How the Economist Group is retooling for programmatic

The rise of programmatic isn’t just complicating the picture for publishers — it’s also making things more difficult for their sales teams.

Publishers’ programmatic “people problem” is well documented. Salespeople, prized for their ability to seal deals and cozy up with customers, are now forced to double as pseudo-ad tech experts. Getting them on board hasn’t been easy, though, which is why companies like The New York Times, Washington Post and Meredith have hired “programmatic czars” to help ease the transition.

The Economist Group is taking a similar approach. To help move the needle on its own programmatic efforts, the company recently hired a pair of “programmatic experts,” based in New York and London, which will serve internal and external roles within its sales teams.

Internally, the job is about educating sales people and brand/agency partners on the ins and outs of programmatic; externally, it’s about working with trading desks on pure-play programmatic deals that tap into the Economist Group’s premium inventory. Those sorts of conversations get very technical very quickly, which is why the Economist Group says it needs people who have a firm grasp of technical definitions and the often-dizzying array of ad tech acronyms.

“We’ve come to learn there is a very steep institutional learning curve that we need to go through before we can say we are programmatic-enabled and our sales team is comfortable selling and executing programmatically,” said Ashwin Sridhar, vp of online advertising at the Economist Group. “We’re not there yet.”

The Economist Group, however, sees where things are going. While most buyers and publishers are still dipping their toes in the programmatic waters, it’s clearly where the industry is headed. Procter & Gamble, for example, said last week that it plans to buy 70 percent of its digital ads through programmatic channels. In a similar vein, Ominicom signed a $230 million deal in May to integrate with MoPub, Twitter’s mobile ad exchange.

Long-term estimates paint a similar picture: Magna Global expects programmatic spending to top $32 billion by 2017, double where it is today.

That future, however, is still a few years away. In the meantime, publishers like the Economist Group are still trying to get their salespeople on board with a way of selling that they’re either confused by or outright hostile to – so hostile, in fact, that some buyers have encountered salespeople who have actively tried to talk them out of programmatic sales.

The trick, Sridhar said, is to shift the conversation. For salespeople, programmatic is often equated with what it can take away — jobs, primarily – instead of the low-touch efficiency it can provide. That’s the programmatic promise, after all.

“The role of  the salesperson won’t be eliminated,” he said. “There is still going to be the need to relay the narrative and value prop of buying media on a specific publication. We bring in extraordinary, talented sales folks to do one thing — sell. If they’re not doing that, we’re not making the best use of the sales talent we have in our organization.”