Mediahuis shares lessons from ad sales team restructuring

By Mark Challinor


London, United Kingdom


Greetings as usual from London, England. 

One theme in 2022 — and one which will continue into 2023 — is that of media sales teams. What should they look like? How should we structure them going forward? This is one topic I will cover in this latest newsletter with specific reference to one publisher, whom I believe is leading the field and one from which we can all learn. 

I will also cover some initial thoughts on 2023 and the advertising focus generally, based on comments, trends, and expert reports I have read (whilst adding my own insights to the data and the market as I see it) to perhaps shape what we should be thinking about in the new year.

Restructuring sales teams for a more client-centric approach … and the lessons of “agility” 

I recently had the pleasure of hosting an INMA master class on the future of our sales teams. One media company stood out as being forward thinking in this space. That is Dutch publisher Mediahuis in the Netherlands.

They showcased how they hope to achieve operational excellence for advertising clients. 

Mediahuis restructured its sales team in a digital direction, reducing its size and changing in-person client visits.
Mediahuis restructured its sales team in a digital direction, reducing its size and changing in-person client visits.

In 2022, they restructured their ad sales team to shift from a print-led focus to a more digital one, and in the process eventually reduced the size of the team to make it more efficient in a post-pandemic environment.

Boaz Shkolnik, director of advertising for Mediahuis, shared the success story as well as lessons learned.  

The company includes its flagship Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, the Metro News digital portal, as well as a suite of local and regional newspapers and niche lifestyle magazines on topics like parenting, cooking, and technology. It reaches an audience of 10 million in the Netherlands and has a presence in Belgium, Germany, Ireland, and Luxembourg.

How many sales staff is efficient? 

Boaz said: “We have many different titles, platforms, and products to sell, so ad sales is a complex endeavour.” He came to Mediahuis from a tech start-up five years ago and joined an ad sales team of more than 80 people who had been mainly focused on print advertising. Only seven team members had digital expertise. At that time, most of the revenue also came from print, with only a small portion from digital.  

The group consisted of many different sales teams, including separate ones for corporate, national brands, regional brands, agency, digital platforms, and programmatic. Each team had individual targets. And though everyone was working with some of the same clients, many different account managers were each trying to sell their own portfolios, all still with a print focus.  

Boaz described what he had inherited as “chaos.” He said the structure was inefficient and created a toxic environment with a lot of internal competition for revenue. You can only imagine what that was like and even sympathise, as he was and indeed is not alone inside global media — even to this day in some parts.

Two phases of restructuring 

In his role as director, Boaz decided to restructure the department and ultimately did so in two phases. 

The first one, in 2019, focussed on transitioning from print to digital and branded content. In this phase, teams were reorganised around clients rather than brands. Incentives were also shifted to being team-based rather than individual to encourage better collaboration.  

“Nobody can do anything by themselves, so why not put that into the incentive plan?” he said. In this phase, too, the company reorganised existing staff into “sales pods” based on different types of clients. They identified five different types: enterprise, which consisted of the top 200-300 clients who spent the most money with the company; agency; SMA (or small/medium advertisers) telesales (inbound, small campaigns); and international sales.  

The enterprise pods involved clients with more complex demands who wanted cross-channel, multi-use campaigns, (print, branded content, digital display, and video). Boaz wanted to work with the people he had but added more specialists to build multidisciplinary teams. 

Each pod had a team leader, and the enterprise teams also had two account managers, a content marketer, a digital consultant, and a customer success manager. These last three roles were all new positions.

The agency team had a more general approach. Each agency had its own account manager as well as a trading director. And with the small/medium advertisers, Boaz also saw they just wanted to buy print ads, and since their demands were simple, they could work with old sales team. 

Agile sales: A positive or a negative? 

Across all of these teams, Boaz tried the “agile sales” approach to reinforce the new way of working. This involved the typical daily meetings and monthly retrospectives to review processes and talk about how to optimise operations. The approach looked great on paper, but proved really complex in real life, so there were some important lessons learned. 

The restructuring occurred in two phases, with differing levels of success.
The restructuring occurred in two phases, with differing levels of success.

“Not every client wants to have direct contact,” he said. Some want to book via agencies and don’t really have time to talk to publishers. About half of the clients said they preferred this more hands-off approach, an important discovery since the Mediahuis model had been strongly invested in the direct contact approach.  

Boaz also saw that sometimes responsibilities were unclear, which caused some friction. And some of the portfolios weren’t that industry focused, making it harder for people to duplicate what they learned to similar clients. 

The multidisciplinary teams were also expensive, with large groups working with relatively small groups of clients.

In the end, agile sales hadn’t worked for Mediahuis. 

Having entire teams gather in one room daily was time-consuming and inefficient. Ultimately, retaining the same people but trying to have them adapt to different ways of working didn’t foster change that well and didn’t increase revenue as the company had hoped. 

So then, in a brave move, came the next restructuring phase in 2020. This was, of course, after COVID had hit, so in addition to incorporating these previous restructuring lessons into account, it also involved adjusting to pandemic work styles.

Calmness, clarity, and hard decisions needed in a crisis

As part of their COVID review process — where the staff was all in lockdown and budget hadn’t been met — they found that with campaigns being cancelled and the advertising world being “on fire, the management team went back to the drawing board.

Mediahuis leadership was coming to the belief that they could do almost exactly the same work with half of the people. Therefore, management decided to downsize from more than 80 salespeople to just 30. They reorganised their 13 sales teams into just three by combining them based on client spending.  

They decided the account managers should be able to sell the whole package to the clients in their portfolio without the support of specialists like content marketers and digital consultants. They also structured the new field sales and inside sales teams, so portfolios were organised by industry.  

The new field sales team had, for example, an industry consultant-automotive, an industry consultant-retail, and industry consultant-travel. It’s very easy for them to become specialists within these branches because they’re having similar conversations with the same type of client. 

The inside sales team is also industry driven now and, perhaps controversially, doesn’t go out on in-person visits anymore. Not only had they discovered many clients preferred this at that point, Zoom visits had become the norm anyway. And because they were organised by industry, management was able to create buddies within inside sales and field sales teams based on those industries. 

The agency team was organised a little differently. It had had generalist account managers but needed more product specialists, and so the restructuring there led to product managers for branded content, digital advertising, and print. 

The importance of client spending levels 

The current market approach is now based on how much money a client is spending. Those spending upwards of €50,000 deserve to be paid a visit, Boaz said. Consultants take them out to lunch or a cup of coffee, and still wine and dine them.  

Advertising client spending levels dictate how much face time they get.
Advertising client spending levels dictate how much face time they get.

But clients spending below €50,000 are considered inside sales. They used to have account managers devoting a lot of time to visiting them, but the company decided it’s actually OK to give them a different service level, which allows account managers to handle many more clients. 

One account manager with a car can only make maybe two visits per day, but that same person can have eight Zoom meetings per day. “So with less people, we can have the same market pressure,” Boaz said. All the smaller clients are activated through e-mail now. This approach brought the cost per client down considerably.

Adopting a digital mindset 

This transition was also all done with digital-first mindset, continuing the move away from print. “We don’t have any print-only people in our workforce anymore,” Boaz said.  

The restructuring also incorporated the role of “brand ambassador” within full-time jobs. For example, the company has one brand ambassador for the automotive magazine who also serves the automotive industry. That person sells the whole portfolio but feels a sense of responsibility for the automotive magazine.

Brand ambassadors also look for opportunities with other brands, have connections with the relevant editorial teams, and help keep their brands top of mind with all the sales teams.

Summary and the lessons learned 

At the end of the day, Mediahuis found the second restructuring got the results they hoped for. 

The ad sales team is now more efficient, has higher margins and more revenue … with less than half the people. Though it did involve some cuts to the staff, the remaining workforce is happier and works better as a team with less internal competition.  

They learned it was very difficult to retrain print sales veterans to be suitable for digital sales, and that when they did the second restructuring, it was mainly the digital natives who had been brought on board as specialists in the earlier round who were selected to stay.

It was all quite a harsh lesson, but the remaining staff is far happier, more suited to their roles, and the overall culture change has been positive. As the saying goes, “You have to break eggs to make an omelette.”

Further reading

Initial thoughts on 2023

As one media company shows the way (above) as to an optimal structure for ad sales in 2023, what about a more general feel for what we should be focussed on in the world of advertising in the coming 12 months?

What are some of the luminaries in influential UK ad companies saying? What are the commonalities? What are the insights to be gleaned? 

I have been finding out the facts (so you don’t have to). 

Prediction is not an easy business. And as 2022 ended with talk of recessions and cost-of-living crises, inflation highs — not forgetting the ongoing war in the Ukraine — who knows what will be in store for us all in 2023? 

But in my first look at media advertising predictions for 2023, I have highlighted below the opinions of some of the industry individuals who have inspired me to see what they reckon are the key priorities for the ad industry in the year ahead. 

It’s perhaps worth stating that as we have all (kind of) emerged from the pandemic in 2022, we should remember we’re all very much a world of survivors. 

So, in turn, it’s no surprise, that empathy, kindness, and authenticity are coming “more to the fore” as we begin a new year.

Folk is a multi-award-winning creative communications agency based in Cardiff, Wales. Their CEO, Sharon Flaherty, says: 

“Empathy and authenticity are key for 2023. There is a real risk brands might misstep because they don’t give enough thought to this reality. Brand activism is real, and people will call out brands who create content and campaigns that aren’t in tune with what is happening in the world. (All this) needs to be on our minds if we are to connect with audiences in a way that is meaningful, moral, and drives commercial impact.” 

Total Media Solutions is a global digital and mobile advertising technology provider that specialises in buy and sell side ad technologies with offices in London, Istanbul, and Paris. CEO Sivan Tafla sums up what we have been saying at INMA for all of 2022:

“Alongside the immediate need to navigate the economic climate, longer-term issues, such as privacy concerns and the impending loss of the cookie, must be addressed. Pausing adoption of first-party data strategies could lead to long-term ramifications, leaving businesses behind the competition. Both publishers and advertisers need to ensure the upkeep of the quality and effectiveness of their offerings, encouraging strong relationships with consumers and maintaining the support of loyal brand users in 2023.” 

Bubbl is one of the leading companies for the ad industry with a suite of sophisticated tools, offering highly accurate geo-fencing, centred around location, context, and timing, to dynamically serve mobile content and customer engagement. Jo Eckersley, CEO, says of 2023:

Despite the cost-of-living crisis and ensuing discretionary spend cutbacks, consumer purchasing power does still exist — even if audiences are being more selective. In this context, advertisers must invest wisely and ensure that communications boost engagement and trust. Encouraging greater creativity in what advertisers deliver via mobile channels and finding new ways of engaging at the right time with a consumer are critical to get attention. We must seek to deliver situation-specific rich content, offers, and customer engagement based on factors such as the environmental context, intent, time, and location. A privacy-first, convenient, and friction-free experience is paramount as consumer expectations continue to grow. Today, audiences expect seamless service and intuitive, responsive design.” 

We Are Futures is a leading brand and social impact agency based in Edinburgh, Scotland, and London. Alex Young, managing director, said:

“Going into 2023, the driver for success will lie in the ability of brands to make deeper connections with consumers. Consumers want to feel a connection with the brands they are spending their carefully saved earnings with, so messages that don’t just speak to the hardship but do something and give something back will win. However they go about it, brands must strike the right tone and be sensitive to the stresses on people’s everyday lives to avoid alienating them.” 

And finally … 

Gekko is an experiential agency that enhances the customer journey and sales in retail, online, and B2B channels through e-learning and e-commerce solutions. Daniel Todaro, managing director, says:

“Inevitably, [2023] will be dominated by the need for brands to understand a campaign’s return on investment. With so much pressure on the bottom line, ROI will become the single most important driver in 2023. After all, the ability to demonstrate the value of every pound spent and the weighted impact of your efforts leads to the only barometer that matters: sales. And, in a period where 60% of consumers are prepared to switch brands based on value, the customer journey must be re-understood to be curated effectively.”

In summary 

So, there we have it. It’s somewhat reassuring that this INMA initiative has pushed and led debates and discussions on many of the above areas in 2022 already (in specific reference to media companies). 

User experience, first-party data, value, trust, ROI, creativity, empathy, and authenticity will all be areas we, and our advertisers, need to think about in 2023, too.

In my next newsletter later this month, I will focus on some of the bigger agencies and industry bodies for their take on 2023. Plus, I will reveal INMA’s focus for the next 12 months in advertising. 

See you then. 


Acknowledgement: Thanks to INMA Senior Editor Dawn McMullan and her team’s “Repository of Brilliance” (as the team internally calls a detailed spreadsheet of all presentations done within the INMA content world) and to Sarah Schmidt and the whole editorial team for their excellent reporting on the ad sales master class, part of which has been the referred to in this newsletter.

About this newsletter 

Today’s newsletter is written by Mark Challinor, based in London and lead for the INMA Advertising Initiative. Mark will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global news media advertising. Sign up for the newsletter here.

This newsletter is a public face of the Advertising Initiative by INMA, outlined here.

E-mail Mark at with thoughts, suggestions, and questions or follow him on Twitter (@challinor).

About Mark Challinor

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