The result: Ad departments are breaking into new categories, attracting new advertisers, convincing existing clients to increase commitments, forging relations with agencies and enjoying double-digit growth.
TOPS $41 BILLION
Total ad sales revenues grew 8.58% to $41.3 billion for 1997, according to preliminary figures from Newspaper Association of America. The boost represents an increase of $3.3 billion over 1996.
National advertising grew to $5.3 billion -- an increase of 14.1%; retail advertising increased to $19.3 billion -- a 5% increase; the $16.8 billion remainder is attributable to classified advertising, which increased 11.3%.
"Most other media -- direct mail, Yellow Pages -- depend on their salespeople prospecting for new business. Newspapers, with some exceptions, have been almost entirely dedicated to handling current advertisers," explains Joe Piergrossi of Pier Associates, a newspaper sales and marketing consultancy.
"Of the hundreds of papers I've been in over the years, when I ask them where they are with new business, most give themselves poor grades."
But he acknowledges newspapers are slowly moving away from their traditional "order-taking" approach and getting more aggressive and creative in dealing with their ad customers.
"The old definition of persuasion as part of selling was getting someone to do something they probably didn't want to do," Mr. Piergrossi says. "The new definition is one word: clarity. Clarity about how the product is going to help the advertiser."
The new breed of ad rep "creates a rapport, asks good questions, listens to the answers, comes up with solutions for advertisers and then closes the deal," says Mr. Piergrossi.
Since 1996, Gannett Co. has embraced a company-wide sales training program called "Value Selling." The program teaches reps how to use selling tools such as advertiser testimonials and customized rate plans. Reps also learn how to sell their newspapers' database research capabilities and intimate knowledge of their markets.
The goal is "to make sure our clients, whether large or small, clearly understand the value newspapers deliver to them, and to make sure the clients primarily reach prospects ready, willing and able to buy what they have to sell," says VP-Advertising Donald M. Stinson at Gannett.
To date, some 2,000 Gannett executives have completed the program, resulting in "clear, measurable success in many markets," Mr. Stinson says. "We've seen significant increases in numbers of advertisers and new advertisers, increased ad counts and increased revenues."
For example, in 1997, the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader retail ad count shot up 33% over the previous year. In the first two months of this year, the ad count soared 71% over the same period last year. These results are largely attributable to the News-Leaders' commitment to Value Selling, says Mr. Stinson.
VALUE SELLING PUSHED
Other Gannett papers having phenomenal success with the program include the Des Moines (Iowa) Register, Louisville Courier-Journal and Nashville's The Tennessean.
Value Selling is an extension of the AdVance program Gannett instituted back in 1992. That program's goal: To expand and diversify a newspaper's advertising base, with an emphasis on attracting smaller advertisers often ignored by ad departments.
Mr. Stinson insists these sales programs are not the gospel according to Gannett, but merely "communications vehicles" to get newspapers to reexamine their sales approaches.
"Newspapers add information appropriate to their particular markets because they know their markets better than anybody else," he says.
Gannett Suburban Newspapers, a chain of a dozen smaller titles in the affluent northern outskirts of New York City, shares its parent company's commitment to sales training and has seen stellar returns, according to John C. Green, VP-advertising.
DIFFERENT FROM FIVE YEARS AGO
"Training has become so important," Mr. Green says. "The way [newspapers] do business is changing, even from five years ago. The clients are more sophisticated, and that drives everything we do. We have to understand our customers completely, and that includes everybody from the mom-and-pop on the corner to the largest agencies and retailers."
The suburban papers face a formidable roster of rivals, from local "pennysavers" and cable TV to neighboring monsters such as The New York Times.
"We recognize that we have to be better than they are," Mr. Green says. "In order to get our fair share, or a little more, we have to be better. So training has become vital. We've always known a lot about [our market] we just had to get even better, to understand more about the world of advertising, understand what makes a person make a purchasing decision."
FULL-TIME TRAINING MANAGER
The suburban group employs a full-time sales training manager, who works with some 60 account executives and another 40 telemarketing reps.
Gannett Suburban has lured new retail advertisers, such as the department store chain Filene's and the electronics giant Circuit City Stores, while getting greater commitments from longtime customers such as Macy's, Lord & Taylor and Nobody Beats the Wiz.
The automotive category has produced great gains. And thanks to its building relationships with the media buyers, the chain has created a major entertainment advertising business, luring scores of movie companies and Broadway producers.
Knight-Ridder adopted a training program that has as its goal to increase business and improve customer relationships by instituting teams within the ad department. The teams, which are given responsibility for either a geographic area or a particular ad category, are made up of account reps, their assistants, and creative and production people, all of whom are intimately involved in the ad sales process from pitch to press run.
Costly ad errors have been greatly reduced and customer relations bolstered as a result of the structure, with many teams exceeding their goals.
"Everybody on a team is working on the same page," explains training coordinator Sue Moynihan. "If a customer calls in, instead of getting voice mail he gets a team member who knows the client -- and who hopefully will be able to answer the question."
She says the account exec is being repositioned as more of a "media guru -- someone [clients] can come to not just with a newspaper question, but with any media question."
Knight-Ridder, like Gannett, leaves training implementation to its local ad directors.
Ms. Moynihan says 17 of the company's smaller properties -- including the Wichita, Kan., Eagle, Tallahassee, Fla., Democrat and Fort Wayne, Ind., News-Sentinel -- have formed teams. Meanwhile, behemoth metros such as The Miami Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer and San Jose, Calif., Mercury News have opted to march to their own drummers.
"The larger papers haven't moved as quickly," Ms. Moynihan points out, adding, "It takes some people a while to see the value in it. They want to know how the benefits outweigh the costs, what reorganizing their sales staffs will do for them."
Over the last decade, Tribune Co. has implemented a couple of different training programs at the Chicago Tribune, Orlando Sentinel and Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.
"Achieve Global's Professional Selling Skills" is one training program; the other is "Integrity Selling," developed by consultant Ron Willingham.
MORE STRATEGIC THINKING
This year, the Trib has embarked on another sales training program, which further emphasizes knowing one's product, understanding the competition and negotiating the deal, according to Corporate Training Manager Reed Gregory.
"In the sales training business, what I find is a growing need for more strategic thinking on the part of salespeople," says Jim Spina, director of management development and training at Tribune Co. "Not just the tactical stuff, but how to sell, looking at accounts in a strategic fashion and what areas to attack and that sort of thing, as opposed to just account management."