Lessons From The Front Lines Of Media Sales

Jun 21, 2022


By Tony Silber

Media sales, to the people who do it professionally, becomes second nature. It’s almost hard to describe to a non-salesperson.

Once when I was an editor, I asked a colleague, a salesperson, what it is about sales that’s professionally rewarding. After all, an editor sees his or her name on their work every time they publish. They know when they just broke a major news item, or produced a feature that changed the way the public understands a topic. And their great work is feted by journalists’ peers in the form of awards and other recognition.

Sales professionals get very little of that. When I asked my colleague that question, he replied that his reward is helping a client succeed. I didn’t fully understand that at the time, but after spending the second half of my career in sales and sales management, it became clearer.

There are few things in sales that are as much of an adrenaline rush as making a big sale. The only thing I can think of is having a happy client, a relationship built on trust and friendship, where the client comes back with their marketing budget year after year because they trust you, they like you, and you produce results.

Anyway, back to the original point. Media sales isn’t really simple and straightforward. It’s a complex business. It requires perhaps more skills than a journalist. I can think of a dozen of them right off the top.

You have to understand what your brand can do for a marketer. And I mean really understand. What’s the nature of the audience? Are they executive decision makers? Specialist director-level folks? Can you prove audience engagement with your brand? Everyone has reader surveys. But you have to translate abstract numbers into a convincing real-world theory of the case. I’ve seen salespeople who memorized the numbers, but they couldn’t move from the rote to the organic — this is why it’s important! Similarly, you have to understand what different media elements do alone and together to enhance a marketing campaign.

You have to assess the market. Who’s buying and who’s not? Where are the untapped pools of dollars waiting to be served? Prospecting is a big part of this. Most salespeople think they have a handle on their market, but in reality, it’s frequently much larger than they think. They have a good book of business, so prospecting becomes a sometime effort. That’s bad news.

Hone your writing skills. If you’re a mediocre writer (be honest in assessing yourself), you might want to consider a different job. Seriously. There’s nothing worse than a long-winded email that takes three paragraphs of ungrammatical and poorly punctuated words to get to the point. Even worse is when the point is uncompelling, a vague explanation of the value proposition, or a deadening series of bullets outlining “what you get.” Signage. Announcements from the podium. Inclusion on marketing. Blah, blah.

Setting up meetings. This might be one of the most difficult skills. There’s so much at play. First off, in setting up meetings, you have maybe a 30-40 second window to engage a marketing director or CMO. If you’re not bringing a game-changing insight in that first sentence or two, you’ve already got two strikes against you. The channel is important — should you use email or phone? In my view, email is better on the initial outreach because you can succinctly state your case and briefly cover much more. Some people disagree. But marketers are busy. A phone call is more disruptive of a prospect’s workday. A call can be the second touch.

Setting up a meeting is the easy part. The actual meeting is trickier. If you don’t have good listening skills, again, you might want to consider a different profession. If all you focus on is what you have to offer, and not on what the client needs, it’s a disservice to the client and your employer. But this is still very common.

Then there’s body language. I’ve seen salespeople sit far away from the client, and then edge slowly backwards even more. I’ve seen them fail to make eye contact. I’ve seen them shaking with nerves. And others literally sweating. You could choke on a response, or inadvertently alienate the client, or start checking your watch. These are all the most egregious examples. More likely salespeople just flub one thing or another.

Assessing the Customer. The skill here is to have a realistic understanding of the prospective client’s budget. Your sales director may have trained you to “Never leave money on the table! They always have more budget than they admit.” It’s your job to intuitively figure out that number. You should always ask how much clients have to spend, and it’s always safe to attempt to stretch it, but if you blow someone out of the water, the deal is lost. I had a boss once who went on a call with us to a client that consistently spend about $50,000 per year, and who wanted to reach publishers who needed advisory services. The boss came away from the call and worked up a package of about $500,000, including media brands that had nothing to do with publishing M&A. We lost that client forever.

There’s another piece here. The competitive environment. If your prospect has two or three direct competitors in the space, you have to assess the psychology. Is there a FOMO angle? Maybe there’s bad blood. Maybe the number-two player is gunning for the number one. All of this and more can be leveraged.

Writing a proposal. Some clients are fine with a simple email that makes the case and lists the options. Other clients require an extensive proposal. In both cases, take the time to do it right. In the latter case, there are all kinds of tools to show that you were listening in the meeting, that you understand the marketing challenge, and that you respect the marketer as an innovative company. Use them all.

In these last six sections, I’ve probably laid out two dozen distinct sales-related skills. Bottom line: It not an easy profession, it’s fascinating and highly complex, and the next time an editor asks you what you do, tell them you’d need an hour to really do it justice, but that it’s the most fulfilling job there is.