Finding the Right Ad Sales Partner

Thanks for all the calls and emails. We love when readers let us know what they agree with us on, what they disagree with, and how we can further illuminate complex issues. Just a reminder: We can’t respond to every email, and we certainly cannot select the right sales partner for anyone based on just an email message. If you take away one thing from this series, we hope it is that choosing the most suitable sales approach and representation is a critically important decision for any business, one that deserves considerable analysis and exploration.

When we work with consulting clients to contract sales representation, we seek a deep understanding of the site’s value proposition, investigate the size and scope of the market for suitable advertisers for that site, identify key advertiser and agency prospects, then match that prospect list to sales firms’ breadth and depth of coverage and client relationships. It’s a time-intensive process, and unfortunately, we do not have a magic bullet that can shortcut the work demanded. (Sorry, we wish we did!)

What we can do, however, is use this series as a guideline for sites that are trying to figure this out on their own. So let’s pick up where we left off last week: at market coverage issues.

Size

In general, the theory goes, more is better when it comes to sales coverage. The more reps a sales firm has, the more ad buyers can be called on, right? Well, yes… if all you are concerned with are absolute numbers. But for more effective ad sales, absolute numbers are rarely the issue. What you need to know is how much of the sales coverage is devoted to your site or category of sites. Total size of sales staff is irrelevant if most of those individuals are dedicated to selling sites other than yours.

So here’s one case where size doesn’t necessarily matter. The smallest firms can sometimes be the best sales force for a site with specialized audience demographics if the salespeople are already calling on the best prospects for your ad inventory.

Allocation

Some sales firms assign account responsibility to salespeople by named accounts, others by coverage of particular agencies, still others by specific categories of expertise (finance, sports, etc.). Each of these approaches makes sense; what matters to the site choosing representation is how well that account allocation matches the specific coverage it needs. (This implies, of course, that the site has already done some hard thinking about which advertisers are actually the best fit for its audience — a topic for yet another series… )

If your best advertising prospects are in North Dakota and the firm has no one assigned to cover North Dakota, the largest team in the world won’t work well for you. If most of your business comes from traditional agencies and the sales firms you are considering assign salespeople primarily to interactive agencies, you may have a coverage problem. And, of course, it’s not a good idea to sign on with a firm whose category-based channels are simple allocations and don’t include representatives assigned to your site’s primary focus.

Focus and Experience

Is your site’s offering a strong agency sell or one that does better with client-direct buys? Better check out the sales focus of the ad sales firm in this regard. Is your sell complex and conceptual? If so, you’ll want to pay a lot of attention to the experience level of the salespeople, the average tenure in the firm and the industry. Ask about its track record with closing large strategic deals with senior buyers.

We know you would like us to tell you which firms are good at each of these, but of course, it’s not that simple. Every reputable firm has strengths and weaknesses: by geography, category, sales style, individual salesperson, or sales manager. The matching process for each site has to include determining which aspects of sales coverage are most important to your site’s selling opportunities, then closely examining the firms you are considering to see which best meet those criteria you have prioritized.

In selecting the right ad sales partner, quality, relevance, and fit matter more than size. Next week, we’ll look at some other screeners worth considering.

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