The Rundown: ‘Tis the season for media company sales reorgs

Every few months, it seems, legacy media companies shake up their sales structures. This week it was Condé Nast. Earlier in the month, it was Hearst, Disney and NBCUniversal. All these companies are different in their size and business, but they’re all trying to compete in a digital ad market dominated by Facebook and Google. Part of the hope is that the right sales structure, led by the right people, will lead to financial success.

It’s easy to blame the tech giants for legacy media’s struggles. But sometimes, the media companies’ problems are of their own making. For years, Condé Nast was infamous for its magazines fighting each other tooth and nail for lucrative fashion and beauty ad pages. That might have served the company in a different era, but collaboration is the name of the game now, and longstanding culture dies hard.

Now Condé Nast is shifting harder into selling based on ad categories, an approach that de-emphasizes its famous brands. It’s a counterintuitive move since many of its advertisers still want to have a conversation that starts with individual titles like Vogue, GQ and Wired. That conversation risks being undermined when the person doing the selling has to be expert in many titles, not just one. Some wonder if the company is going too far in downplaying its most valuable assets. “A decade ago, everyone focused on their product and content. Everyone is chasing audiences now,” said an ad buyer.

A cautionary tale here is Time Inc. Once the giant of magazine companies, is gone, having been sold to women’s lifestyle publisher Meredith Corp. Declining print revenue was a factor in its demise, but Time Inc. didn’t help itself by making an abrupt shift in 2016 in the way it sold its titles, ditching their dedicated publishers to sell based on ad category. Advertisers booed, and Meredith reversed that decision. It’ll take time for the titles’ profits and revenue to be restored, if they can at all, though.

Evolving sales culture is hard in other ways. Media sales has a transactional sales culture, but as publishers move into selling branded content and other agency-like services, they need to change the way they sell. They need consultative-like sales skills and processes that ensure the branded content’s intended message doesn’t get lost as the campaign gets handed off from one person to the next.

Advertising is a valid business; other revenue streams are important, but most publishers can’t survive on selling subscriptions and T-shirts alone. But in figuring out the best way to sell, publishers can sometimes be their worst enemy.

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