Over the past 10 years, I have talked with many senior magazine executives about their struggles to serve the changing publishing environment. Finding balance is difficult, and making money while adapting to this changing climate is not easy. The consensus is that they need to get back to basics, and to find better ways to leverage their brands. They need to invest for the future by backing the right technologies, but nobody knows which implementations will prevail.
Power of the Brand
For the past decade, we have argued that branding will be critically important to magazine companies that want to build digital businesses. Familiar product brands are perceived as being more trustworthy than unbranded. For example, an unknown prodigy who starts posting financial content on the Web will be at a huge competitive disadvantage to a site like Kiplinger.com, written by editors who have been trusted advisors to investors for more than 80 years. Powerful print brands will be the ultimate winners of the digital transformation IF they can adopt appropriate strategies.
We also believe that magazine space sellers are more experienced at selling the value of a brand than sellers of other media. In an integrated sale with print and digital components, an experienced print seller will have an advantage over sellers whose skill sets were honed in markets that stressed negotiation over narrative.
To me, operating more effectively requires looking at the business from the ground up. Can changes be made to improve the fundamental business? Can partnerships be created? Can certain functions besides printing and subscription services and fulfillment be outsourced? And, since this next question applies to my core business, can the entire sales operation be outsourced? If not, why not?
There will be lots of reasons why not—some legitimate, some the result of bias. Some people are afraid of any big change, but nobody says that is their real reason. That fear is often couched in other words, like these:
When a magazine outsources sales, management loses control of the relationship with their clients, because sellers who work on many different properties would never give “mine” the attention it needs and deserves.
Agencies prefer working with company direct sellers.
How could a salesperson, who works on the outside, be as familiar with a particular magazine brand as one that works on the inside?
Outsourced sellers couldn’t possibly understand the complexity of all of the media platforms that surround the core magazine brand.
Outsourcing is Everywhere
Let’s put this in the larger context of American business. A majority of all products and services are sold, not by the creator of the product/service, but by an outsourced company. Many of the largest industries that advertise are dominated by outsourced selling operations like the automotive and food services categories. Often, these independent sales companies bring a valuable perspective and experience the manufacturer lacks. And, what is an ad agency if not independent? How about the television and the radio business, and the Internet ad sales networks?
Now to some of the specific fears stated above:
Almost any property large enough to afford its own direct staff can negotiate with the outsourced selling group to provide dedicated sellers. Those sellers look just like direct sellers so no relationships need to be lost.
Agency people are very familiar with reps because most broadcast sales are outsourced.
Magazine publishers can train outsourced sellers just as well as they have trained direct staff.
Because leading independent sales firms hire people with the same background as publishers, they are just as capable of mastering the intricacies of the brand’s product offerings.
Things change: the environment is vastly different than it was. Strategies that would not have been considered just a few years ago may be the very best solutions to today’s challenges. We can’t afford to rule out any viable options. Today, the range of sizes and capabilities among companies that call themselves independent sale firms is as broad as companies that call themselves publishers… pretty wide indeed!
Outsourcing the entire sales operation to a national firm—once a heretical thought–is being investigated and embraced by a growing number of publishers. I believe it is an option worthy of consideration.
What do you think?