Friday, November 2, 2012

Who is buying ad space today? That's who publishers and their reps need to sell, not tech writers or media gurus

How many tech or media writers out there have made a sales call on an ad agency? How many media gurus, those folks that, for reasons that continue to baffle me, publishing executives continue to listen to and put on their advisory boards, have made a sales call on a media buyer? My guess is that damn few have.

No, the fact is that we live in a media world where the ad sales talent has fled to greener pastures – Google, Yahoo, and other media worlds where one doesn't need to be 'digital first' because digital is all they know.

But the sales folk at Internet pure plays are not succeeding through smoke and mirrors, they are delivering what media buyers want. Frankly, they are delivering what media buyers want because media buyers are, like they have always been, of a generation that is comfortable with certain kinds of advertising. Speaking their language and presenting products that can relate to is the challenge for publishers. Creating new products that they will buy is probably what the mission is for the next decade, not pushing the same old, increasingly less read products.

In those golden days of print advertising, or I think of them as golden days, I was a young guy who had it pretty easy. When I entered the offices of local ad agencies in Southern California, the folks who met me were my age – in their 20's. Their tastes were like mine, their media consumption was like mine. It was all print because that is what we consumed as readers.

Selling a print schedule to a media buyer was easy, meeting with the heads of the agencies and brands was the hard part. These people were in their 40s, 50s or even 60s. They, too, knew print, but they didn't necessarily knew or approved of my product. The trick was to know when to bring in our own old guys to meet them, or to work hard to win them over.
Great old ad for McGraw-Hill Magazines, but how
many media buyers today look like this guy?

In the late nineties, when I was managing the sales teams at magazines at McGraw-Hill and other magazine companies, the new thing was the Internet. Our competition in this area was the pure play – a company like VerticalNet, that only offered a web advertising solution. Yes, the web was the new, hot thing, but the buyers were still not comfortable with the medium.

Things have changed, but publishers have not. Today we have publishers lamenting the fact that today's media buyers are not enamored with their products anymore. Duh. Nothing has changed, just the media buyers have changed.

While there is an argument to be made that publishers and their associations can turn this situation around, my own sense is that this is a movie we've seen before. Every time newspapers and magazines experience a dip there are those voices that cry out that the medium needs to be sold more. It never works, but it makes those on the board of directors at the trade associations feel good.

Right now advertising is fleeing print. I don't think it is coming back simply because readers are fleeing, too. And the most important readers that are fleeing are the ones that are making the ad buying decisions.

The reason we continue to see big name brand magazines continue to sell well with some media buyers is that they can deliver something very similar to both digital and broadcasting, high penetration of the desired market.

Almost three years ago I predicted here that we'd continue to see the top magazine and newspaper brands continue to succeed, but that the growth of the new digital platforms would make it harder and harder for publications not seen as the leaders in their fields to sell space. I was partially right in that many of the big name books continue to sell while other fail. But what I didn't see was just how weak the sales leadership was at the big national newspaper and magazine companies. The emphasis away from ad sales and towards paid content strategies has accelerated the declines.

I think sales declines can be stemmed, but not old print product sales declines. Selling what media buyers want – digital, measurable, geolocation enabled, etc. – will lead to results. Some publishers simply don't have the necessary products to sell – they will have to build and launch them. Making you horse fun faster won't prevent customers from buying cars.