There was a time when people in publishing had just one job… Not any more. Now every publishing-pro is expected to be a multidisciplinary, multitasking, cross-departmental, cross-platform Ninja.

In this series, we’re talking to people working in each of the key publishing roles, asking how their jobs have changed over the years, how they see them changing in the future and if there’s anything they miss about the way things used to be.

Last time we had a look at Editors. This time…

Sales, you had one job

‘Today’s top performing sales people are working in a very different way.’

That masterful understatement comes from the first paragraph of a whitepaper recently published by sales training and coaching firm Flume. The ‘Sales Framework’ paper describes a modern sales landscape where revenue and conversion rates are falling and difficult-to-reach clients, wary of adopting new platforms, employ incredibly complex and lengthy decision-making processes.

Flume founder and director Raoul Monks explains that historic client relationships are no longer a guarantee of success. He says many media sales people struggle with the new sales reality – a harsh reality – where what they are selling actually needs to work for the client.

“Today, it’s not just what you are selling to the client, but what it actually does for the client that matters.”

A focus on client outcomes is at the heart of the changes that have beset advertising sales and what was once the ‘simple’ task of selling space.

“Now it’s about how to shift the needle for the client’s business,” says David Clayton, former Group Head at Guardian Business and Professional and now MD of business development and sales consultancy True & North. Clayton says this approach has been common in enterprise selling for a long time, but is totally new to advertising sales and in a multi-platform world, not always an easy job.

He explains that if you go back just a few years people sold one thing, display or classifieds or sponsorship. “They could feel expert in what they were selling. Now, sales people have to know an awful lot about an awful lot.”

Simpler times

Andrew Davies is CEO at Texere Publishing, a 2012 start-up that now publishes five multiplatform brands for the Life Sciences market, a market Davies has been in since the 90s when he joined Washington-based Science Magazine.

Those were simpler times when bingo cards – postcards that readers mailed back to publishers to request more information on advertisers – were as complicated as it got.

Then came the World Wide Web and the start of sales people needing to develop an ever expanding set of skills. That was the beginning of more consultative sales, building a program for advertisers buying a blend of products,” Davies says.

The advertising consultant role was previously filled by ad agencies who would build a program of multiple products bought from multiple providers. “The number of ad agencies we work with today has reduced considerably as the advertisers work directly with one sales rep for multiple products,” says Davies.

Trusted advisors

In a complex marketplace where publishers are constantly introducing new products with or without agencies and alongside direct selling from technology platforms and networks, clients are looking to sales people for advice. That might be good news for publishers, but it puts pressure on the sales team to deliver an ever more sophisticated pitch.

The only way to succeed, says Clayton, is to become a ‘trusted advisor’ and that means media sales people must really understand the objectives of their clients. “They have to be business people rather than media people. They need to understand how they fit within other people’s businesses, not just sell space.”

Fergus Gregory, Head of Marketing Services at Informa says this has always been the foundation of good sales. “It was never about selling space,” he says. But ‘back in the day’, sales could get away with selling one or maybe two channels, with print and sponsorship at the core.

“Fragmentation of media spend has changed that. The successful sales person is one who can help their clients navigate the now ridiculously complicated set of choices that go into any media plan.”

Gregory says the key is to help the client achieve a very specific set of objectives, using the best bits from the complex mix of marketing services and solutions that most modern publishers offer. “The difference is that the customer sees that kind of service as the base level now, it’s a given and so we have to do much more to differentiate.”

Monks says the sales person can be the differentiator, noting a CEB Challenger Sale study that reports 53 percent of customer loyalty is down to the sales experience. “Sales people need to start thinking like marketers.”

Monks agrees that sales people need to build trust, so that the client really believes they are helping them to achieve the strongest results possible. Equally, he says clients want to see understanding, to know that they have been listened to and their challenges and needs understood.

Marketers also want compelling and logical arguments for buying, to help them convince others in their business as much as for their own decision making. They want to feel that the solutions they choose will create positive results for their business… and personally.

“Ultimately the client wants an experience that will make it easier for them to make stronger decisions – limited risk for maximum return,” says Monks.

Selling is teaching

Clients are eager to be educated. Gregory says his sales people spend so much time explaining what good campaigns look like or what might engage a specific audience, they are becoming more and more like teachers. “Great teachers that happen to remember to ask for payment.”

To be a good teacher for the advertising client, sales people need a real understanding of their clients’ customers, the publisher’s audience.

“The sales person has to help their client step into the shoes of the audience,” says Monks. Sales people don’t have to be experts on their clients’ products or industries, but they do need to be experts in their customers, he says. How they are influenced, and how the client’s marketing messages can influence their customer journey.

The good news is media owners have plenty of audience experts – journalists and editors, subscription marketing teams, analytics people. “The trick is taking the information they hold and turning it into sales insights”, says Gregory.

For that real collaboration is needed. “Today’s sales person has to be a team player bringing together editorial, audience, digital and design to collaborate on a project,” Davies says

In the past, as well as being more independent, sales people could rely more on personal rapport developed at the pub, with just the occasional conversation about budgets. “There was the odd heavy phone call and an annual negotiation,” says Clayton. “Now it’s about co-creating, about alignment. It’s not about pushing product.”

He believes, to get involved in that kind of commodity selling, you have to be enormous – Facebook and Google enormous:

“Publishers have fallen down the funnel. That’s what happened at the Guardian; brands didn’t suddenly hate the Guardian. They now just have to actively sell and influence the buying decision.”

He explains that this means sitting down and thinking, ‘What really matters to BMW?’ then asking editors ‘What’s important to our readers?’.  When you find a match, you go back to the client and say ‘We feel this content package would be of real value to our readers and align well with your objectives’.


So who is the biggest winner in these new ways of working?

Monks says the customer, who can now expect better outcomes. “The sales person who got away with selling poor products will struggle more. It needs to be authentic, not manipulative.”

Gregory agrees:

“Clients get the results they want, they get solutions tailored to their specific needs and they get sales teams responding faster and delivering more.”

He says they also benefit from a more productive, less combative sales process during which they get active help solving their business challenges. “It’s a sales process that adds value to their business.”

For publishers, Gregory sounds a note of caution.

“We get to play partner rather than vendor and get access to bigger pots of money, but it’s not without its challenges. There is a fine line between a customer centric approach with tailored solutions with people innovating around the sales approach and services you provide, with spending all your time developing new solutions from scratch.”

He says the path of least resistance for a sales person is to agree with the customer that the existing channel is not quite right and promise to go off and create something new. That is expensive and time consuming and, says Gregory, can end up delivering worse results than a decently optimised ad campaign.

He thinks the real trick is to be consultative, innovate around the sale, without over complicating things. They need to demonstrate the true value of partnering to the customer who is being tempted by easier, cheaper, but usually less effective routes to market.

Partnering is key for Clayton:

“Publishers who are smart will partner directly into brands. They will get the CMO to embrace ‘big plans’ that can only be executed by their media brand.”

Davies remembers back to February 2001 when Science was one of only two magazines to publish the Human Genome Map. That week’s issue of Science was the largest ever produced, generating more than $1m in advertising revenue. “It was a monumental scientific achievement… and the only time advertisers called us,” he says.

Is relationship selling dead?

If sales today is all about alignment and engagement and ROI, is the lovable salesperson who’s more Blarney than bottom-line extinct?

Gregory says today’s top performers, the most adaptable, intelligent sales people, are those who found every relationship on results but understand that it’s still people making decisions.

“If you aren’t building relationships founded upon delivering results as well as the more traditional relationship, you take a big risk.”

Davies is also still a big fan of quality customer contact. He began his advertising sales career in 1985 working with Thomson Regional Newspapers. When he first moved to B2B publishing, based in the UK, but responsible for the German market, he did most of his business by phone and fax. “Travel was expensive. I didn’t fly I drove and got the hovercraft.”

Then he moved to Science Magazine where the management not only had a firm belief in the power of face-to-face, they were willing to put their money where their mouth was and invest in air travel. “This, along with a fabulous product, took us to global number one market share within three years.”

He still invests in travel for his sales managers, but he says technology like video calling and Webex presentations have an important part to play.

What does a healthy sales floor sound like?

Gregory agrees that technology has a big part to play in modern client relationships, prompting him to ask, ‘What does a healthy sales floor sound like?’

“I hear many managers bemoaning the rise of technology as being an ’excuse’ not to pick up the phone, but this harps back to a time when all we had were phones and feet.”

He describes a shift to encourage sales people to take the time to properly build networks, adding online to what used to be done exclusively face-to-face or over the phone:

“The way we all interact with networking sites and maintain relationships has changed and thankfully I see sales changing with that. Alongside direct contact, sales people need to be blogging to build credibility and maintain relationships, they need to be prospecting and building networks within accounts and key prospects.”

So does anyone pine for the ‘good old days’ of sales?

Davies misses the days when getting on a plane wasn’t like getting on a bus and Gregory misses the long lunches.

“Not just because I like a good lunch and that they were usually fun. Some of the best insights and ensuing collaborations I ever got involved in as a sales person were sparked by conversations had over the space of an afternoon with clients over lunch or dinner.”

Monks questions the whole notion of the ‘good old days: “Who were they were good for?,” he asks.

He says that in the past, while clients knew they needed marketing, they had very little knowledge about what worked. The sales person could sell a lot of advertising with no need to prove if it ever delivered and that actually worked for marketers too.

“There was limited risk for the marketer because little could be proved. Things were easy because what worked was any-one’s guess.”

Today, Monks says, everything needs to be justified and while that might be tough for sales teams, marketers are under real pressure to get things right too. And that’s a good thing.

“The complexity means that more logical and intelligent sales people are winning the battle for client budgets. For sales people focused on getting the strongest results for their clients, that creates real opportunities.”