2013 Will Bring A Talent Correction in Digital Media Sales

adam-chandler-lerer“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.

Follow Adam Chandler (@chandleradam) and AdExchaner (@adexchanger) on Twitter.


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  1. I could not agree more. I hope this “Media Seller 3.0” becomes a reality. We need more experts in the creative application & use of products, not more experts in selling.

    • The execution of an innovative digital media campaign takes knowledge, expertise, and influence. The sales executive will need to influence more internally than sell externally in order to deliver on the innovative promises made.

  2. This write-up is right on. “Media Seller 3.0”, whether at a massive portal or small start up will need to be a challenger in 2013. Companies who invest in their sales talent with training and updated “ecosystem” understanding will earn the respect of clients – not because of a pricing discount, but rather a knowledge rebate. Great ideas make media effective, and these ideas come from great sellers.

  3. So true. This is a HUGE problem, and it doesn’t seem like anyone is writing about it. Teams have to lead with useful information and data–and be highly consultative to provide value. Used to be an English major could make a decent sales person, but now you have to know what you are talking about.

  4. Talk about a danger gap! It takes a lot more than hustle and people skills to sell custom content. If publishers aren’t ready to meet the need, they lose twice – once on the program, once on overall credibility. Recruiters’ phones should be ringing.

  5. Christopher

    Another aspect that needs to be considered in the landscape of 2013 and for the “Media Seller 3.0” is thier ability to maneuver within the senior ranks of an agency and/or go directly to the brands with these data driven opportuities. Agencies are living in 2005, and are just roadblocks to the innovative, creative solutions that brands need to be considering and utilizing. Only the smart companies moving the needle in this industry will be getting audiences with these brand decision makers and the rest will either go out of business or be left to the agency tablescraps..and we all know those will be allocated based on shoes purchased and drinks bought. So excited for 2013…

  6. Digital Seller

    Digital Sellers 3.0 will only become required when the buy side becomes Media Buyer 4.0.

    No point of educating when they just don’t care.

  7. Well said Adam. You nailed this oft-unspoken challenge. We’re pushing hard here to transform our folks into challengers, and it does require tight senior mgmt and training. But like you said, carving out the time and resources to properly train remains elusive for many of us. If we all could hire folks who required no training, we’d also be throwing lavish parties at CES and sending the entire sales force to the next iMedia/Digiday/IAB/AdExchanger/[name your own event] conference!

  8. The Challenger Sale, Taking Control of the Customer Conversation by Matthew Dixon & Brent Adamson is required reading for everyone on my team. This new body of work from the authors provides a road map for managers to create Challenger sales people out of mere mortals. As Jeff mentions, resources required to provide Challengers with all the tools they require are not easily provided.

    Unlike media sales prior to the staggering innovation and fragmentation brought on by advances in digital platforms, Brands used to have a much bigger stake in managing their ad spend. Brands have ceded real ownership of their ad spend to their agency partners, who as the specialists who do nothing but focus on digital marketing & communication strategies & tactics, are pressed to keep pace.

    Agency influence in the digital spend process will increase, not diminish going forward. Challengers who can navigate the entire agency/brand team media spend process will be rewarded.

  9. Our new digital strategy group just formed by BELO Corp. is right on track with our consultive approach to digital advertising analytics and getting more from advertisers budgets. A team of professionals assembled for just this purpose, brains and market know-how for tackling marketing problems and finding the right solutions. Challengers who get the need for more information, more conversions, deeper dives into analytics to carve out the right buyers at the right time and place. A data driven marketing group who will help advertisers design for measurement by setting up goals and performance indicators that measure both online and mobile activity and optimize the budget to reach a better buying audience.

  10. Donnovan

    I agree.

    Thanks for putting this out there!

  11. This is a fantastic post, and one I could not agree with more.

    As automation thins out the Sales ranks at the media owners, individuals need to become more consultative and deliver real value and knowledge as part of the new business process.

    Here at ADTECH’s London office we’ve been taking the approach of offering training to our publisher clients’ Media Sales teams, helping them to better understand how they can challenge and differentiate their pitches via our technologies and industry insight.