The great reset: How sales relationships and structure will change on the other side of coronavirus

Illustration of 3 people in separate rooms so that they're isolated from one another.

This is part of a special package from Digiday about what comes next, looking to the other side of the current crisis to explore the lasting changes that are coming about.

Fewer wheels are getting greased by lunches these days. UberEats breakfast vouchers, Headspace app subscriptions and Zoom comedy nights have replaced face-to-face socializing between publishers and clients. And it’s having a lasting impact. 

“We’re tearing out our client entertainment and travel budgets for next year,” said a publishing executive at a global magazine publisher. “Everyone is working from home for at least six months, that makes you think differently.” In lieu of taking agency planning teams to breakfast, this publisher redeployed magazine designers to build succinct decks for prospective clients.

Aside from tightening discretionary spend and T&E cost management, publishers are steering their business models away from relying on display ads during a tough economic climate, that requires different skills and different people. For an industry that prides itself on being relationship driven, obtaining new clients will be harder when people are leerier of meeting in person. 

After speaking with eight publisher revenue officers about the future of ad sales, how to form new relationships rings out as a common concern. 

“When there is an existing culture, business network and relationship, these are OK to maintain,” said chief commercial officer at the Financial Times, Jon Slade. “But they’re really hard to start and really really hard to repair if broken.”

During this middling phase, after the binary of lockdown and before total flexibility, publishers are working out artificial ways of creating serendipitous casual culture. For relationships with agencies and tech platforms, that means more structured meetings like immersion mornings and regular business reviews. But also, training to develop casual, yet formal, ways of mediation, like picking up on cues when the subtleties of vocal tone and body language are lost over Zoom. In a previous role within a multicultural team, one executive had to ban sarcasm because the subtlety was lost on other team members. 

Chemistry is hard to establish with new people over video. “If you’re presenting a deck to a full room it’s difficult to keep their attention,” said Alex Simpson, head of programmatic activation at News UK. “People mute, turn off the camera or check their emails, it’s much harder.”

As sales teams work harder to drum up new business, efficiency has reigned. Video conference meetings have winnowed to 30 minutes with clear agendas and action points. People are perfecting pitches to new clients in 15 minutes. A six-person monthly leadership meeting that used to take up to five hours is now under two, said Arne Wolter, chief digital officer at German media group Gruner+Jahr. He added that an editor-in-chief at a rival company said their newspaper had reduced to 24 pages from 36, yet the quality is better and with fewer mistakes.

With the regularity of face-to-face meetings on pause, one exec notes that targets have shifted: Rather than five face-to-face meetings a week they carry out 10 video calls. Whether this frenetic activity leads to longer, deeper relationships is a different matter. Another digital chief said they’d not met with one of their customers for three months now. While the work no longer depends on meeting someone, it does help close deals.

The great duopoly default

The fear, execs say, is that with even less social interaction between publishers and advertisers, advertisers could resort to over-relying on key performance indicators, deliverables, reach, and efficient — meaning low-cost — pricing, characteristics that Google and Facebook deliver on. For larger publishers this competition is manageable, but size matters even more post-pandemic.  

Those who know their business and their clients’ intimately — and can leverage their novelty to go the extra mile — will succeed in the next normal. Reuters, in the enviable position of being backed by Thomson Reuters, is using the time to build up its first-party data offer.

“Publishers are going to have to work harder for clients,” said Preya Shah, Reuters senior commercial director, Europe, Middle East, and Africa and Asia Pacific. “Clients have less marketing budget, fewer physical events, there is a greater shift towards the digital dollar working even harder to drive returns.” 

One of the themes for The World Economic Forum in January, Shah added, is the great reset. “That perfectly encapsulates the mood as we come out of this,” she said. “It’s about digital reinvention.”

Pre-pandemic, companies were 2.6 times more likely to spend over 21% of their total events budget to host events rather than attend them, according to research from event tech company Bizzabo. Companies are still looking for where to spend that 21% to generate leads.

With an eye on performance, models shift

Publishers’ ability to create branded content for advertisers sets them apart from platforms like Google and Facebook. Over the next 12 months, the role of content within marketing campaigns will play an even more significant role as companies wrestle with how they tell a differentiated story after so much change.

Even so, few publishers have escaped making staff cuts, although most want to preserve sales. Businesses are forced to take an unclouded view of margins and what areas of their model will thrive on the other side. Content teams seem even more expensive during an ad downturn. The Telegraph’s decision to cut up to 100 staff from its branded content studio Spark last week surprised many. Two other publishers are retooling to sell marketing services — or lead gen — instead of ads after the market has been decimated, said Rob Ristagno, founder of consultancy The Sterling Woods Group. 

Publisher sales teams are thinking about the skills needed to win or at least survive. Coronavirus has accelerated trends: Ad sales have been morphing for the last two decades into a more consultative role, multi-channel and across many brands. At the same time, it’s more analytical and reliant on disseminating and reporting data back to clients. Those who need to bulk up with talent anticipate a flurry of available talent in the second half of the year as government grants dry up and companies have to go through tough cuts again. 

“Perhaps we increase our bench strength with more telesales people or those with deep contacts who can work remotely,” said the first publishing executive. “We’re looking at the top and the bottom of the spectrum.”

Ultimately, the emphasis on performance, internally and externally, won’t only change the skills needed but also how teams organize.  

“A lot of brand-specific salespeople are going to struggle,” said a sixth publisher sales chief. “Where some companies have heavily matrixed structures they will probably look to restructure. Five salespeople engaged in the same project is too many. If there are too many crossovers it’s hard to identify where the valuable work is happening.”

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