Improving Your Negotiating Skills

You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away, know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table,
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.

-The Gambler, Don Schlitz

When I started out in media buying 16 years ago, I had one goal: earn enough to pay my rent. This was 1996 and the average salary for a media buyer was around $17,000, which, by the way, sounded like a lot of money before I factored in taxes. But, my company offered buyers an incentive to make commission, which, honestly, I paid no attention to during my interview (particularly since I thought I was raking in the dough). The commission was based on a percent of the objectives set forth by the planning group. Since money is a great way to incentivize, particularly if the other option is moving back home, I worked really hard on my negotiating skills. It turns out that this skill would serve me well both professionally and personally. So, below I offer some of the tips I’ve learned through the years. If appropriate, apply this wisdom to job negotiations, media packages, or at your local flea market.

  • Start with what you’re willing to pay. Many of us start with what the seller wants; instead, we should start with what we’re willing to pay. A seller’s package is rarely based on the real value of a program. Sellers account for many things that the buyer doesn’t care about: the seller’s operating costs, overhead, commission, competition, etc. When I evaluate a media package, the number one thing I care about is the audience and the experience that I’m looking to offer them. Is this sponsorship exclusive? Is it one of a kind? Is it the right fit for my brand? Can I reach this audience in any other way? Based on these factors and others, I create a range and start from there. I don’t start with the seller’s asking price. I start with zero and work my way up.
  • Everything’s negotiable. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen digital media planners sign insertion orders for rates that were a part of an initial proposal. It may be that since digital planners and buyers are usually the same person that the transition from planner to negotiator seems unnatural, but you should always negotiate. No one will think less of you for doing so and, in fact, your clients expect you to.
  • Negotiate the non-obvious. One of our jobs as media professionals is to appraise available opportunities, but to also look for the opportunities that may have been overlooked. There was a time that my group used to negotiate home page buttons on major portals as added value. It was overlooked real estate (other buyers didn’t want to spend money on a small button that people would miss), but it turned out that those buttons near the navigation would generate lots and lots of traffic to the point that they later went for millions of dollars. The point is to negotiate and ask for the overlooked items. Seek them out before they come with a high price.
  • Honor your word. Be careful with what you promise. Don’t promise that you’ll have a deal if only that account executive can bring your cost per thousand (CPM) down 10 percent (unless you mean it). Chances are that they will meet your demands and may put their reputations with their managers on the line for it. Only ask for what you really think you can deliver on. I’m not saying don’t negotiate aggressively, but be careful of the “If you do this, I will definitely do this…”
  • Be willing to walk away. At times you’re going to need to let it go. If you’ve done all you can, be willing to let the deal go. For the most part, if you can’t reach a compromise, it means you would have had other problems with this partner down the line. Remember, the negotiations are just the beginning; the real work has yet to begin.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.