Publishers hunt for the new ad-sales unicorn

One way to interpret the news that AOL is axing 150 ad sales staffers is that the march of programmatic rendering traditional salesperson obsolete.

An alternative take is a bit more nuanced: Programmatic selling isn’t killing media sales — it’s just forcing the role to evolve. Media selling used to be about sitting through three-hour martini lunches and working networks of contacts. Today, selling ad space means not only maintaining relationships with clients but also understanding the ad tech ecosystem, which is both tough to understand and is constantly changing. And not many salespeople have both skill sets.

“It’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” said Evolve Media president Brian Fitzgerald. “You have to hire people who are gregarious and outgoing but are also able to combine with an ability to be proactive sellers and an ability to think creatively about bespoke client campaigns. They also absolutely need to understand programmatic.”

Fitzgerald said that publishers now expect salespeople to be able to parse the many facets of the ad tech ecosystem, including the agency holding company dynamic, trading desks and the nuances of private marketplaces and real-time buying. ” I don’t expect them to make the final decisions but they have to understand it all well enough,” he said.

Technical-minded ad-sales people are about as hard to find as digital sales people were circa 1997, back when there was only a small cadre of early adopters who understood the then-nascent industry,  said Matt Prohaska, CEO of Prohaska Consulting. Just as there weren’t many print sellers who were adept at selling digital, right now there aren’t many digital sellers who have mastered the nomenclature of ad tech — and even fewer who know it well enough to have sales conversations about it. To help turn that around, the IAB and other groups have started their own education programs to teach salespeople the programmatic ropes. Other publishers have started teaching their sales people internally.

But Business Insider CRO Peter Spande said the industry often overemphasizes the importance of quant-focused salespeople, particularly since many publishers also employ programmatic specialists who have deeper understanding. “We absolutely have to have more analytically minded people in our organization, but I don’t think the salesperson has to be that person,” he said. “That said, I do hire salespeople who are intelligent and able to manage numbers, because that’s what leads to good forecasts.”

Spande that one of the most desirable sales skills today the ability to understand and sell a large number of ad products and sales channels. “A lot of it is about market knowledge. There are lot more options today, so it’s a much heavier bag you’re carrying,” he said.

Other publishers that say that while programmatic is playing a larger role in sales conversations, the ideal seller doesn’t look that different from their predecessor of 10 years ago. And while publishers may be looking for an ideal salesperson, they might also need to be comfortable with the reality that those salespeople are still few and far between.

“Being a digital seller is still about being smart and being able to address a client’s objectives,” said CRO Brian Colbert. “It’s not our expectation that the average digital seller is going to know programmatic like the back of their hand. Right now, it’s enough that they know enough about programmatic to start the conversation.”

Ultimately, all of this means that publishers are going to demand and expect more from the people in their sales organizations.

“Our industry has supported mediocrity on the sales side for a long time,” said Fitzgerald. “Marginal salespeople are seldom held to task because theres always another job. But mediocrity doesn’t quite cut it anymore.”

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