As programmatic ad revenue grows, publishers adapt sales team structures

A publisher’s direct salesperson convinces an advertiser to include a programmatic buy as part of a larger package. After that campaign is completed, the advertiser agrees to a separate private marketplace deal that is managed by one of the publisher’s programmatic specialists. For the latter deal, should the salesperson overseeing the account get the commission, or the programmatic specialist executing the deal, or both? It’s a riddle that publishers are wrestling with as they open programmatic to more, if not all, members of their sales organizations and as advertisers continue to automate more of their spending.

“Programmatic is not great for commission-based [compensation] yet,” said Sarah Krembs, national director of strategic sales at Accuweather. “Somebody’s got to solve for that.”

How sales teams should be compensated for programmatic revenue is becoming an urgent issue because programmatic has become a bigger and more central revenue stream for publishers “as opposed to the thing down the hall that the operations team did. Now it’s becoming real money,” said Scott Bender, head of publisher strategy at Prohaska Consulting.

Compensating direct sellers for programmatic buys can be critical to growing the programmatic side of a publisher’s business. That’s especially true for publishers looking to automate more of their direct sales into programmatic guaranteed or private marketplace deals, which can provide recurring revenue. Giving direct sellers a commission on their clients’ programmatic buys can incentivize those salespeople to adequately represent the publisher’s programmatic sales offering and to understand what is and is not possible programmatically, said an executive at a publisher that pays its direct sellers that same commission on a dollar, whether a transaction is done through a traditional insertion order or programmatically.

It can also ensure that the sellers remain involved after the deal is signed. Unlike with a traditional direct deal, with a private marketplace deal, the real work doesn’t start until after the deal has been signed and setting up the actual buy begins. “The direct salespeople need to be actively involved beyond the closing of the deal,” said Bender.

For publishers with unified sales teams pitching deals that can be transacted through a direct insertion order or programmatically, compensation is fairly straightforward. Accuweather has put programmatic under the purview of its direct sales team and pays its direct sellers a commission for the money that their clients spend programmatically except for inventory bought through open exchanges, said Krembs, who serves in an operational capacity to facilitate the programmatic side of those deals and does not receive a commission.

However, while some publishers have gravitated toward unifying their sales teams to enable their direct sellers to pitch programmatic alongside sponsorships, branded content and events, many publishers have other, separate teams that contribute to their programmatic revenue. That may be a corps of programmatic specialists charged with facilitating the programmatic campaigns sold by the direct sales team, or an entire standalone programmatic sales team. These publishers are pressed to figure out how to incentivize their sales orgs to field and fuel advertisers’ programmatic demand and to mitigate any internal conflict or confusion. To that end, some publishers are willing to compensate both the direct salesperson and their programmatic counterpart on a single dollar spent programmatically.

“We’re in the midst of a shift, and shifts don’t happen overnight. Even if there’s really only one individual responsible for generating that revenue, to foster collaboration and transition traditional sellers to this new way of buying, it could make sense to pay more than one person on a given dollar,” said a publisher who asked to remain anonymous discussing compensation arrangements.

Turner’s CNN Digital has what could be described as a delineated programmatic sales team within its broader sales team, said Christine Cook, svp and chief revenue officer at CNN Digital. Such a setup could lead to situations where a direct seller, for fear of losing their commission, tries to dissuade a client from buying CNN Digital’s inventory programmatically or the programmatic seller tries to do the opposite. That could especially spell trouble for Turner’s annual upfront deals that this year packaged together its TV inventory with digital, which includes branded content and programmatic. That packaging can lead to situations where, to manage the digital side of the deal, three different salespeople — a direct salesperson, a branded content specialist and a programmatic specialist — are involved in advising an advertiser on how to allocate the money it had committed upfront to spend.

Instead of wasting time trying to manage their respective swim lanes and prevent any intra-team sabotage, CNN Digital has incentivized the trio to work together, not against each other, by primarily rewarding them based on hitting a single overall revenue target for that advertiser, said Cook. Whatever percentage of that revenue goes through programmatic, each of the three employees gets compensated for hitting the revenue goal. That encourages the three employees to push each other to hit the goal but also helps to ensure that they are prioritizing how the client intends to spend its money. To motivate the employees to make an effort in their respective arenas, CNN Digital can set secondary and tertiary goals specific to sponsorships, branded content and programmatic.

“As the [programmatic] business scales, it’s critical that it gets tucked in and that the people are incentivized to one number — the total number — and that you have key performance indicators that allow management to drive whatever specific behaviors you want,” said Cook.

This story has been updated to reflect that CNN Digital’s programmatic sales team is a delineated group within its broader sales team. It previously described CNN Digital as having a split setup with a programmatic sales team separate from its direct sales team.

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