“Data Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.
Today’s column is by Adam Chandler, CRO in Residence at Lerer Ventures.
This fall, a number of companies, most notably Federated Media, announced sales force downsizings. In the process, these companies began what I expect to be a defining trend in 2013: the shrinking of the legacy sales force for the post-commodity era.
I’m optimistic this trend will close the widening gap between client needs and sales capability, by forcing digital media to get back to sales fundamentals.
It’s estimated that at least 50% of online display advertising will soon be purchased through programmatic buying. This means the essential job of sales teams will be to consult with clients and design marketing strategies that mix a number of a media companies' assets to solve a specific business problem.
Some sales teams aren’t up to this challenge. In fact, banner sellers have gravitated to digital media because we’ve sought them out as online advertising grew. When the barrier to entry disintegrated and everyone could become a publisher, the universe of media properties exploded. Add the supporting cast of ad network, social, video, adtech, and mobile tech companies, and we’ve got a glut of providers growing fat in the system.
Suddenly, there weren’t enough experienced digital salespeople to meet the demand. Some of us took print and TV reps and tried to train them. Most learned the pitch but not the business. They could sell inventory but they couldn’t create custom programs to solve specific client problems; they didn’t fully understand the capabilities of the media and underlying technology. If they had a committed manager to train them, they could adjust.
Here’s the rub: Training can be an anomaly in the startup world. Many digital media companies simply don’t have the time to train. They’re too driven by aggressive VC targets. One CEO told me point blank, “Don’t hire anyone we have to train. We don’t have time.”
So what do we need? In the words of Doug Weaver of the Upstream Group, “Technology and new business models have gotten us to a place where the customer doesn’t even know what’s possible, so Media Seller 3.0 will move the customer out of his comfort zone and into a space where truly new possibilities and ideas can be explored.”
That takes strategy.
To solve real business problems, salespeople need to really understand a client – something machines will never accomplish. They need to challenge assumptions. They need to think like a client marketer first, and put together media assets second. They need to think conceptually about creative strategy and media platforms to launch a business idea, rather than plan a pinpoint solution for one website. And they can’t be afraid to ruffle some feathers in the process.
We call this breed "challengers." They earn a voice in the upstream conversation with the people who determine budgets, not just the downstream fight over where they get invested.
In one respect, this is back to the future. Before the media system got institutionalized to numbers-based buys, the original sellers had to create business solutions that solved specific marketer needs. They had to know how to have a business conversation, not just a media one, with a client.
What’s different now is customization has a more profound effect on digital media than it ever did in other channels. Marketers love out of the box, but it really strains product developers. Challengers can sell what’s good for the marketer to their product people. They do it by showing how audiences will engage with a new idea and create demand from other advertisers – so the incremental revenue becomes evergreen. They can also protect against the inevitable churn at agencies; so the media company doesn’t lose access when a client switches shops.
The good news for challengers is they’ll always be in demand. The media ecosystem depends on expanding sales creativity at least as much as automation. That’s nowhere truer than in the young companies responsible for much of the innovation in the business. The more they learn to hire, support and develop challengers, the healthier digital media will be for everyone.