‘This is a relationship business’: The in-person client meeting is beginning to make a comeback among publishers

Los Angeles Times chief revenue officer Josh Brandau has been thinking a lot about golf lately.

Over the past couple weeks, Brandau said, all of his account directors have begun asking about their entertainment budgets again, as a growing number of them discover that the paper’s advertisers are up for in-person meetings after months of coronavirus-imposed isolation. Trips to golf courses, Brandau said, were a popular request.

At first, the asks concerned him. “We’ve been meeting so much on how we reopen the offices, and my worry there is it’ll manifest with them wanting to meet with their groups, or do group sales,” Brandau said.

But after ensuring that his directors would take appropriate precautions and could decline the meetings if they didn’t feel comfortable, that anxiety gave way to a feeling of excitement. “Other people want to meet with us,” Brandau said.

The Los Angeles Times is not the only publication that’s had to consider such requests. Sales leaders at publications including Meredith and Fortune have had their sellers ask about the prospect, as growing numbers of agency and brand executives begin to feel more comfortable, even with daily infections continuing to rise in some of the country’s most populous states. States in the Sun Belt are breaking their own records for new infections on practically a daily basis.

The form and style of these visits differ from normal meetings of the past. Many have taken place outside of New York City and other major urban markets after many executives retreated to the suburbs or farther flung locales in the early days of the pandemic. Marla Newman, evp of digital sales at Meredith, met up with a senior agency executive she’s known for years last week for a socially distant walk on the beach on Long Island.

Even in the city, the settings have been more relaxed. A top revenue executive at a large legacy media company, who asked not to be identified, spent a day this past week taking client meetings at an outdoor café in Manhattan, located within walking distance of several clients’ offices. “Several people were willing to do it, as long as it’s outside and the tables are spaced,” that source said.

Newman said she and her colleagues have only begun taking these kinds of meetings in the past ten days or so, as parts of New York and the rest of the country begin to open up.

“There’s nothing like a face-to-face,” Newman said. “It speaks to the value of our relationships. And, at the end of the day, this is a relationship business.”

But even as these vestiges of the old way of doing business return, it is hard to say whether they might bring more revenue with them.

Three sources contacted for this story said the meetings tend to be informal, mostly focused on brainstorming and thinking through large, complex programs that often take a while to come together. While prospects are nowhere near as grim as they were in late March and early April, most publishers’ businesses remain gripped by uncertainty.

But most sellers will take returns to normal wherever they can find them. In the weeks after coronavirus clamped the country in a vise of social distancing regulations, many ad sellers tried new tacks to keep their clients engaged. TV networks bought meditation app subscriptions; ad tech sellers sent food via Uber Eats.

Not everybody in media feels comfortable with the changing attitudes. Though several of his sellers have asked for permission to meet with clients this month, Fortune’s chief revenue officer Michael Schneider said that he has barred in-person meetings “until conditions become more favorable.” Fortune will not hold any in-person events until at least the second quarter of 2021, Schneider said.

A senior executive at another large legacy media company said he had trouble imagining that people would be comfortable with in-person meetings.

“I barely sleep in the same room as my wife,” that executive said, describing the precautions they were taking to avoid the disease.   


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