No one ever says, “I want to work in advertising sales when I grow up.”

While pursuing a marketing degree in college, one learns all about consumer behavior, how to conduct market research, and how to develop a media plan. But rarely is the importance of the advertising sales professional—he or she who delivers the actual marketing message to the consumer—ever examined. It’s not the fault of the schools. It’s simply because no one ever says, “I want to work in advertising sales when I grow up.”

Think about it. Was this your first choice of work? I’m twenty-seven years old (I will be twenty-eight and newly married by the time you read this), and during my short time as an advertising sales professional I have been lied to, ignored, and stood-up by both clients and prospects alike. I have been personally affronted by my competitors and I have been told that what I have to sell is worthless or antiquated. I have had orders cancelled on whims and I have been forced to fill out requests for proposals that I knew I was never going to get business from. It’s not a glamorous profession, but I love every minute of it. After all, if our job was easy it would not be worth doing.

As a young advertising sales professional working in 2009, I admit that I wonder about the future of the profession I am in—not whether it will still exist but what the future job will entail. I also wonder how it became what it is today, and why it differs from what it was yesterday. Just one month ago, someone at a trade show said to me, “Times are really tough for us right now. But I guess you know all about that in your profession.”

It’s true. Times are tough for us. I don’t have to tell you that we are in a historically transitional time for media. Consumers began seeking out information through alternative media over a decade ago and we’ve been hit with the perfect storm as the economy deteriorated.

What Do We Have To Offer?

The underlying question is—why don’t marketers value us or what we have to offer anymore? On a daily basis, they tell us this when they ignore our calls or cancel their insertion orders. They send us press releases to publish, but they don’t advertise because they don’t feel our audiences are a fit. Go figure. They ask us for new and innovative ways to reach their target audience, and when we propose them, they tell us that they don’t have the budget to do so. They tell us that print is dead, and yet upwards of 50 percent of them still aren’t even running electronic ads.

This isn’t meant to be an open letter to marketers about our daily plight as advertising sales professionals. Maybe it’s not their fault. Maybe we have failed to prove the importance of what we provide to them. Maybe it’s both of our faults, as we have all lost sight of the true principles of marketing. The simple fact is that the days of selling ink on paper are over. And don’t misconstrue that—I truly believe in the power of print. What I mean is that media is evolving, and we must evolve with it if we are ever going to succeed. If you’re still selling advertising space the same way you did five, or even three years ago, then you’re going to become increasingly frustrated with the results and burn out very quickly.

Now, more than ever, we need to serve as marketing consultants for our clients. As budgets are slashed and demand for ROI increases, the advertising agency will play a less crucial role for many of our small-to-mid-sized clients. They cannot afford the luxury of an intermediary and we must fill that role. We must be able to do more than sell ink on paper to these clients in order to earn their trust, loyalty, and business moving forward.

In my opinion, the biggest obstacle to succeeding in advertising sales today, and what can make an absolute drudgery out of our profession, is to constantly think like a sales professional and not like a marketing professional. If you’re only set on making an immediate, short-term sale, then you’ll be no better off than the client who runs just one advertisement. Your sale will be a flash in the pan. You must brand yourself and your media products consistently to both your clients and your prospects.
Some Things To Think About:

Put yourself in their shoes. If you’ve ever purchased advertising space yourself, then you’re going to be in a much better position to help your prospects and clients with their advertising campaigns. If you haven’t, then I highly recommend you do so, even if it’s just a classified advertisement to sell some junk from your house (we could all use a little extra cash these days). When you run the ad, either in print or online, you will quickly see how frustrating it can be to not get any response but to have to pay for the advertisement anyway. You will have much more empathy for your clients and be better able to help them choose placement and messaging in your own media if you have experienced this firsthand.

Go the extra mile. Create mock advertisements for your prospects and clients when developing proposals. Help them to visualize how their advertising creative could work in your media and what sort of messaging would work best with your audience. If they have not run online advertising with you, then create a screen grab of your Web site and place a mock advertisement for their company in the position that you think would be most appropriate. Don’t be afraid to suggest ad copy to your clients either. Often times, you will know what sort of message speaks louder to your audience than they will. This is especially true if you are pitching a prospect that is new to your market or particular media. It’s not hard to create mock advertising creative, even in something as simple as Microsoft Word. If you have access to someone in an art department, then even better. Buy them lunch now and then if you have to, but don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Practice what you preach. Promote the value of frequency and the use of multimedia to your clients through the actual use of it. If you’re not sending your clients e-mails or direct mail post cards or making telephone calls to them, and also offering some sort of blog or Web site of your own, then you can’t expect your clients to understand what you’re pitching them. It’s inexpensive to create a domain name and host a Web page. If you’ve never created a Web page, then you MUST. It’s critical know-how (and fun) these days. Once you’ve learned how to create and develop a Web page of your own, give out the link to your clients and make it a place for them to get valuable information. Host your media kits there, promote your advertising specials, and keep in touch with them through it. Put the URL in your signature and promote the heck out of it. That’s what you want your clients to do, isn’t it?

Lend a helping hand. One of the biggest concerns most marketers have is their budget. It’s not always up to them when it gets reduced, as the directive comes from higher up. Astute marketers want to maintain frequency, but they simply cannot afford to do so often times. Most humane companies would also rather reduce advertising expenses than employees. So try to help them out by getting creative with your math. If someone is running six advertisements with you for $6,000 per ad, and the monthly cash flow is just too much for them to handle, tell them you’ll reduce their ad to $3,000 per month and double their frequency to 12 times. You’ll look like a hero, as you both reduce their monthly cash flow and provide them with twice as much exposure. Do this one with discretion, however, and make sure your client knows it’s only a temporary fix. But the odds are (and trust me from experience) that your client will really appreciate the help and stick with you for the long run.

Two heads are better than one. Thirty heads are even better than two heads. If your company is not already sharing best sales practices, then you must immediately begin to do so. If you’ve recently saved an account, landed a new account, or been shocked to receive a call back from a previously unreachable account because of something you’ve done, then share how it happened with your peers. We’re all in this together, whether we cover the East Coast, West Coast, print, or interactive sales. Sharing good sales practices is just good practice.  

In the end, capitalism will always reward innovation. As competition drops off during these tough times, those who develop new ways to deliver messages to consumers that appeal and have value will remain strong. Regardless of what you might feel or hear, people do need what we have to sell. Media sales professionals bring buyers and sellers together through an economy of scale that sellers alone could not achieve. For every one prospect that a clients’ sales team could reach by phone or in-person, there are thousands of others that they can reach through well-placed advertisements in our print and electronic media. It’s our job to reinforce this over and over again. It’s what we get paid to do. However, it’s those things that we don’t always get paid to do, but go above and beyond to do anyway, that will truly help us succeed in times like these.
Brian O’Rourke is Western regional account manager for Advantage Business Media. He has also held sales positions with the Journal of Coin Laundry and Entrepreneur.

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