How modern media companies are organizing their sales operations

This editorial series examines industry trends across the media, media buying and marketing sectors as 2023 closes and the new year begins. More from the series →

In a volatile advertising market, publishers’ sales teams need to be nimble, innovative and ambitious to keep RFP win rates up and ultimately keep ad revenue coming in the door. And given how fierce the competition has grown for brand deals, the old methods for selling media may be too antiquated to keep up with the demands of advertisers and agencies.

Over the past couple of years, chief revenue officers have shared how they’re reshaping their sales divisions to respond to this modern, if not tumultuous, ad market. From implementing generative AI tools into the workflow to adding seller incentives to taking a categorical approach versus a brand approach for client management, here is a mock-up of what a modern media company’s sales organization looks like based on some relatively recent shifts that publisher sales teams have undergone.

Brand-centric vs. categorical concentration vs. client-oriented 

There’s been a steady movement from sales teams being brand-centric to being assigned to sell a specific advertising category where all of the clients a seller has fall under one sector like pharma, beauty or tech. And it makes sense for digital publishers that spent the better part of the past decade attempting to compete with platforms when it comes to advertisers’ scaled campaign budgets. Instead of showing a client a niche brand, sell them the whole portfolio. 

Condé Nast is a notable example of a major media company revamping its sales org to take on a categorical concentration. In 2018, it reorganized its U.S. sales division, which shifted sellers from being dedicated to a specific brand, like Wired or The New Yorker, to being dedicated to a specific advertising category, like luxury or technology. Finding that move successful, it was then implemented in Condé’s international offices in 2022, as the company aimed to drive bigger revenue deals and maximize the scale it could offer. 

During an episode of the Digiday Podcast in November 2022, Craig Kostelic, the company’s global chief business officer, said that this movie allowed the sellers to offer a single point of contact to brands and agencies, ultimately helping them increase deal sizes because those sellers could, in theory, sell deals that span the company’s entire portfolio of brands and assets. The move also enabled sellers to be more consultative in nature, Kostelic said, because it gives them a bigger offering to pull from when modeling a brand campaign for a client versus trying to force their campaign objective on one brand’s audience. 

Bloomberg Media is also taking a vertical approach to its client accounts, a change that was made to adjust for the volatile market of the past year, according to CRO Christine Cook. By having the sellers specialized in one industry, they’re better able to understand the pain points and nuances of their clients and share learnings with the other sellers about what’s happening in that given industry, she said.

While Forbes’ CRO Sherry Phillips said that her sales reps are not organized specifically by category, it’s pretty close to that given the accounts they hold tend to be within one or two sectors. And that’s by design so that the sellers can become experts on their clients. 

“The products that we offer have gotten more sophisticated and so [the sellers] really do have to be experts in a lot of these different topics… whether it’s AI or sustainability or FinTech and ESG,” said Phillips, which supports the notion that sellers would then be designated to one category so they can stay on top of what clients in that group are focused on at any given time.

Forbes currently has advertiser clients from the enterprise tech, financial services and consulting categories, followed by luxury and auto as secondary categories. But some of the accounts are so large, like in enterprise tech, for example, that a seller might only oversee six accounts. 

Fast turnaround team

Being beholden to a set number of client accounts may not allow for a lot of time to pursue new business. To combat this, some media companies dedicate teams of sellers that are responsible for going after new advertisers as well as responding to RFPs for campaigns that require quicker turnaround times.

Forbes, for example, assigns its newer sales reps to handle in-bound requests and smaller campaigns that typically have fast turnaround times.

Vox Media has a “growth team,” which is tasked with going after new business and handling single-channel activations, like a podcast ad or a newsletter campaign. The “enterprise team,” on the other hand, is focused on “strategic monetization across the portfolio,” according to CRO Geoff Schiller.

“Usually at the end of the year, there will be migration [of clients] from one to the other so that setup allows for us to have our proverbial cake and eat it,” Schiller said.

AI intervention 

BuzzFeed and BDG were two media companies this year that looked to generative AI as ways to streamline their sales process, specifically in figuring out how to cut down on the time it takes to summarize a client’s request for proposal (RFP) and making it easier to find past pitch decks. 

For example, BuzzFeed’s RFP summary copilot creates a one-page summary of an RFP, reducing the time that step normally takes from two or three hours to ten minutes, Andrew Guendjoian, evp and head of client partnerships at BuzzFeed Inc told Digiday in September. Though it still requires the seller to read the RFP to confirm the summary is accurate, not needing to summarize it themselves saves a lot of time, he said.

“Thinking about the crunch that is happening right now and the need to be constantly in front of our clients proactive[ly], anything that can reduce operational lag, which all of these copilots do, is helpful,” said Guendjoian at the time. 

Investing in in-house skills 

One media CEO who spoke on the condition of anonymity said without revealing specific financial figures that their company’s revenue growth was “crazy” in 2023, even surpassing 2022 revenue. They said that the biggest change that led to that spike in revenue was fully integrating the branded content studio into the sales organization so they could be involved in the proposal response process.

“These are talented designers and writers [that] only do branded content. Why aren’t they integrated across the [sales] org?” the chief exec said. 

In 2023, Forbes relaunched its research and insights business, which included expanding the report topics to include sustainability and AI, said Phillips. It required a fair amount of financial investment to revamp the research offering, she added without disclosing how much was spent on the division, but the reports produced are being used to drive direct revenue either by giving ad clients the ability to use it for their own research purposes or to use for branded content.

“Even if we’re not seeing the return on investment, which we did, I think it really empowered the sales team to be more knowledgeable and more educated in these [priority] areas [including sustainability and AI]. And it gave us, not only new sectors, but also new clients to talk to, particularly in the B2C space,” Phillips said. 

Tapping into data and insights for clients is also part of Bloomberg Media’s revamped sales strategy, but the most recent advancement of this is with the sales team’s new Client Council, Cook said. The council will convene clients in “regular meetings at appropriate gathering points around the world,” though she declined to share the frequency or locations of these meetings. Once together, clients will be given the opportunity to share how Bloomberg Media’s ad products are working, if the subject matter is pertinent to the clients’ top concerns and interests and share other trends within their respective industries.

“Internally, when we [tell our sellers] most of our clients in the banking category want this or that, that’s one thing. But if I bring those banking clients and sit them in front of the ad product team, you get their attention a little bit more,” said Cook.

Driving incentive

The CEO who spoke anonymously said another big change they made this year was developing incentives that would encourage sellers to focus on categories and product types that had the highest margins. They did not disclose exactly what those incentives were. 

“For way too long, media [companies], including us, sold [ads] essentially assuming that revenue is the same as profit, which it was for a long time. When you have a great margin, revenue is the same as profit, but when your margin on a live event is 10%, your margin on branded content is 15% and your margin for a print ad is 70%, why would you not incentivize them to sell print ads?” the chief executive said. “This is one reason why our performance is so much better [this year] is that the mix of ad sales is much more profitable.”

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