Back to the Wheelhouse: Advertising Sales in the Digital Age
Posted: 1/17/2014  |  By: Gretchen A. Peck
It’s easy to wax nostalgic about newspapers’ heydays, when the selling of ads was as simple as it was to valuate the content, the service, the roles newspapers played in the community. Sales professionals back then need only dangle these carrots to compel an advertiser. It was, indeed, a simpler time.

Things became more dicey as marketing morphed into something far more sophisticated, with buzzwords such as “demographics” and “targeted marketing” representing new lingo, and ad decisions were now inspired by measurements and metrics rather than by the relationships between publisher and advertiser.

Today, technology drives nearly every aspect of the publisher-advertiser-reader relationship, and that’s had some notable influence on not only the kinds of ads that are selling and how they’re being sold, but also on the ad-sales labor market.  

A New Breed of Ad Sales
Newspaper advertising pros have been long adept at matchmaking audiences with advertisers and their marketing objectives. But the conversations today are so much more complex.

It’s not enough to inform advertisers about the various publications and platform opportunities. The savvy newspaper sales professional must be poised to demonstrate how each represents distinctive benefits and reach, while also relating to one another in a sort of co-dependent multimedia web. It requires a richer, more consultative sell.

Truth is, newspaper execs have known for some time that there was a widening skills gap thanks to how quickly the industry was moving from its centuries-old print-centric legacy. Nearly two years ago, Pew Research published a cautionary study called “Retooling the Sales Staff.” Nine out of the 13 companies polled reported that they were having difficulty recruiting “digitally fluent ad sales people.” It remains a challenge for newspaper publishers to this day.

Publishers would be well served to seek out ad sales candidates who can demonstrate an appreciation for how people engage with each medium—print, e-editions, online with websites, mobile apps, and so on—according to Ellyn Angelotti a faculty member of digital trends and social media at Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

Further complicating matters, the channels, the technologies that drive them, and the audiences that consume them, are in a constant state of metamorphosis and flux. A person need only look at how quickly mobile devices and content shook things up, and that’s still a fledgling platform.

ZenithOptimedia published its most recent ad forecast last December 9, optimistically predicting, “Advertising is set to see the strongest sustained period of growth in 10 years.” The bright shining star among new-media platforms? Mobile, which the report categorizes as “the main driver of global adspend growth.”

To leverage this insight, ad sales professionals must understand not only how consumers engage with mobile content, but also how the advertiser’s message might resonate there. They’re tasked in this way exponentially, based on the number of products and platforms they’re selling.

“There are so many more opportunities now in the digital space than there were 10 years ago,” Poynter’s Angelotti said. “There are so many more creative opportunities for ad salespeople. You’re not just taking the clients’ needs and understanding target audience, and then figuring out what section is the best for their display ad. You’re trying to understand your clients’ customers needs, too, where they’re engaging, and how you can create an ad experience that effectively engages their audience, too.

“It’s as though ad sales is being taken to the next level, just like we as journalists, and we as media organizations are taking it to the next level. We’re not just creating articles or photos for people to consume anymore. We’re creating experiences that people can view, watch, read, use, and that gives sales people, ad departments, and marketing departments a lot more opportunity to be more creative, to tell their stories in more interesting and diverse ways, which I think is a great opportunity for the industry,” Angelotti suggested.

Digital media may be the shiny new fiscal path, but Eric Spitz, president of Freedom Communications, Inc., remains bullish on print. In a recent op-ed—“Start the Presses! It’s How You Sell Newspapers”—for the Wall Street Journal, Spitz confided that it’s one of the reasons why he and partner Aaron Kushner acquired the company. And he suggested that the industry will not discover its savior in digital advertising alone. 

Spitz noted that digital advertising is still in its infancy; therefore, it results in a very small portion of newspapers’ revenue, with the majority still derived from print. Wouldn’t it make better sense for newspaper publishers to build upon and invest in print’s strengths, he pondered. 

For example, the Orange County Register grew its staff by 350 this year, expanded its range of content, “revamped” its weekly community papers, and launched weekly magazines, according to Spitz.  

Rise of the Ad Machines
In May 2013, The Guardian published an article by Jane Bainbridge (“How publishers can prepare for new advertising sales model,” May 10, 2013), which predicted the growing influence of data-driven purchasing and the burgeoning ideas of programmatic buying, ad exchanges and auctions.

Bainbridge wrote, “The opportunities, locations and audiences that are available online are far-reaching and as a result, much of the ad sales model has undergone a mathematical revolution rather than a social evolution. While technology has introduced automation that can push aside the old-school manual approach, programmatic advertising using ad exchanges can gain exposure to many more buyers of inventory than a direct sales team might reach.”

The Winterberry Group and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) teamed up to publish the November 2013 whitepaper, “Programmatic Everywhere? Data, Technology and the Future of Audience Engagement.” The organizations studied 250 “executive-level thought leaders from across the digital marketing industry—advertisers and publishers, and found that 85 percent of the advertisers are already feeding the programmatic-buying food chain, and 72 percent of the publishers were right there with them. Both segments reported a definitive interest in expanding those initiatives within two years.            

Chris Edwards, vice president of sales and customer care at Iowa SourceMedia Group, isn’t averse to the idea of ad exchanges and programmatic ad buying. “If we can’t get it sold, we’re going to find a way to capitalize on that, because we’ve got a business to run,” he said.            

“Everyone has sort of come to grips with the notion that something is better than nothing,” he added. “Programmatic kicks it up a notch because it says, ‘Okay, sales teams, if you can’t actively fill that with higher value ads, we will introduce technology that will essentially allow people to do their own buying.’ ”           

Fortunately, at Iowa SourceMedia Group—publisher of The Gazette, based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa—the range and value of products to sell is so compelling that the company is investing in and supporting its sales professionals, rather than diminishing their importance and numbers. 

The organization has a rich history of more than 130 years, so unlike other publishers that only have a legacy in a print product, this company is diverse and accustomed to selling across divisions and platforms.

“We are one of a handful of companies around the country that has both a daily newspaper and a network TV station in the same market,” Edwards said. Today, the organization’s umbrella also covers a printing division and a digital agency, Fusionfarm. The sales teams all ultimately report to Edwards and President Chuck Peters, but they’ve been equipped and enabled to effectively sell across all the products, brands and divisions.

 It was Peters who, five years ago, decided to “totally reimagine every facet of the business,” according to Edwards.

“Back in the day, we had a sales team for local print sales, and one for national print sales. We had a sales team for classified, and we also had a national sales team for broadcast, and a local sales team for broadcast,” he recalled. “And they all operated independently of one another.

“In that structure,” he continued, “we also had a traditional general manager at the TV station, and a publisher at the newspaper. We have neither of those positions now. … We have people who are responsible for the brands, and then I’m responsible for all of the sales teams, across eight sales divisions.”

That’s just one of the organizational shakeups that came about as a result of Peters’ mandate. Print and broadcast sales were cross-trained so that they could sell any channel. And sales teams took on new forms and became highly focused on client interaction and sealing deals, rather than on the tedium of administrative tasks better left to sales coordinators.

In addition to supporting sales with a managed group of sales coordinators, the company also put platform and technology experts in place— bluntly , because it’s unrealistic to expect even the best sales professionals to moonlight as technological, platform and data experts, too.

“We tried training … people on the products, and we had success with people who have the ability to really learn and retain that kind of information. But even great sales people don’t always have the ability to retain all of it, so we put some support in place, with staff who are knowledge experts—allowing sales to tee up the opportunity, and the experts to help get it closed,” Edwards explained.  

The Team Behind the Teamwork
The newspaper organizational chart used to be segmented, with distinctive borders between departments; disciplines were isolated and perhaps lacked empathy for the functions others performed and challenges they faced. Today, the very nature of the business model requires greater collaboration—both internally and externally, according to Poynter’s Ellyn Angelotti: “We’re listening to our audiences a lot more effectively than we have in the past. We’re learning from them and what they want, and what works for them. …           

“We’re seeing editorial, marketing and sales comes together—for example, working on the big buzzwords, ‘content marketing. Here, we’re seeing the power of the narrative, the power of the story—something that’s so critical to journalism—being applied to sales and branding and PR and marketing. So how can we use that? How can we harness that power as a media company—something that we do well—and do content marketing in a way that feels ethical to us?”            

Emily Folsom Fernandez is sales operations manager at The McClatchy Company’s The State Media Company in Columbia, S.C. She echoed Angelotti’s assertion that collaboration and cooperation is essential to sales and operations as they sell and produce so much more than mere ink on paper these days.            

“Back in the ’90s and early 2000s,” Folsom Fernandez recalled, “sales forces were made of up account executives who really didn’t have to work too hard at direct sales. They could pretty much stand out in the middle of the road and catch money. We ended up creating these kinds of account-executive monsters.            

“And because they weren’t engaged in direct sales, they ended up taking on—and becoming pretty good at handling—the fulfillment end. So they were straddling all sorts of responsibilities, because direct sales wasn’t the focus. In recent years—since the recession, of course—we need them to apply direct sales pressure, and with their responsibilities in fulfillment, we began seeing that reps weren’t able to keep up. They were leaving the industry, because suddenly it became about direct sales pressure, the numbers, and number of calls they were making each day, while still being asked to handle [ad] fulfillment.”            

That structure had to be torn down and rebuilt, Folsom Fernandez said. Now, advertising support, production and fulfillment staff report to her, while sales staff focuses on selling. Bernie Heller, vice president of advertising, oversees all sales and operations. Despite the distinction between sales and ad fulfillment, there is actually greater collaboration between the two disciplines.            

“I have seven account relationship specialists (ARS),” she explained. “They each support two to three sales reps, and they handle every single piece of the fulfillment process. … McClatchy is really committed to a real sales process. We want the reps out and seeing customers. There, they perform a customer needs analysis (CNA) that’s given to the ARS to review and create a sales presentation that the rep can use to presumably close it. It’s the ARS’ job to go back to the advertiser for things like materials, payments, and every piece of the fulfillment puzzle. So it frees up the rep to solely handle sales.”            

Though admittedly Folsom Fernandez had been “coached” not to speak to ROI figures, she was able to share some insight into how the restructuring impacts customer service and personnel: For the reps and advertisers, the sales conversations are altogether different. Reps aren’t just pushing products anymore. They’re tasked with developing a better understanding of the advertiser’s business and its customers, and based on their analysis and collaboration with the ARS team, they’re better equipped to determine which products will help the advertiser meet its objectives.            

“I can’t imagine being a rep, and having to go out and just push products every day. It doesn’t work. Advertisers won’t trust you,” she cautioned. This, too, helps with recruitment.            

“There are a lot of true, innately suited salespeople out there, and they haven’t been very interested in our industry. Or if they came, they left quickly, because they weren’t getting the chance to do sales. So we’ve been able to recruit better salespeople, and they’re getting a chance to sell, rather than handling the mind-boggling level of fulfillment we used to ask of them,” Folsom Fernandez said.

Edwards acknowledges that media sales is a whole new animal in this era of publishing experimentation and platform diversification. The conversations between ad sales and advertisers are much more sophisticated than mere reminders of Sunday-paper production deadlines.            

“Back in the day, the only sure-fire way to screw up a relationship with an advertiser was if you screwed up the ad itself,” he said. As long as the ad ran the way they wanted it to, they’d just keep buying, because they thought, ‘I have to be in the paper every week, or my business will die.’ People don’t view it that way anymore, so what you have to have are people who can go out and more assertively and concretely establish the value of the products they’re promoting.”


Q&A: James Kober, Director of Advertising Operations, Newsday Media Group

Newsday uses a Digital Asset Management system called Cumulus to assist its advertising sales group. How does the system help and how have the roles of salespersons evolved?

E&P: Can you tell us a little bit about how the Cumulus system was chosen, what it brings to the table in terms of your advertising operations, and ultimately how it helps Newsday better serve its advertising customers?

JK:
Cumulus helps Newsday Media Group in several ways:

It’s a central repository for all creative and advertising assets. Cumulus was rolled out in July of 2007 and within the first six months, the organization of our digital assets improved dramatically, making it possible to find an asset in a matter of seconds.

Because we never delete assets from Cumulus, our advertising team can show past ads to their customers, which has really impressed our customers and given our reps a competitive edge.

Previously, if an artist finished an ad in the morning, the sales rep may not have a chance to see the ad until they returned to the office in the afternoon. Now, they receive an alert on their iPad and can see the ad as soon as it’s complete. We call this “real-time digital proofing” and it’s been a tremendous help.

E&P: What kind of feedback have you received from your advertisers about this solution to ad management and communications?

JK:
The feedback has been incredibly positive. Everyone—all parties involved—get their ads faster and in real-time. 

E&P: It’s safe to say that the skill set of today’s newspaper ad salesperson is far more expansive than even 10 years ago, based on the changing market place, technology, platform and distribution models. In your experience, how have the roles and responsibilities of salespersons evolved?

JK: I see it changing right before my eyes. Two years ago I had a sales rep tell me, “It’s much easier making ad corrections on paper and just last week that same rep told a member of my staff that ‘It’s much easier now to make ad corrections on my iPad.’ ” It certainly wasn’t an easy transition and my team worked incredibly hard to educate our sales team. We conducted many training sessions to make sure that the sales staff grasped the technology, while also understanding how this would be beneficial for both them and their clients. It was also important to listen to their feedback and then go back and build in the functionality that they need to be successful. The app has evolved over time to the meet the needs of Newsday’s sales reps and clients. 

E&P: What are some of the critical skills and experiences that up-and-coming sales professionals develop?

JK: Understanding how technology, when implemented correctly, can help them sell more effectively and efficiently, while also realizing that it’s constantly evolving.

 —  Q&A by Gretchen A. Peck