that team on the biggest pitches and RFPs —that is, if they aren’t too busy simply churning out reports every week. Meanwhile, marketing tends to be overly focused on audience rather than advertising, and the time they do have to focus on B-to-B gets engulfed by RFP whirlwinds.
As a result, the proactive attempt to match the dynamics of audience with advertiser brands doesn’t happen as reliably or as much as it needs to. Younger sellers develop the ability to manage demand, but they typically aren’t equipped to generate it.
Media companies need a systematic way to develop people who can generate demand in the face of unprecedented competition. To create this pipeline, management needs a different investment mindset when it comes to deploying and supporting salespeople.
First, take younger sellers off the big properties and put them in charge of smaller or niche brands. They’ll develop much faster and more fully when they have to be responsible for go-to-market strategy, pricing, presenting, packaging and negotiating than they ever will marching in line with sales managers across multiple properties.
Recognize that smaller challenger brands are perfect training grounds because they’re not paramount to most advertisers. Running them, young sellers will be forced to get scrappy, strategic and inventive, fast. They’ll have to really sell. And challenger brands will benefit from the energy of younger sellers who don’t have longstanding relationships to rely on. These brands have less to protect so young sellers can play offense almost single-mindedly.
Second, assign insights and marketing people to the younger sellers running smaller brands. Let them build the propositions that compel advertisers, and in the process, grow and win together. This means reprioritizing and reinvesting in the insights and marketing groups that can create and present the strategic opportunities that can make a smaller brand compelling.
Third, prepare to take a short-term risk on the smaller brand. Usually it’s been propped up by inclusion as filler in bigger deals, so it might suffer at first when decoupled. But focus on up-and-comers can rebuild it over time with smart, aggressive selling. When they graduate to the big brands, they’ll be ready to lead.
Increasingly, the survival—let alone, growth—of most media properties depends on meaningful programs from advertisers new to the brand or the medium. They’re not coming over the transom or by RFP. They can only come from the kind of cohesive, insightful approach and real sales excellence that’s gained by live experience.