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Consultative sales: survival strategy, not rebranding exercise

By Dietmar Schantin

Institute for Media Strategies

London, United Kingdom


When an e-marketer splashed a headline that said around 80% of display ads will be traded programmatically, it immediately triggered an earnest debate about issues like transparency. It also prompted some media houses to take action.

The whirlwind rise of programmatic has left a lot of advertisers, publishers, and commentators alike flailing in an attempt to keep up. Hopefully issues such as transparency will be addressed in time.

Engaging in consultative sales allows for customisation based on needs.
Engaging in consultative sales allows for customisation based on needs.

Right now, however, what matters is that the high dominance of technology makes most ad sales teams obsolete. If we want to avoid having an entire sales staff of “dead men walking,” the time for talking is over and radical change is inevitable.

Consultative sales, once a buzzword shuttlecock batted around media houses, may now be a key way to go for sales execs looking to the future.

Sadly, a lot of media organisations see consultative sales not as a survival strategy, but as an exercise in cosmetic rebranding. The titles on the business cards changed from “sales representative” to “media consultant.” In some cases, print and digital sales teams were integrated (or “assimilated”) by one or the other, at least on paper.

But in reality, we noticed the former sales reps often still sold within their comfort zone, either with a digital focus or, far more often, print advertising focus.

With consultative sales, it is a service that is sold, not a product. These are very different worlds when it comes to identifying needs, listening to the client, creating a pitch and storyline for that pitch, pricing, delivery, and performance management. It is about clear recommendations and selling target groups, audiences, intentions to buy, and solutions, not formats and platforms.

The problem we have observed is that many media sales team don’t follow this approach. Instead they are still selling space on digital and print or time with podcasts or video. “Selling a multi-media package” all too often translates to offering the advertiser all the different digital and print products and basically letting them pick.

Advertisers don’t want to buy space or time on digital or print, and they haven’t done so for years. What they want is more business for their companies, more people walking through their stores, or more people coming to their Web sites and buying their stuff. So, the first question we have to ask is, “How can I help the advertiser with my products and services?’ Not only is that the first question, it’s pretty much the only question.

Answering it requires, among other things, deep industry and customer/consumer knowledge. It means knowing where and how the advertiser operates, and being able to look over the “next hill” at the advertiser’s customers’ needs.

The catch with that is many advertisers, not only but especially SMBs, don’t necessarily have in-depth knowledge of their own customers. So, in order to be really good, a consultative sales team has to be an expert in their field.

Starting with smart questions about a particular advertiser’s business and its past campaign successes or failings, showing best-practise cases (not to be confused with copying and pasting another existing campaign), and sharing experiences from the same or a related industry can provide real value to the advertiser.

Creating a plan and timeline of proposed action points and contact points demands a high level of business intelligence. However, it also offers more opportunities to become an indispensable business partner for the advertiser. This is what consultative sales is all about.

The GFR Media Group in Puerto Rico is one of the best examples I have seen recently where rethinking advertising strategy goes far beyond reprinting the business cards. GFR is in the process of reorganising its sales structure not by size of company or geographical regions in the normal way, but instead around industry sectors.

Hand-in-hand with that is the incentive to invest in industry insight and knowledge. Transforming the sales teams to real and genuine media consultants has been one of the main goals for GFR Media. From my experience with the company’s concepts and strategy, it looks like GFR Media really gets it.

From the starting point of a traditional set-up, the company has started out on a complete redesign of its commercial operations.

“We believe that offering creative and conception services around our media products has become as important as our media products,” says Juan Mario Alvarez, vice president of commercial from GFR. “And for this we need the right people with the right attitude and right skill.”

Many media houses we have worked with still work in many ways more like door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesmen — not starting with “What’s your need?” but rather “Here’s my product.” They still come with a stack of print products, rate cards (which will be heavily discounted anyway), and existing Web inventory.

It’s not hard to see why: That’s how sales operations have worked from time immemorial. But to go back to that e-marketer headline, it’s clear this job is about to disappear into the jaws of automation.

If your sales team is still working that way, then you should rethink fast.

Our time working with GFR Media has shown us how much progress can be made if you have a majority of individuals who totally get this and want to be part of the new world.

Other publishers will know already that resistance is more entrenched. But this is one case where resistance is truly futile because the battle lines aren’t being drawn—they’re way behind us already, lost in the dust of programmatic’s pace.

About Dietmar Schantin

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