Selling Digital Ads Is Easy, But That's Actually a Big Problem

The supply of eligible sales executives is growing, the need for people is decreasing, and the product being sold is getting commoditized.

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Digital media sales is a great business to be in at the moment. Interactive advertising revenue in the U.S. regularly goes up by double digits year over year. Advertising is the standard means of monetizing digital content, and all content is becoming digital. It's easy to make money selling digital advertising—but that's actually a really big problem.

Easy money provides little incentive for self-improvement. When every check comes in, and you're fat and happy, it's natural to think: why work harder? Sales managers face a similar inertia. They're under pressure to hit their monthly and quarterly goals. Taking time to pull the team off the street to undergo training means less time selling. In these cases the major driver is immediate success, and it's risking our shared long-term prosperity.

Already we are losing ground. The 2012 Interactive Advertising Bureau Interactive Ad IQ Survey demonstrated that industry professionals aren't comfortable articulating the value of digital media platforms. Eighty percent of respondents said understanding the value of online video was important, but nearly 20% weren't comfortable articulating its value in an overall media mix. For search, a classic, 35% of respondents expressed a lack of comfort. If we don't pause for regular training, we won't be able to articulate the value of our ever-evolving and advancing media to marketers; and if we can't communicate value, we can only sell on price.

I know how it goes, I've heard it first-hand. It's easy to say, "We can get this deal if we lower our price." But it's a race to the bottom. If we keep traveling down this road, someday digital media will be fully commoditized, and sales won't be a great business to be in anymore.

Training would also help quell threats that are coming from other directions. Programmatic buying, for example, is the number one way agencies gain efficiencies. But this strategy of fewer people, more machines, has a causal effect on the number of sellers needed over time. The more helpful a seller can be to the marketer, the less advantage buyers get from using a machine. Furthermore, every year more people are entering the sales force with digital knowledge. In 2003, someone could have had six years of experience in the field at the most. Today many more people are qualified to be digital sellers. We need to train them to ensure they have viable, long-term careers.

In video specifically, where I spend my time, sales executives must be able to nurture a feeling of comfort in brand marketers who are accustomed to TV. The development of the viewable impression and digital GRPs is one way this is happening. But really, GRPs are just the comfort food that gets you into the restaurant. There's a lot more precision than 18 to 49 in the digital world. Having a sales staff who can confidently explain what a viewable impression is, the user's experience of a video ad, and the marketer's benefit of reaching more particular groups of people with well-tailored big ideas is vital to attracting more marketers to interactive media. It's about being able to proficiently discuss big data and big ideas—the theme of the IAB's upcoming Annual Leadership Meeting.

The supply of eligible sales executives is growing, the need for people is decreasing, and the product being sold is getting commoditized. So what do we do? We slow down and take a good look at how to improve the immense value that' s inherent in always-on, targetable, and interactive marketing. That, for example, is what's happening with the development of the viewable impression. Dozens of industry leaders from across the ecosystem have come together to thoughtfully and meticulously change the way everyday business is done for the industry's long-term health.

For sellers, as you can probably guess, it requires education. The first casualty of running fast and making easy money is not having a firm grasp on the basics. Sales professionals must know things like how an ad server works and what "views" are if they are to describe the actual value that digital media brings to brands. They must not only be educated in their individual business, but also the business they're all in. The IAB Digital Media Sales Certification and the IAB member's-only Online Sales Media Kit are two good tools. Getting the certification and putting in your email signatures will let marketers know they're dealing with someone who has invested time in learning how to meet their needs.

Taking advantage of the existence of a beautifully crafted media kit that tells the story of how digital media collectively, across platforms and individually by platform, answer all of the human needs described by Abraham Maslow, is another way to build and polish sales skills and presentations. Digital media provide opportunities to marketers because they are fundamental to human beings, people, users, consumers' needs to connect with others, be enlightened, be informed, feel secure, etc. The new IAB online sales media kit affords all salespeople a place to construct customized presentations that tell a human narrative and use credible and well positioned data and research to support assertions about digital media value.

But these aren't panaceas. Company leadership must believe in professional development. The mandate for training must come from the top. That's the only way it won't get overshadowed by complacency and quarterly goals. That can even play out by having a full-time sales trainer on staff—the portals all do.

What's on the line isn't just job security for sales executives, it's the security of the future of our industry. The ability to make marketers more comfortable with digital advertising is essential for growing digital media's share of the revenue.

Encouraging this kind of tectonic advancement one sales call at a time takes expertise, expertise too few sales executives have at this time. We've been in a hurry to grow this business, but now we need to slow down and take a good look at how to financially bring to fruition the lasting, brand value that's inherent in it. While the money is good right now, there's no reason to think it will always be that way. It's going to take work.

Randy Kilgore is CRO of Tremor Video and Vice Chair of the IAB.
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