It's a New Game

by Dennis Connaughton

Do you have any senior salespeople who are less productive than you think they should be?  Despite access to the latest technologies, are they lagging behind newer colleagues?  Assuming your stars of decades past are physically and mentally agile and capable, do some seem to have trouble adapting to today’s reality of media selling?  If you see senior salespeople struggling, trying hard without success, it may be time for a hard reboot.

There is an old saw that generals always fight the last war.  Economists fight the last depression.  What about magazine salespeople?  It’s the same story; people tend to cling to strategies that have made them successful, even after conditions change.  

Those outstanding consultative magazine salespeople (mostly salesmen) in their wingtips and suits who “sold to the client and serviced the agency” really did have the world by the tail.  They were the aristocracy of the advertising sales profession.  Unlike their broadcast counterparts who rarely met the advertisers and spent most of their time negotiating the sale of very general demos (e.g., women, 18-49) with agency buyers, magazine sellers knew their audiences inside and out.  They knew the demographics, psychographics, VALS and Claritas PRIZM Clusters.  They had subscriber studies, Opinion Research, SMRB, TGI, ABC, BPA, and PIB.  Magazine people brought their readers to life.

Top-notch magazine salespeople “surrounded the sale,” and presented their stories to clients and media directors as well as planners.  Everyone knew that persistence and creativity were key, and hammering away would eventually pay off.  Then, with a heavy dose of entertaining, the salespeople would, “make friends; make sense; make money.”  Many magazines funded country clubs and lavish expense accounts.  Forbes had the Highlander; Time, Inc. had the Jet; Petersen had the Ranch.  When publishers wanted to make calls, there were plenty of reasons for buyers to take the meetings.

Magazine salespeople needed to have not only sales skills (prospecting, presentation, closing, etc.) but also high general intelligence and high emotional intelligence.  Often, the salesperson would send little tidbits of information, tear sheets and articles to various people within the buying chain (client and agency) to demonstrate interest and awareness of client objectives.  Preparing for a sales call meant learning everything possible about the client’s business in order to do consultative selling.  That preparation took time, just as building relationships did, but it was required.  

Relationships were essential.  Trainees learned that “nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”  Over lunch, salespeople and agency account and media people bonded by trading information about the industry and jobs.  Many agency people yearned to jump over to sales.  Selling space was not just a job; it was a prestigious career.

These days, not so much.  Confronted with the kaleidoscopic changes in the industry each day brings, today’s media salesperson must have a working knowledge of many different kinds of media, including magazines, mobile, digital and social media.  Salespeople may sell all of these, or just one or two.  In any case, they must know about all of these, as well as emerging trends. Media are proliferating, and most clients and agencies drastically limit the time they make available to meet salespeople.  Buyers have all the information they want at their fingertips.

Selling space for most magazines, e-newsletters, websites and other digital media requires a very different set of skills now.  Speed, not depth, is of the essence.  There is rarely enough time to find research and data that the buyers do not already possess.  Instead, the issue is to package the publications’ offerings effectively, present the package, follow up, close quickly, and move on to the next opportunity.

At the Elliott Company, we have found that some senior salespeople can make the change to a much faster transactional environment once they reach that “Aha!” moment and realize that the wonderful old ways are gone, gone, gone.  For them, more training can help them jettison the elements of their experience that are hurting their competitiveness in today’s market.

Some, who are unable to abandon their “deep-diving” approach in order to adapt to  the uptempo pace of today’s new advertising sales game, can still fit into other sales assignments where the old-school approach is still required.  When we can, we try to fit them in. To make sure our evaluations are as accurate as possible, we obtain employee evaluations from a firm that provides in-depth work style and personality assessments, Lighthouse Consulting, LLC.  Our goal is to put everyone where they can contribute the most. 

Dennis Connaughton is General Manager of James G. Elliott Co., Inc.