‘No more lead times’: Publishers rework their sales orgs with an eye toward new normal

Illustration of 3 people in separate rooms so that they're isolated from one another.

After six months of racing to get ad campaigns and creative work done under tighter deadlines than ever before, publishers are rethinking the structure of their sales organizations.

To make sure they can respond more nimbly to advertiser demands, publishers are going into 2021 more focused on growing the post sales side of their sales organizations, either with full-time staffers or by boosting freelance budgets so that people can be added for contract roles, according to sources at four different media companies.  

Like so many things that happened this year, the growing focus on post-sales roles, which include areas such as ad operations, optimization, and production, began before the pandemic struck. Historically, post-sales employees ate up a small percentage of a sales organization’s staffing budget, often in the range of 20%, said Matt Bartels, the media practice lead at the Alexander Group.

Yet starting last year, that balance began to change, as more publishers looked to build more in-depth relationships with advertisers. Today, pre- and post-sales roles often eat up at least half of a sales team’s hiring budget, Bartels said.

Publishers are making these decisions at a moment when many are trying to figure out how much to rebuild their sales teams after being forced to either halt hiring or slim down. Seventy percent of media company sales leaders said they’d either reduced their ranks or were thinking about doing so this year, according to a recent survey conducted by the Alexander Group.

“They have that opportunity to redefine,” Bartles said. “The challenge with that is, you do have a fixed budget.”

Throughout the year, brands‘ shorter planning cycles have had publishers scrambling to get campaigns done. Publishers said it was not uncommon that campaigns needed to get done in half, or even a third of the time used last year.

“It’s come down to the ability to execute quickly,” said Jason Wagenheim, the chief revenue officer of Bustle Digital Group. “There are no more lead times.”

Wagenheim and the rest of the Bustle Digital Group leadership have begun planning for 2021, and they’re endeavoring to add staffers to post-sale, client experience and ad ops teams. “You have to have that bench,” Wagenheim said.

Even legacy publishers with older branded content businesses and long-standing client relationshis have made these changes. Marla Newman, evp of digital sales at Meredith, said her team has expanded its post-sales teams as well, looking to add more growth.

“We continue to be fluid by evolving our sales and support team organization to effectively manage the business,” Newman wrote in an email. “The current structure has a strong focus on sales support (client services/activation) to enable best-in class execution of all client programs.”

Adding those people may help get a campaign done. But more people touching a campaign creates the potential for other challenges. For example, too many people participating in a campaign creates crowded lines of communication between client and publisher, Bartels said.  

And adding too many voices to the mix can make it hard to foster ongoing dialogue between publisher and client — which ideally should lead to an ongoing business relationship on which publishers are increasingly dependent.


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