The Advertising Sales Game Has Changed: Do You Have the Right Players on Your Team?

President’s Letter

by Jim Elliott

(This article ran in the April issue of Publishing Executive Magazine.)

Transaction-oriented salespeople are surpassing those who base their approach on building relationships. For most of the past century, relationships formed the basis for the majority of large advertising sales.  Success in advertising sales was predicated on the ability to initiate, form, and maintain personal relationships with buyers.  In this new era, a different skill set is necessary.

Today, the buy may be accomplished before the parties even have an opportunity to meet.   Too often, trying to sell by first building relationships, as it was done in the last century, means wasting time on people who may not want any kind of relationship.  If done poorly, buyers may perceive the attempt to create a relationship as wasting their time as well.   Buyers are frazzled by the proliferation of media and demands by all the new sellers who want “just a few minutes” of their time.  Concurrently, the ranks of agency buyers are thinning as their load grows, with each person responsible for evaluating and buying as much as an entire team did not long ago.

In these days of programmatic buying on the digital side and RFP turnaround of less than a week (sometimes just a day or two) for print, many buyers would be just as happy to get the information they need from a machine as from a human.  Machines don’t let extraneous concerns and chatter get in the way of the job to be done.  Machines do not pretend to care or take up valuable time on non-essentials. Unfortunately, machines are not very good at anticipating requirements, so a buyer may prefer dealing with a human seller so long as personality does not get in the way of the transaction.  Sellers need to be able to get in, get out, and move on.

What a contrast this is to the way yesterday’s consultative salespeople were trained to sell! Remember when the telephone was never to be used to sell anything more than the appointment?  Then, a first call may have been set up as a “fact-finding” tour, perhaps followed by a nice lunch.  Sometime later, the salesperson would conduct presentations to relevant people, submit proposals to the client and/or agency, and close the business.  Often, this process was followed by a celebration with spouses, including a nice dinner and a show.

In the process of “surrounding the sale,” top-notch magazine salespeople would call on everybody in the loop, at the agency and the client. Many magazines funded extensive entertainment, and salespeople at the big books had expense accounts as large as a typical salary today. There were agency outings, parties, corporate yachts and jets, country clubs, city clubs and more.  Magazine salespeople were the aristocracy of the advertising sales profession, bestowing favors as widely as possible to create a sense of obligation that could open doors.  But they had to do it without looking like they were trying to create a sense of obligation. They had to be smooth.

Magazine salespeople not only needed to have sales skills (prospecting, presenting, closing, etc.), but also high general intelligence and high emotional intelligence. Preparing for sales calls meant learning everything possible about a client’s business, and follow-up included sending tear sheets, articles about the competition and other tidbits of information to demonstrate interest. All of this activity took time, but it was justified as important work in building the relationship.

Not long ago, buyers valued magazine salespeople not only for the goodies they dispensed, but for the scarce information they could share about competitors, other agencies, and job opportunities. A personal call from their salesperson could benefit buyers in many ways. 

It is all different now. Buyers no longer need salespeople as much as they once did. Information is freely available, and can be accessed quickly through search engines or social media without incurring any obligation. Chatty glad-handers take up too much time from an over-stressed buyer’s point of view. Buyers want quick answers that are relevant to the subject at hand.   

The “transaction” mentality and habits of media people are amplified by the need for speed in the face of ever-increasing workloads.  But there are more factors at work. The advertisers’ fingerprints are easy to see here: the trend towards short-term budgeting and planning by clients forces their agencies to focus on “just-in-time” advertising. That is, small, quick frequent buys (and cancellations).

These days, sellers may only get one 30-minute meeting per year with agency planners. A lively discussion focused on an issue of the magazine, or a video, are often more effective than PowerPoint presentations loaded with numbers. Sellers must know how to get to the point rapidly, and tell their story with impact. It is usually not necessary to provide research, because agencies pull their own. It is much more important to be able to hold the buyer’s attention and to position the publication effectively. And, it is absolutely essential to communicate with all of the people involved with the sale in the way they want. Some want phone calls, others emails. Whatever they want, they get—we cannot afford a salesperson stuck in one mode of communication.

To ensure that our salespeople are capable of selling the way buyers want to be sold, our company has been changing the profile of our ideal seller over the past couple decades. We still strongly believe in the importance of work-style and personality assessment, but we no longer seek the same kind of candidate for sales positions that we did previously. We still look for intelligence, but the ability to deep-dive is much less important now than the ability to assess opportunities quickly and act. Relevant experience is helpful, but we have found that many of the salespeople who apply for our positions cite experience that clearly will not help them in today’s environment.  These days, it is more important for sellers to be able to bring a business idea to the table than to deftly pick up the restaurant check.  Of course we still try to find likeable salespeople:  when everything else is equal, people still prefer to buy from people they like.  

As we build our sales teams, we need to do our best to meet the demands of the marketplace as they change.  Involving employment professionals to administer appropriate testing, and listening to their recommendations, has helped us to reduce hiring mistakes caused by gravitating toward candidates with familiar, comfortable styles.  After all, those of us who have been at this for several decades may still have a bias towards salespeople with those abilities that worked so well for us in days past.  Because we want to be sure to field the best possible team for our clients, we must embrace the new paradigm.