Publishers’ Talent Woes

Many publishers lay awake at night worrying about all aspects of their business. But perhaps the biggest weight on their minds: finding and retaining top talent on the sales side.

There’s a big transition happening across sales teams — particularly at legacy media companies stuck on old sales models — that present significant hurdles in finding the right talent to take on digital.

Talking to many publishers, the key in the digital era is to solve marketers’ myriad problems, and not just sling banners. Some of those problems include targeting the right audience across platforms, developing creative elements that get people to read and share advertising content, or even applying technology and data to help tell better brand stories. There’s a growing chasm between the type of person a publisher needs to do this and the stark reality that there’s a lack of talent out there to do it.

“Whenever I hire for ad sales, a lot of them are one-trick ponies that came up through a vertical and maybe can adapt to other types of platforms, like digital,” said Andy Cohn, publisher of The Fader. “But I need people who are strategic marketers rather than salespeople, and that’s few and far between.”

The modern publisher salesforce is wholly unrecognizable from years past. Publishers are finding that because the work is utterly different, it requires different and higher skills, something that appears to be in high demand but hard to find.

“You really have to have an understanding of all the elements you have to play with,” said Jim Bankoff, CEO of Vox Media. “You’re not selling a commodity; you’re selling a solution.”

The Economist’s global digital publisher, Nick Blunden, sees both a talent drain and a talent challenge. At the top end of market, where the brightest people have more choice in the roles they can do, he said, the publishing industry isn’t necessarily as high up on their priorities as it once was. Instead, they’re moving to companies like LinkedIn, Google or Facebook.

“Sales people are moving to digital pure-plays, partly because they feel that presents a better long-term career prospect,” Blunden said. “It’s a big industry challenge.”

Publishers need to find people who can discuss the technology and engineering behind how digital advertising works, bought and sold. But they also need to be clever enough to see how to build a program to solve a marketer’s problem.

“On the sales side, we used to sell banners and buttons, and now it’s programs,” said Anthony de Maio, associate publisher at Slate. “Sales has to thread that needle and sell that piece by piece. It’s a different kind of conversation than we’ve had in the last year.”

There’s a massive publishing talent challenge occurring, and it won’t be getting easier any time soon. One senior executive at a premium publisher said, “I worry about talent, and if I did lose my good talent, I’d worry about my ability to succeed. Talent is the most important thing for publishers. Period.”

Image via Shutterstock

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