Confession of a traditional publisher: Inhabiting ‘that moral middle ground’

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Robots haven’t completely replaced media salespeople, but they’ve forced the role to evolve. Reps need to be fluent in selling traditional and digital and conversant in the ad tech complex. In the latest installment of our Confessions series, we talked to a publishing executive who vented about getting digital sellers to read print, having to compete with higher-paying, VC-backed rivals and battling agencies’ unrealistic expectations.

Is it as hard as people say to train traditional salespeople in new ways of selling?
The stereotypes around teaching old dogs new tricks exist. It’s a challenge to get people who came up through traditional to embrace how analytical they need to become. Unfortunately, with some of the traditional natives, there’s a pattern of them passing on that analytic work and not owning it to the fullest extent.

On the other hand, you still have to sell print. Is it hard to get the digital natives to appreciate that?
The tendency is to dive into the numbers. One of the elements of print that is somewhat lost on people who live a digital life is, print still has that element of discoverability. There’s a number of people on our team who, the day the magazine comes out, they sit down and read it. There’s absolutely a handful who don’t. If you don’t know your product, and you have to make the assumption the buyer doesn’t, then it gets very difficult to make the brand relevant and relatable.

I’m sure the pay isn’t what it used to be.
Yeah, with the explosion of media sellers out there, as companies are in hyper-growth mode, if they’re on venture funding, or in the ad tech space, they have the throw money to become very aggressive and have conditioned the marketplace to total compensation plans that are out of whack with the traditional companies. It creates challenges.

Has selling become as transactional as we’ve been led to believe?
Even in programmatic, there’s still a human-to-human negotiation that takes place. It’s not just, “Can you tell a story and do you have the analytical chops and can you be able to prove ROI?” You also have to have that level of likeability and customer service that’s going to separate you from others.

Native advertising was supposed to provide publishers with a premium-priced revenue stream. But how do you set yourself apart when everyone’s doing it?
The challenge is, there’s no shortage of options for them. You have to find that right blend of working with them in the right way without commoditizing your property. Then you’re just getting into a price war. You need a point of differentiation but not make it more difficult than it needs to be. You want to stay away from ‘turnkey’ and ‘easy to work with.’ The whole concept of native is, it should be collaborative and bespoke.

Do you run into a lot of brands that have trouble creating content that doesn’t read like an ad? 
Inevitably, you’re pressed to deviate from your established best practices to push more toward an advertisement. Or, they want editorial involvement that’s not available. They’ll say, ‘the other guy’s willing to do that.” You find yourself in that moral middle ground.

How often do you end up walking away from the business?
It happens, usually in the negotiation stage. If you’re closing 30 percent of the business, you’re probably doing a very good job.

Viewability has become a big battleground these days. What do you wish agencies understood that they don’t?
It’s been oversimplified that we have just been serving them up a cocktail of inventory that’s viewable and inventory that’s not. Advertising in general has always subsisted on there being some waste baked into the price. Now they’re saying that waste has to come out, and they’re not willing to pay the price.

One final pet peeve. What is it?
It’s very rare that we ever get an RFP that isn’t looking for never-been-done-before, out-of-the box ideas. That is interesting sometimes, and especially when it comes at an extra-high investment level. But every time you do something that’s never been done before, you have to build an audience. I understand nobody wants sloppy seconds, but there’s no reason others shouldn’t continue to want a presence there. Not everything needs to be bespoke.

Homepage photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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