Inside Time Inc.’s bumpy yearlong sales overhaul

Back in January 2016, Time Inc.’s top brass assembled the ad sales force at an offsite meeting. Senior management, as part of a plan to introduce a new sales structure, pointed to four corners of the room. They said each represented a different way to organize sales, and asked the assembled to walk to the one that represented how centralized sales at Time Inc’s 22 print magazine titles should be.

By the end of the exercise, people had spread themselves around the room, a sign of the hard work that would lie ahead in changing the company’s deeply entrenched practices.

In the year ahead, Time Inc. would move from selling ads based on its titles to an approach based on ad category. It was a sea change for a company that is best known for its iconic magazine titles like People, Time and Sports Illustrated. But the leadership believed that in a world where ad dollars were moving online, it had to sell the way digital giants Facebook and Google did. Rival publishers Hearst and Condé Nast have been moving in the same direction. Time Inc., which is now fielding offers from potential buyers, was under pressure to show results to Wall Street since its spinoff from Time Warner as a newly independent public company in 2014.

The reorg started a year ago with three categories: automotive, pharmaceutical and technology/telecommunications. It was later extended to several others including food and beverage, beauty and retail. As part of the transition, it eliminated the publisher title in the summer.

A year later, the results have been mixed, according to multiple former executives and ad buyers. From a revenue perspective, Time Inc. is still mainly print-driven, and in the third quarter of 2016, print and other ad revenue declined 10 percent compared to the same period the previous year.

CEO Rich Battista acknowledged to investors that it takes time to change perceptions and that there were some external category-specific challenges, but that the new structure was enabling the company to have deeper discussions with advertisers. “With our more unified and holistic approach, we are now able to have much more expansive and deeper discussions with our CMO and agency partners,” he said on a November earnings call. (Time Inc. hasn’t responded to multiple requests for comment on this story.)

Former sales executives and ad agencies said that while in theory the category sales approach could work, there were execution and cultural issues that hung up the transition.

Business was falling through the cracks because clients weren’t being called on during the transition and brand people still wanted to sell brands, a former sales exec said. “It’s 100 percent not working from a revenue standpoint and a culture and personnel standpoint,” this person said. In January there was yet another reorg, and Time Inc. modified its approach. It continued to expand category sales, but appointed people at the titles to look out for their brands’ interests, a former sales exec said.

Selling based on category meant adopting a consultative approach — a different tack than the brand approach that Time Inc.’s sales people had done for years. “When you take people like that, that are so connected to a brand, to all of a sudden be told you need to be a really smart dynamic media executive who can come up with ideas, you’re asking someone to do something dramatically different,” another former sales exec said. There was even less incentive for people who were closely identified with selling the company’s famous titles to change. As the former exec said: “Why would you want to be a beauty person when you could be a People person?”

Throughout 2016, the company moved in stages from title-based sales, and the transition left people still at the brands nervous about what their future would hold. That also meant that for a long time, there were two ways of selling in place, creating confusion. There also was management upheaval when Joe Ripp, who had originally championed the reorganization, stepped down as CEO in September, citing health issues.

Agency executives give the category sales approach mixed reviews. In theory, it would reduce the number of sales contacts who were calling on individual clients or agencies. Agencies said the approach worked in theory but that the transition was bumpy at times.

Sonny Kim, evp of digital and strategy, PGR Media, said at first it took time to figure out who the new points of contact were. Then Time Inc. accommodated the agency by assigning it a single contact, which helped. On a recent call, the rep talked about multiple titles that could be a fit for a certain advertiser. “I didn’t have to have four different calls; I could have one,” Kim said.

In other cases, the category approach can bring inefficiency. One agency is considering one print title for clients across multiple categories, so now it has to deal with reps for each of those categories. “It’s confusing at best,” said an agency president, who wouldn’t speak on the record. “If it takes the agency media planner/buyer more time to navigate the sales team, it’s clearly a problem in our time-stretched world.”

Other concerns with the category approach range from sellers not knowing the particulars of each title or trying to shoehorn ads in multiple titles, whether the advertiser wants them or not. Still, another buyer said the category approach didn’t prevent her from recently advertising in just one title. “They respected that and didn’t try to upsell anything else,” Monique Lemus O’Brien, group director at The Media Kitchen.

Broadly, the advantage for a traditional publisher like Time Inc. of selling by category is that it moves away from being defined by its print legacy, said Peter Kreisky, a publishing consultant who years ago served as an adviser at Time Inc. to its former CEO Jack Griffin.

“The disadvantage is that when the people on the front lines have a different set of competitors and unfamiliar value proposition, that moves away from the distinctiveness of the brand to a more amorphous value proposition based on metrics, which isn’t necessarily where they have an overwhelming advantage,” he said.

In the end, legacy publishers have to keep a foot in two worlds. “The big reality, and it’s not just for Time Inc. but all publishers, is that there are so many choices we have, and it’s really the brands that tell the best story, regardless of the organizational structure,” Kim said. “We’re used to digital pure plays and that’s how they’re always been organized. There’s more pressure on salespeople. They have to know the category, but they need to understand the brand well.”

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