What Would Media Companies Look Like If Sales Leaders Reinvented The Business Model?

Twenty years ago, the news publishing world looked a lot different than it does today. Newspapers were still the main source of information for many consumers, and they had more cash flow and more people working in their newsrooms. Yet, presently, these same newspapers find themselves trying to do more with less, especially when it comes to generating revenue.

But knowing what we know now when it comes to sales and advertising, what would and what should newspapers do differently? E&P decided to find out by asking two newspaper sales executives and two sales consultants to look back at yesterday’s sales model and build one for today’s world.

If you had to start a sales model from scratch today, what would it look like?  

Nick Johnson (McClatchy head of advertising): Digital first, consultative sellers that understand the entire continuum of the marketing funnel. Today’s sellers need to build solutions for critical minded and KPI driven marketers. From branded content to private marketplace programmatic solutions, a contemporary salesperson needs to represent the breadth of solutions available today. The team must be empowered to course correct with optimizations and the confidence to make recommendations, bold and subtle, to ensure success. Finally, sophisticated sales marketers that can present materials that make the complex simple and in formats that are nimble and non-linear so sellers can respond to needs and curveballs in real time.

Gary C. Valik (Johnson Newspaper Corp. (Watertown, N.Y.) vice president of sales and marketing): The sales model that we are basically redeveloping is one that features teams, total audiences and the importance of content. Moving away from top down structures to working group structures in which team leaders include co-workers from all sides of the company. This approach allows us to leverage all assets from traditional print product to new digital solutions, delivery assets and content provision for clients and audience. Flattening out the organization provides for re-allocation of funds to hire the diverse talents that are needed in today’s sales environment.

Ryan Dohrn (Brain Swell Media founder): I would create a model with a detailed focus on a team approach to selling—matching traditional sales experts with experts in other areas. There is an arrogance in sales that limits the larger sale because reps are overly protective of the client conversations. It is just human nature that an account executive (AE) will sell more of what they know well. If an AE is a digital expert, they might miss events. If the AE loves print, they often leave digital money on the table. Team selling often boosts total sales by 20 to 30 percent.

Janet DeGeorge (Classified Executive Training sales trainer and consultant): I worked at the San Jose Mercury News the first 13 years of my career back in 1980. It was a by-the-book classified department that ran like clockwork. We had sales specialists in each category; we had detailed numbers to guide us by the day, by the year and by the category. As managers, we had MBO’s and Management by Objective, so the entire advertising department was on the same page. We had great communication from the top down and the bottom up with regular team meetings, and yes, celebrations. For the last 20 years, I have been a sales trainer who has been on site to more than 350 newspapers, I have seen it all, what works, what doesn’t. I rarely found the structures in place to give each sales rep the tools, the training and structure to be successful. If you don’t invest in sales staff, the big money just doesn’t show up.

Five years ago, my biggest concern was____. Today it’s ____.

Johnson: Five years ago, my biggest concern was moving video and sponsorships. Today it’s delivering the right mix of solutions to deliver successful client outcomes.

Valik: Five years ago, my biggest concern was the shrinking print audience. Now I realize that yes, print will shrink, however there still remains an audience willing to purchase print and willing to purchase at a price that has made up for some lost advertising. That product is becoming more subscriber-funded and there is elasticity on the price. Today, my biggest concern is the money leaving local markets from local advertisers to worldwide companies, namely Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple.

Dohrn: Five years ago, my biggest concern was the love fest advertisers had with click-thru rates. Today it’s GDPR rolling out in the U.S.  Personal data rights will become a political issue that will change the landscape of digital advertising and media forever. Media companies, that have heavily leveraged revenues on behavioral targeting and programmatic, need to pay attention.

DeGeorge: Five years ago, my biggest concern was lack of classified ads in each paper due to the recession. Today, it’s the lack of salespeople to do the job right. Most papers are trying to have two sales reps do what they use to have five or 10 reps do. That math will never work no matter how efficient your processes are.

 With more services now being offered, how are you educating and training your staff?

Johnson: We are very fortunate to have a training facility and program at McClatchy. We have a dedicated team focused on sales enablement and we make sure to bring our new colleagues through a formal, weeklong training program that focuses on CRM expectations and use, consultative selling, role playing sales scenarios and an overarching sales methodology geared towards driving sales outcomes. Furthermore, we use this same team to stand up our digital acumen across critical product lines—branded content, video, OTT and excelerate, our full service agency—and make sure to train them on all of the capabilities and use cases of all of our offerings.

Valik: We have weekly meetings and countless refresher courses on our various platforms and in-house products. We lean on our vendors with weekly calls and product overviews. In addition, the creation of team leaders has taken on the duties of championing specific products and their unique attributes. Training and educating is a constant and a weekly reality.

Dohrn: We watch webinars as a team. We listen to podcasts and then discuss as a team. We do not read general sales books as media sales are very different than selling most things. We read motivational business books as a team and discuss. Ongoing training is mission-critical. As a media sales trainer and advisor, I see the best teams train their teams monthly. Training is not as much about motivation as it is about execution.

DeGeorge: There is a hand full of online and retail sales trainers out there for hire. I’m one of the few left in the classified arena. With that said there is so much self training via webinar and through associations. Many times vendors of products will provide sales training, but that often results in selling what makes the vendor the most money, not the newspaper. That is their job.

What skills do today’s sales staff need in order to succeed? 

Johnson: Honestly, the first thing I look for is intellectual curiosity. I want people that are self-motivated to learn about what’s happening in this amazing industry. I want them to try new products and apps, ask questions and be as motivated as I am to continue to evolve our business and optimize our chances to exceed our client’s goals and our business objectives.

Valik: Today’s sales staffs need to be creative. They need to hear the needs and wants of their customers and design effective, unique and inventive sales solutions. The sales teams are now competing against TV sales, radio sales, agencies and internal staffs all selling the same digital solutions. The sales teams of today need to think how their relationships, their unique position in the market, can “win” digital monies and expand on them with unique print and delivery products only our papers are equipped with. They need to create their unique selling proposition.

Dohrn: The best AEs will guide their advertisers to reality and not a budget.  An advertiser’s budget is almost always inaccurate. I like to ask advertisers if they want to be present, competitive or dominant. The reality of marketing is that there are typically three levels of marketing spend. Then, I sell based on comparing the advertiser to others that are successful in their market. I love consultative selling as long as it does not occur in the client’s vacuum. Comparative selling, when married with consultative selling, almost always yields better results.

DeGeorge: A full understanding of online products is a must. No sales rep should sit around and wait for that training because easy Google searches will bring up all the information you need about online advertising. All reps should be fully trained and aware of all products available from the paper to fit a customer’s needs. Often there are still so many silos of information dividing up who knows what. Inside reps should be aware and able to sell any online products available.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your career so far, and how did you solve it? 

Johnson: I was trapped in the cycle of current experience. I was an agency guy—actually a network buyer—and that’s not what I wanted to be. It was the first job I took to get my foot in the door and that job informed many that followed. I had to break the cycle. I was both lucky and deliberate in breaking that chain. I discovered digital in the 90s, and I fell in love. I decided to pursue a career in that area and was fortunate enough to land a job that I enjoyed and had me running to the office every morning. A couple of decades later, I’m still loving it and still running in.

Valik: I am currently in the biggest challenge in my career. I believe if you are progressing in your career you are always up for a “bigger and better” fight. This transitional period we are in—between traditional media and tomorrow’s media—presents challenges in being able to adapt, make decisions, accept failure and try again. In addition the challenge is making sure your entire team is quick, adaptive and able to apply risk. In the past, I have been able to move past challenges by accepting failure and rolling up my sleeves to take on the task again. That is how I will get through this current challenge.

Dohrn: Getting sales executives to break old habits is my biggest challenge. Even when I show proof of a better outcome, it is just easier to accept the status quo as good enough and do it the old way. For me to win in this situation, you have to pick your battles and change small things one at a time. Pick one area you want the rep to change and work hard at that one area. Set accountability metrics in place. Provide motivation. Measure success. Celebrate if deserved.  Provide motivation if needed. Be fair and firm if needed.

DeGeorge: As a sales trainer and consultant, there was just not enough time to travel and work with newspapers for the length of time necessary. Switching to all webinar/Skype training gives me the ability to spend weeks and even months with a newspaper, redesigning their product, their rates, and their sales goals. Technology has really made it all like being there and I can help several newspapers at the same time.

What was the biggest risk you took in your organization when it came to sales? How did it go, and would you do it again?

Johnson: We had to rebuild our sales structure from a very traditional print structure to a contemporary digital one. I was fortunate that the company was already moving in the right direction—in steps—but we rolled it out to a team that had been through a lot of change and this was a lot bigger. So we tried hard to be very transparent including leadership visits to our key markets so we could talk to our teams about the objectives of the changes and our rationale and I think that was very helpful. Overall, we’re pleased with the structure and it points us in a direction where communication is cleaner, there are fewer layers and less confusion about roles and functions. But, it’s an evolution and we still have a lot of work to do. But would I do it again, just faster.

Valik: Again, I am currently experimenting with my biggest risk. That would be flattening the traditional director-manager-sales rep model and going into the team leader roles. I am investing money spent on traditional office roles and investing them into the field. I have learned that in today’s sales environment I need to invest in the “facing” staff and empower them to make quick, critical decisions without the layers of management. Currently, I am encouraged by the performance of the teams.

Dohrn: We began trading accounts every quarter. Every three months, an AE is required to bring 10 quality accounts to the table that they have worked very hard for. Like the NFL, we allow the lowest-performing rep to pick accounts first. Trading accounts has been crazy successful. Make it a fun exercise.

DeGeorge: When I was the classified director at the East Valley Tribune, we made tremendous changes when Cox, who owned it for 20 years, sold it to Thompson newspapers. It was like time travel—we moved ahead so quickly changing to fully functional sales teams. Each team had their own sales support and artist who became more and more familiar with accounts which fed more creative advertising.

What are your priorities for 2020?

Johnson: Double digit digital growth. Win big in political. Hire great people. Crush the number.

Valik: Making revenue goals and achieving budget. To support these goals, I am putting time and emphasis on developing creativity, decision making and leadership within my teams. When you achieve financially, you can then enact plans to grow your brand, train staff and invest in the future.

Dohrn: First, using Zoom or GoToMeeting on every call is a priority. Adding visuals to the sales meeting is critical. Second, we are removing the standard sales questions like “What advertising has worked for you in the past?” and replacing that with questions like “If I could bring you one perfect client, what does that client look like?” Third, we are taking our CRM skills to the next level. We are using Magazine Manager and creating hyper-focused Top 20 lists in the CRM. We are then creating time blocks to attack those lists.

DeGeorge: Recently, I have been working with many small papers and weeklies who could not afford my service when I traveled onsite. Now they are my world and I love them. It is ultra rewarding to see their classifieds come back to life and the new revenue really makes a huge difference to these size papers. I would hope I am lucky enough to continue working with them in 2020.

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One thought on “What Would Media Companies Look Like If Sales Leaders Reinvented The Business Model?

  • October 7, 2019 at 4:32 am

    Some modestly interesting responses here – but the fundamental premise (at least as sold by the hed) is lacking. None of this is reinventing the business model. Most of this is inventing the sales processes around a declining, commoditized part of the business – ad revenue.

    Folks, the halcyon days were great because print newspapers were effective monopolies in critical categories like help wanted, used cars and Sunday inserts. That’s gone – and will never return, no matter how much process adaptation and wishful thinking we pour into it.

    Want a revitalized business model? Look for consumer problems to solve. Who should do that? Everyone in the organization. Yes, including wannabe-priestly journalists who’d rather not sully themselves with such mundane work. (It’s called “product development,” by the by.)


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