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"I've been in media for 15 years," said Meredith Kopit Levien, head of ad sales at The New York Times. "The last three or four have been the ones where I've seen the most dramatic change."
It's not just the Grey Lady: Most legacy publishers are struggling to adjust to an evolving environment in which advertisers are no longer satisfied with just ad space in print or on the right rail of a website. They are demanding that publishers apply reams of data to target their ads, which, by the way, should appear within the stream of editorial content, get significant social-media promotion and be as bespoke as possible. And they're trying to squeeze publishers on the price every step of the way.
As a result, legacy publishers are taking a pickaxe to calcified sales departments. Positions are being eliminated and longtime staffers let go. But the turmoil is also giving rise to opportunities for sales talent that can think creatively and nimbly while being conversant with return on investment. Ms. Kopit Levien calls them "unicorns."
"Finding unicorns doesn't happen overnight, or even very often in the time frame of a single open position," she said. "Recruiting is something we do all day, every day."
Where are the unicorns?
Traditional publishers have typically poached star employees from each other, but today's unicorn hunters are eyeing digital-only companies. Condé Nast, for instance, just snatched BuzzFeed's top data scientist, Ky Harlin, a former medical researcher, to serve as VP-growth and data science.
Old-school publishers like Condé Nast are aiming to lure and retain younger employees by giving them a louder voice. "We fully expect [young executives early in their careers] to contribute today," said Edward Menicheschi, chief marketing officer at Condé Nast. "That wasn't the case a decade ago because of structures and hierarchies."
Digital-only publishers are restocking their ranks with employees from ad-tech companies and agencies. BuzzFeed hired Greg Coleman, president of ad-tech company Criteo, to be its president last year. The Daily Beast's chief product and strategy officer, Mike Dyer, is a former Hill Holliday executive.
Harder than it looks
But media executives cautioned that finding one person with all the right skills is nearly impossible, which is why training programs are so important. "The main focus is on talent, drive and track record," said Paul Caine, global chief revenue officer at Bloomberg Media. "We then use our training to provide them the skills."
Today's smart sellers know their product -- and how to prove it's a good ad vehicle.
"Until recently, sellers were focused on providing the most compatible editorial environment, validating their audience, and coming to terms on a price," said Larry Burstein, publisher of New York magazine. "Media sales are still all of those things. Plus, [there is] added responsibility of proving that a campaign using your magazine and websites actually works."
That requires tech savvy to service marketers who buy ads using automated technology and demand that humans -- rather than bots -- see them. The seller must also be creative, offering custom or native ads -- "never been done before," as the requests for proposals often say.
The Times salesforce, for example, is expected to sell 15 different ad products -- and it doesn't come with the guarantee of more money. "The idea that this job has expanded so we're going to pay you more is not necessarily happening," a high-level publishing executive said.
The hurricane-force winds of change have also ripped through digital-only publishers. A recently laid-off ad seller from a prominent website said her job in 2010 was focused on selling ad space across its desktop site. In 2014, marketers' interest in native surged, as did programmatic buying.
"Advertising as an industry is fundamentally changing, so the proposition of being a salesperson is fundamentally changing," said Joe Purzycki, VP-advertising at Vox Media, publisher of sites like The Verge and SB Nation.
Publishers have restructured to meet this new reality, requiring people who once handled only print or only digital to sell across platforms. Last year, Bloomberg Media reduced seven U.S. sales teams to one that sells digital, print, TV and radio. It also initiated a nine-month training program -- with 35 sessions around the globe -- that requires sellers to pass the Interactive Advertising Bureau certification test. Other publishers encourage employees to take the IAB test, but few require it.
Bloomberg is also developing its own rigorous test for TV sales, according to Mr. Caine. If someone fails, "they have to learn it and take it again," he added. "And keep taking it until they pass."
Nearly every traditional publisher has laid off ad sellers, including Condé Nast, the Times and Bloomberg Media. All three companies say they've also hired, with the Times and Bloomberg adding roughly as many employees as they've cut.
But the unicorns are people who possess the power of persuasion -- with a streak of creativity and beakers full of nerdiness. "They still have to be able to ask for the business," said Ms. Kopit Levien.