Not long ago all anyone in digital hiring circles could talk about was the scarcity of qualified software engineers. Then, they tried to hire a salesperson.
Over the past year, it's become clear that demand for digital sales talent today far exceeds supply, birthing a marketplace in which tales of top digital salespeople with just three years' experience commanding compensation packages as high as $250,000 are not unheard of .
"Outside of engineering, the individual [sales] contributor for a digital property might be the hardest job to fill right now," said Jeff Lundwall, managing partner at Mercury Group, an executive search and training consultancy, and a former associate publisher at Conde Nast Digital.
Why? Venture-capital-fueled startups that first concentrated on building user numbers and traffic are now feeling the pressure to monetize their offerings, and they're poaching talent. They might not be able to match big-media or ad-tech companies in salary, but they can lavish equity upon a candidate as well as generous, if inflated, job titles. Plus , Google, Twitter and Facebook are rapidly scaling their ad businesses and sales staffs.
Meanwhile, traditional media companies are focusing more on digital sales as top advertisers shift more brand dollars online. Then there's the rise of ad tech and data companies. While their offerings are engineering-based, they still need salespeople to close deals.
"It's a booming industry and there are only so many people that are really good at a specific skill," said Thrillist CEO Ben Lerer. "So anyone with digital experience becomes expensive, and really good people become really expensive."
Since the start of 2010, the percent of listings on the job site Indeed.com that contain the phrase "digital sales" has more than doubled. Much of the demand is focused on junior and mid-level sales positions. At Tremor Video, for example, the company has increased the size of compensation packages offered to junior sellers -- typically those with two to four years experience who carry the title of regional sales manager -- by at least 25% from a year ago, according to Chief Revenue Officer Randy Kilgore.
"The pond for fishing for people with three years sales experience is pretty well fished," he said. "Plus , a lot of people are trying to hire video sellers. Yahoo is building up, and you see what YouTube is doing."
During that time, the company has increased the size of its sales force from about 25 to 40.
Mike Mobley, the new VP of national sales at IAC-owned CollegeHumor Media, said that the ballooning salary scale was one reason he asked his new employer to raise the salary ceiling for his department when he joined. But he said he would only use the new financial room for senior hires.
At his last job, a regional sales director position at CBS Interactive, Mr. Mobley took another approach in bringing on new talent for more junior roles. Burnt one too many times by expensive, but mediocre, mid-level salespeople, Mr. Mobley and his team opted to hire at what he called a "very entry-level position" and then train those hires in-house.
But Mr. Mobley's own job-hunting experience proves that the talent crunch also extends to more senior roles. When he was looking for his latest job, he found himself considering five offers, counting the one he took from CollegeHumor. This, he admitted, is not a sign of a healthy buyer's market. "There's a major gap in talent across the board," he said.
Part of the problem seems to be education, or lack thereof. A recent IAB survey on interactive media trends found that about 65% of respondents said there are not enough industry training options. Penry Price, former head of Google's massive U.S. sales team and current president of Media6Degrees, says it's part of the bigger problem that the nation can't to turn out enough graduates with degrees in math and science and an industry that 's been slow to recruit from other sectors.
"Even if you're smart from a marketing perspective or great at sales with great relationships, if you aren't the next level up in terms of analytical thinking, understanding how the ecosystem works and why, you'll fall short," Mr. Price said. "The thought leaders of the digital space are management-consultant types who are really analytical and looking at digital data first and emotion second."
Since individuals with those educational backgrounds aren't in large supply in the advertising world, Mr. Price looks to other industries, like the financial sector, or those who have gained an understanding of the math and technology behind digital media through real-world practice in non-sales positions.
"I have lot of interest in someone who's done a couple of years of account management, who understands how ad exchanges work, who understands why trading desks were built, who can turn the dials for real-time optimization based on some kind of conversion event that 's happening," Mr. Price said.
Digital guru, or closer?
But Evan Gotlib, senior VP-advertising sales and creative services at Blip.tv, thinks digital employers needn't focus on "young digital killers" exclusively.
"I can teach digital," he said. "I can teach you what a click-tracking tab is , what an API is . But I can't easily teach you how to just close a deal."
For that reason, Mr. Gotlib has focused his hiring efforts on those salespeople with a track record of landing big deals, no matter the medium.
"There's a generation of young digital sellers who just don't understand what it really takes to sell," he said. "Selling is hard, getting your ass kicked eight of 10 times. You have to hire people who understand when someone says, 'No,' that that 's just when the job starts. A lot of this new crop of sellers doesn't really understand that ."
Sales salaries are cyclical, and the forces that fed bloated compensation packages may already be moving back toward equilibrium. Startups will fail. Job functions will shift or disappear as automated platforms proliferate.
"The market is flooded with companies, many of which are great ideas but only provide partial solutions," said Wenda Harris Millard, of MediaLink. "Not all of these companies can survive. There will be more consolidation in the industry and maybe that will be where supply and demand come together."