Collins | Digital Ad Sales: If, Or When?

There is much discussion in the broadcasting world around digital ad sales, as evidenced by panel sessions at MFM’s annual conference, Media Finance Focus 2021. While one school of thought is that digital sales is still taking a back seat to traditional ad sales, one very astute ad sales leader is all in on digital ad sales. Here are some of its challenges and opportunities.

Digital ad sales. The term seems to strike a note of glee in some broadcast salespeople’s hearts, but for others, it strikes fear. What is it about digital that makes salespeople hesitate, or jump in? It’s such a relevant and timely question that we have already held two sessions on the topic during our 11-week virtual conference, Media Finance Focus 2021, which ends on July 29.

Last month, we were fortunate to have a broadcast sales veteran, Jeff Ulrich, provide us with a comprehensive presentation on digital ad sales in a session titled “Digital Sales Academy: Selling Digital.” Ulrich, who has been in the broadcast industry for 35 years, knows what he’s talking about. He has held sales and sales management roles in every size of market there is, working across all points of the ecosystem. He’s now with Marketron’s Digital Sales Success team as senior manager of digital transformation and enablement. His presentation was among the most popular of the conference thus far, earning a 4.8 out of 5 from session attendees.

Launching his presentation with two bold statements: Three out of four ad dollars in the United States will be spent on digital media by 2024; and digital is already going to account for two-thirds of all ad spending in 2021, got everyone’s attention. Ulrich believes these are reason enough to make digital ad sales a more significant part of the sales portfolio.

He went on to describe the digital ad products that are included in that 75% statistic. Paid search continues to drive the majority of that spending, followed by digital audio and video. That category comprises streaming audio and video and OTT/CTV, and is dominated by companies like YouTube, Hulu, Roku, Pluto TV, Tubi, effectv, Pandora, and Spotify.

Other digital ad products, he explained, include display ads, sponsorships, classifieds and directories, email, mobile messaging and native advertising. Digital ad services are broken out separately, Ulrich said, noting that Borrell Associates found, surprisingly, that there’s more money spent in digital services — mostly website design and hosting, and SEO — than there is in digital advertising.

Even if you’re not Google, running the country’s most popular search engine, or Facebook, with 190 million users, or Amazon, with 147 million Prime members alone, Ulrich pointed out that session participants’ companies have monetizable digital assets of their own. They can also make money reselling other company’s digital assets. The margins are different, but in flat to declining industries such as broadcast media and print, selling digital is crucial to remaining relevant in the eyes of the advertiser.


There are two types of digital advertising inventory available to sales teams and their clients, according to Ulrich. The first is owned-and-operated and third-party digital. The second is the digital product suite, which includes everything from targeted display ads, video geofencing, mobile messaging, social and more.

In the second half of his presentation, Ulrich laid out a step-by-step plan for digital sales success, which advocates tying products to customers’ business challenges, studying the marketing funnel, and considering a consolidated approach.

He summarized the keys to building a strong cross-media offering. Among these are digital product training and an understanding of competition in local markets.

Lastly, he led attendees through the reasons broadcasters and publishers can score big simply by selling the $38.7 billion in “digital crumbs” left over after the top 20 big players — from Google to iHeart Media — have taken their 80% piece of the $191.8 billion pie. All in all, he made a very convincing case for digital ad sales adoption.

It all sounds logical. But how do you get broadcast sales teams and individuals to step into what for them may be the unknown world of digital? This can be particularly difficult for those who have been reticent to do so for various reasons. Fortunately, Ulrich made himself available for a follow-up conversation.

In his opinion, “There are dual challenges that a broadcast station owner, and publishers of all formats, face when seeking to embrace digital sales opportunities. On the front end, there’s the lift required by current sellers to become comfortable and conversant [with digital]. But they also have to embrace the back end — and you won’t be successful unless you’re good at both.”

One of the primary — and unsurprising — issues is around how salespeople are compensated. “Salespeople still pay attention to how they get paid.” Ulrich says that the decision about whether to compensate on net or gross for third-party inventory can be a major sticking point that needs to be resolved early on. Additionally, it’s important to understand that reaching the goal may require a shift in salespeople’s behavior. “In order to incent sales teams to sell digital, some companies are willing to pay a disproportionately high commission for digital in the beginning to make sure sellers understand digital is a big priority.”

Sales enablement holds the key to all sales teams’ success, according to Ulrich. It’s around relevancy and learning, and having a true understanding of the advertising prospect’s path to purchase and the consumer’s purchase funnel. As he explains, “You need to understand which digital products align with each portion of the consumer buying journey. And ultimately you want to make sure your sellers understand how to tie clients’ objectives with the digital products you possess.”

Ulrich is a believer in sales enablement strategies. “Content, training, coaching, a holistic approach to reinventing who you are, and what you offer to helping businesses in your community grow are important,” he says. “Whether you’re considering adding digital to your portfolio of media assets, or you’re a multi-decade veteran, there’s always a swath of your sales force who can benefit from an upgrade to their understanding of digital.”

Consider setting aside a modest budget for learning. It could be something as simple as buying each salesperson $50 worth of books or videos on marketing or digital media they can read at the beach this summer to make them a better salesperson.

Sellers are making progress in the digital ad sales arena. However, Ulrich would still rank only 20% as A students, “hitting on all cylinders, leading with digital, securing deals, and layering in any remaining media assets on top of digital.” Thirty percent are B students: “They’ve completed the training and have made a sincere effort, but are still connecting dots.”

The remaining 50% he sees as C students: “They haven’t necessarily received the guidance, coaching, encouragement and reaffirmation of resources needed to get from C to B.” It all starts with executive prioritization, he notes. “It’s a team sport, a team game. Learning and understanding is challenging for the best of sellers.”

And Ulrich warns that there’s a real downside to salespeople and teams not looking to digital ad sales as the future: “Sellers who are resisting today really risk losing the trust and confidence of their clients.”

Ending on a positive note, Ulrich offered a link to Aspire, Marketron’s portal that is full of free insights on a range of topics around selling, prospecting, and closing digital ad sales.

Media Finance Focus 2021 runs through July 29, tackling the topics of most interest to the media industry’s finance and accounting professionals. Upcoming sessions include: “Increasing Profitability by Re-Allocating Budget to Support Diversity and Education”; “How to Modernize Your Finance Operation”; “Role of Investor Relations,” featuring Comcast’s Marci Ryvicker; and a keynote session on July 15, “Maintaining Corporate Culture in a Changing World,” featuring Discovery CFO, Dr. Gunnar Wiedenfels. Check out the complete conference agenda on our conference website to learn more about these and other upcoming subjects. You may register for individual sessions.

Mary M. Collins is president and CEO of the Media Financial Management Association and its BCCA subsidiary, the media industry’s credit association. She can be reached at [email protected] and via the association’s LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts.

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