The Case for Category-Based Ad Sales
Publishers tend to merge categories during difficult times—when they really should be doing the opposite.
As publishers and sales managers, it is our job to create structure and accountability across our sales teams. And though it is challenging, it is even more important that we nudge our salespeople out from their comfort zones. That extra push is what prevents us from losing out on business and keeps us profitable.
We want our sales people to do more with less, not less with more.
This brings us to a common dilemma among publishers: do we assign our salespeople specific categories of business to call on or should they crisscross the market, calling on various prospects on protected lists?
Which is the most effective at driving business?
Assigning categories of business is, without a doubt, the more effective sales management strategy, and the mission of this post is to present definitive support for the strength in assigning categories over a free-for-all overlap across the market when selling advertising.
Bottom line: we want salespeople to drill down and call on everyone — even that unpleasant retailer, real estate broker, car dealer or bank president—to maximize the sales universe. It is from this idea that the phrase “workin’ in the ad mines” was born.
Figure A (right), represents the market with salespeople calling on prospects across all categories of business. The closer to the middle of the circle, the easier the prospect.
Everyone on the sales team gravitates toward the easier prospects in the middle, and avoids the difficult prospects on the outside of the circle. We all know there is business out there that might seem too unpleasant, too long a drive, or too obscure a category, but salespeople need to bite the bullet and call them.
In Figure B (below), we see the same market divided into categories. Each piece of the pie represents a category of business assigned to a specific account executive. The easier prospects remain in the middle, and the difficult prospects on the outside.
In this scenario, a larger circle of potential business is activated because the account executive is pushed to drill down into their, and only their, categories. The AE has to call on all prospects—delightful or not—because the category assignment demands it.
None of these tactics are easy. Salespeople are never thrilled with new account structures, but this is our job. Publishers tend to combine categories when business is slow, or to keep salespeople happy, when they should be doing the opposite. Salespeople wind up with too much to call on and missed business because they aren’t pushed to drill deeper into their categories. Stick to your guns and make them accountable. Again, we need our teams to do more with less, not less with more.
7 Benefits of the Category Sales Strategy
Selling as a Consultant: The sales person becomes an expert on their assigned categories and sells as a consultant, not as just another media rep trying to sell a page, spot or board. The sales person that knows their category and establishes credibility in how to leverage their publication on behalf of the business challenges specific to their client. This builds rapport, trust and respect. All of this demonstrates value and helps establish long-term relationships.
Eliminating AE Conflict: Account executives are less likely to argue over who got to a prospect first when working in categories. Under a category-based strategy, sales people bring one another leads when they see potential opportunities in categories outside of their own.
Selling Successful Special Sections: Special sections struggle unless there is a specific account executive assigned to the category-specific special section. A publisher’s mandate that “We need each AE to sell two pages” rarely works. The section is assigned to the AE that handles the category covered. That establishes the accountability we are looking for and gives the AE an immediate reward when they sell the ten pages necessary to allow for the editorial to make the section profitable.
Strategic Management Tool: Assigning categories gives the publisher much more leverage. The AE with expertise in fashion will do a great job calling on the fashion category. The AE that previously worked in home sales knows that category, has relationships, and is a good fit to call on homebuilders.
Rewarding and Motivating: Categories also give the publisher an additional subtle way to reward and motivate term members apart from giving raises and bonuses. The sales person that arrives in the office every day at 9:01 and leaves the office at 4:58 may do an adequate job, but may not be the right for the most lucrative categories. The sales person that is motivated, driven and willing to attend multiple events and luncheons may be the better fit. And when a sales person asks for a raise, you might instead shift them to a more lucrative category.
Additional Elements to the Category Sales Strategy
Protected Lists: The value of category sales is clear, but we still do not want to miss the opportunity to leverage sales people who may have significant equity with a prospect outside their own categories. This could be a previous employer or a relative that is a decision maker for a prospect that is outside their category.
If you believe there is an exception to the category assignment that is too good to miss, let the sales person protect that prospect on their protected list for six months. If they can’t close this prospect in six months, then there was likely never that much equity to begin with, and the prospect can revert back to their appropriate category.
House Accounts: House accounts are dreadful; they demoralize your sales team. But there can still be categories assigned directly to the publisher. He or she should be the best sales person in the office and their own lists of prospects and clients will help them set an example and set the tone across the office necessary to build the business.
An additional benefit is that the publisher can reward their top sellers by reassigning categories currently in the publisher or main office’s name to the sales person that has legitimately maxed out their categories of business and genuinely needs more to call on. If managed correctly, their commissions from the new category than what they would have made with a raise and they will still be closing new business.
None of these tactics are easy. Salespeople are never thrilled with new account structures. But this is our job. Publishers tend to combine categories when business is bad in order to keep sales people happy, when they really should be doing the opposite. Stick to your guns and make your sales people accountable.