Former Agency Buyer: 'We Don't Trust 95% Of The Sales Reps Out There'

This sentence is so eloquently blunt because it delivers a truth many are feeling, but few have the courage to share aloud.  Upon hearing these words directly and in private last week, I deleted the column I was working on and started this one.

This is a big problem for digital publishing companies and digital sales departments functioning inside traditional publishing brands.  Before you say, “nope, not us, we’re part of the 5%,” recognize that doesn’t matter.   Even if by chance you are, your efforts are drowning in the wake of the 95%.

This is a problem “we” need to own, not refute. This erosion of trust online buyers have for online sales people is the undercurrent driving the tide to programmatic spending.

So how did it get this bad?  One problem has been there from the very beginning.

I joined the online publishing business in 1999, coming from traditional print ad sales.  I sold ad space for the Washington Post-owned Newsweek, and the New York Times-owned Tennis magazine, before I joined what would be known as IGN.com. 

I recognized immediately that things ran differently at a dot-com.  Some of the differences were exhilarating, but others struck me as unprofessional. 

Back when I worked at Newsweek, our manager, Lee Jones, conducted a weekly sales meeting at 8 a.m. on Tuesdays.  Among the agenda items, someone in the group who had been assigned to report on the key editorial differences between Newsweek and Time for that week’s issue would share their insights, and then an active group discussion ensued.  Even if you weren’t the one presenting, everyone in the room had to be prepared, which meant Monday nights were spent reading both Newsweek and Time cover-to-cover.  

Forget the preparation the sales team went through every week in order to speak with authenticity and confidence about the attraction our audience had for our product.  Forget that even if we had had smartphones back then, no one in that room would have dared to look at them during this meeting.  What I could never imagine, however, was showing up late to the meeting. No one ever did. 

When I started working at a dot-com, I was introduced to a blatant disregard for punctuality. Internal meetings never started when they were slated to begin.  It became some perverse badge of honor, as if being late to a meeting meant you were busy and important.

I believe this lack of respect for being on time for internal meetings conditioned us to be late for meetings with buyers -- something I witnessed then and still hear about today.  I'm afraid that being late has permeated the digital sales DNA. 

We often connect broken trust with a significant event like cheating or lying, which is then followed by an immediate and dramatic dissolution of the involved parties. The reality, however, is that trust is built on small perceived agreements; when one party fails to uphold them, the other party loses trust.  Trust is lost over time in these subtle ways, leaving a relationship intact but dysfunctional, like an unhappily married couple who should have divorced but have stayed together.  That’s what the relationship between online sellers and buyers feels like today.

Being late can’t be the only reason why buyers have lost trust, but it’s a symptom of the problem being called out -- and let’s be honest, it’s embarrassing and should be eradicated. There is nothing more arrogant than being late.  There is no acceptable excuse.  Everything that caused your delayed arrival was in your hands.

Here is a trick to never being late again: Tell yourself that your meeting start time is 15 minutes before the actual start time, and then plan to show up five minutes early for that.  So now, even when you are running 10 minutes “late,” you are still 10 minutes early.  Being early is so important because it allows you to breathe and be more present.  Running late has the opposite effect.

Are there other changes a digital sales team can make to ensure trust is built and not lost?  Of course. For example, do exactly what you told a buyer you said would do -- or, never promise something you can’t be sure you can deliver.

I'm sure you can add to this list, and I would recommend having a sales meeting focused on how to tighten up or change your team’s approach with buyers to gain back their trust. I would recommend you start that meeting on time.

This headline points out a real problem. The time to fix it is running out.

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25 comments about "Former Agency Buyer: 'We Don't Trust 95% Of The Sales Reps Out There'".
  1. Dan Ciccone from MEDIAFICIONADO , January 23, 2014 at 1:25 p.m.
    Trust goes both ways. During my career, the RFP process between buyer and seller has deteriorated from collaboration to dictation and the former always had better results. I understand the difficulty in trying to keep up with so many digital reps and technologies, but treating all digital disciplines in the same manner and against the same flame is not working - for buyers or sellers.
  2. Bob Gordon from The Auto Channel , January 23, 2014 at 1:40 p.m.
    What is there to trust...digital advertising is a transparent as a Victoria's Secret panty...there are no secrets, every claim or boast is 100% checkable...and the digital agency buyers are demanding impossible CPM's or unprofitable CPC's from legitimate publishers... so who needs to trust who? Time to appreciate that most of the time a billion ad showings are not as valuable to a client as 100,000 impressions from in-market real potential buyers... Time for everyone to start listening to each other.
  3. Jack Hodgkin, jr. from iEntry Network , January 23, 2014 at 1:50 p.m.
    Ari, One important thing that I would like to know from the former agency buyer is "Why?".
  4. Bob Garrett from Accordant Media , January 23, 2014 at 2:06 p.m.
    Actually, the reason they don't trust sales reps is because of the same reason regarding you just did to everyone who read this article. You "sold" everyone on a catchy title and didn't deliver anything of relevance. Bait and switch at it's finest. Now I don't trust 95% of the articles on MediaPost!
  5. Jerry Gibbons from A-Team Advertising Advisors , January 23, 2014 at 2:13 p.m.
    If you worked with Lee Jones, you were not only prompt and on time, but prepared, knew your medium, its audience as well as your competitors, and delivered what you said you would. In fact you would probably have been a step ahead of the buyer. All good practices.
  6. Sara Duane-Gladden from Smartpress.com , January 23, 2014 at 4:21 p.m.
    I totally agree with Bob. When I read the title, I expected to read something informative about real issues regarding trust. With the headline, I was sold the idea that this post might help with a solution. Not only does it not have a solution, it doesn't at all address trust issues. Maybe you can't forgive lateness, but I can. What I can't forgive are misleading statements or outright lies.
  7. Chris Elwell from Third Door Media , January 23, 2014 at 4:31 p.m.
    Hate to say it, Ari, but Bob's spot on with his comment. The headline was fine click bait, but the article must have been what you were working on before hearing the comment. With all of the choices out there today, if buyers are working with dishonest media sales people it's their own fault. Even 5% is a lot of choice in the media-rich world we live in.
  8. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing, LLC , January 23, 2014 at 5:23 p.m.
    @ Sara, Chris & Bob (Garrett), OK, I appreciate your feedback on my columns but what the heck are you guys talking about with this one? 1. Click Bait? Let me clear something up here -- I don't get paid to write these columns. I have no incentive to drive open rates whatsoever -- nothing in my life changes if people open and read my column or they choose not to -- so to insinuate I used a title to drive "clicks" is just a misguided assumption. 2. The "Title" is the Problem I am surfacing Publishers with sales teams selling directly to buyers may or may not be aware how bad things are and this title is meant to ask them to stop and think about how their sales team conducts themselves so that trust is built not lost to help ensure they remain in the 5% or grow that 5% to 50%. 3. My solutions Are almost irrelevant here -- it's the solutions you guys come up with to solve this problem that will matter most -- as long as a publisher addresses this problem of lost trust then I feel good about the help I offered here. That said, I heard about a sales manager being late to an agency meeting recently and it's a catastrophic mistake -- it's not forgivable -- it's all the buyer will ever remember -- so for me pointing out the obvious of making sure you are never late is a good starting point to earning trust. 4. My last paragraph Clearly states other obvious steps to earn trust and that YOU can certainly and should add to this list. Bob Garret's comment and claim is rudely stated, misguided, and doesn't offer any additional help on the topic at hand, but instead attacks me -- the guy who gets paid nothing to offer insight and help based on my years of experience and all the mistakes I have made selling media -- is that really what you are agreeing with?
  9. Chris Carter from Campo Carter Partners , January 23, 2014 at 5:28 p.m.
    As your former competitor, while you guys were worrying about what was on our cover that week, we were out trying to be the best rep to our clients ; )
  10. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing, LLC , January 23, 2014 at 5:42 p.m.
    @ Chris Carter -- and you beat me personally on share on a few accounts -- I haven't forgotten :)
  11. julie winbun from att , January 23, 2014 at 5:50 p.m.
    Trust - transparency collaboration Long term partnership being authentic Nimble - I spent the 1st 17 yrs of my career selling media then 5 buying now I work as "Switzerland " I still work with clients from 20 yrs ago Why? Long term partnership was my goal Not getting a sig or getting a quick paycheck Sales reps need to find a solution for brands/agencies to help the grow their business Improve roi on media .... If the sales rep is focused on that journey they will make a little commission for a very long time ... Which over time pays off with referrals etc. Big picture thinking as no body has time to do business once and..... No matter what you are selling let your ReputAtion be your "Real value proposition "
  12. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing, LLC , January 23, 2014 at 5:54 p.m.
    @ Julie Winbun -- thank you for that insight and adding to the cause of helping those reading who sell media for a living -- that is great advice you just shared
  13. Fraser Elliott from Opinions expressed herein are solely my own , January 23, 2014 at 6:42 p.m.
    If I had answered this survey, I'd have said it's not the reps we don't trust, it's the companies they represent. Rampant click fraud and purchased site traffic make it impossible to tell who, if any, of the reps that say "no, we don't do that" are telling the truth. And Bob Gordon...really? You're really still drinking that 15-year-old kool-aid about total transparency, total accountability, total attribution capability? Wow....wow. Wow. They're still out there.
  14. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , January 23, 2014 at 7:52 p.m.
    It is about loss of respect and the acceptance of it. Unfortunately, it is only one symptom of all our lives now. As the increase of "sharing" takes precedence, so goes the loss of that respect.
  15. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing, LLC , January 23, 2014 at 9:53 p.m.
    @ Fraser -- very good point -- and that bad apple element which is so pervasive does trickle down to the reputations of the reps selling there
  16. Al DiGuido from Optimus Publishing , January 24, 2014 at 10:25 a.m.
    How many media and marketing organizations in the market have ongoing, structured, consistent sales training programs in place in their companies ? My sense is that VERY few. Back in the "old days" at Ziff Davis...intensive sales training was part of our DNA. We took great pride in knowing that we were creating quality salespeople that were consultative in their approach to customers. We have overlooked that need for ongoing intensive sales training. Being late for meetings, not following up, not understanding the customer's need before you deliver your presentation..All of these components are lacking. Sadly what many ( not all) have become are glorified order takers. We understood back then that would couldn't sell everyone on our product or service, and that was ok. We had the chops to say NO and/or this product/service won't achieve your goals and objectives. Honesty & Integrity built trust...If we don't regain that focus and discipline amongst our salespeople...we will all be headed for a major train wreck...
  17. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing, LLC , January 24, 2014 at 10:33 a.m.
    Al -- you nailed it -- so sure many are acting defensive to this column but that's wrong approach we need to own this issue and attend to fixing it -- there was no better sales origination than Ziff -- thanks for commenting
  18. Ken Nicholas from MindOnMedia[Sales] , January 24, 2014 at 12:59 p.m.
    I've missed your recent writings, Ari, so glad I caught this one today. I think @Julie Winbun gets it right: in playing for the long term, there are some on the agency/client/buying side, that I've been having lunch with since before my daughter was born. Few on the 95% side thinks that way. And while overall this is bad news, for some this could actually be good news, as in some ways it actually makes it easier for the 5%, IF they can distinguish or position themselves properly. Having to make a choice between your client, and your [current] job, may be the ultimate test. It is never fun, but I've had to make that choice on several occasions, and even with the short term of pain of moving on/losing a gig…never looked back.
  19. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing, LLC , January 24, 2014 at 4:43 p.m.
    Thanks Ken that's great advice and better insight had not thought about that angle but your're so right -- have a great weekend thanks for chiming in
  20. R.J. Lewis from e-Healthcare Solutions, LLC , January 24, 2014 at 5:02 p.m.
    You are always picking great topics Ari.... What does it mean to be Trustworthy? I watched a great TED video on this the other day that boiled trustworthiness down to three beliefs you had to have in the person: 1.) Competence 2.) Honesty 3.) Reliable. If those three characteristics are repeatably met, trust evolves. Your example of being late means the person is clearly not reliable (and perhaps not competent either). I also believe trust is a two way street. There is no doubt the supply side of the market has a lot of room for improvement - as outlined throughout these comments. But part of the deterioration that is occurring is on the buy sell as well. I believe we are living through a time where fundamental business models are being disrupted daily. With agencies launching trading desks, they are subverting the traditional sales channel relationship. This is OK, it's a shift in business, but it's also a cause for lower trust. We are constantly living in a world where sales reps go around agencies and go direct to clients, just as agencies go around networks and go direct to sites. Both breed mistrust. Perhaps my biggest pet peeve is that the "fully signed and executed IO" seems to mean very little to anyone anymore. How many times have you been 100% in the right by contact, when the other party simply says, "I don't care what it says... we're not going to pay it". I just hope that trust can be repaired. At some point parties reach irreconcilable differences. In the case of media, I think this is increasingly likely because the lines of responsibility continue to fade and shift and when the rules keep changing rapidly, it makes it difficult for all parties to be viewed as competent, honest and reliable for any sustained period of time. God help us all.... because in God we Trust.
  21. Dea Lawrence from TubeMogul , January 24, 2014 at 5:23 p.m.
    "Always tell the truth" is something for sales execs to adhere to whether the client wants to hear the truth or not and a characteristic I try to instill in all the teams I have managed. Be direct. Be honest. But because the industry is complex and nuanced coupled with the fact that companies are offering "smoke & mirrors" products, there are numerous reasons why the "truth" may not be fully communicated or understood. It does not mean that 95% of sales people are liars. 1.) Miscommunication/lack of understanding between buyer and seller 2.) Insufficient training provided by company to sales 3.) Inconsistent execution by operations 4.) The nature of technology is that sometimes is doesn't work 5.) Unreasonable expectation setting.
  22. Chris Elwell from Third Door Media , January 26, 2014 at 12:21 p.m.
    @Ari I appreciate what you write enough to comment, not something I do many other places. I apologize if you took offense to my comment; it just didn't seem like the first two paragraphs were in line with the other point you were making. And on this: "3. My solutions Are almost irrelevant here -- it's the solutions you guys come up with to solve this problem that will matter most." Some of us are going to come up with those solutions. Seems like it's up to the buyers to reward those who do. I don't hold out much hope for that given that most buyers have a beat-them-until-they-bleed, we-hold-all-the-cards, we-ain't-partners attitude toward media sellers. It is that mentality that drives media companies to cut corners and breeds the desperation and lying practiced by the 95%.
  23. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing, LLC , January 26, 2014 at 5:39 p.m.
    Hey Chris Elwell, Sorry for that -- I just didn't like Bob Garrett's (Accordant) tone -- again sorry you got caught up in that -- my bad, your comments like this very last one are thoughtful, insightful and helpful to the community reading -- I get where you are coming from and I think you are so right - if buyers don't reward "honesty and integrity" then what's the point -- I think where you were also going with this comment is that buyers award "reach" and "efficiencies" while looking the other way at what's driving those aspects from Publisher X -- all I can say now is that things are really messed up in this media business I care about and I am not gonna stop pointing out the issues and offering my solutions -- hope you keep reading and weighing in. Ari
  24. Chris Elwell from Third Door Media , January 27, 2014 at 8:40 a.m.
    No worries, Ari. Please keep up the good work. The folks at MediaPost are fortunate to have you!
  25. Walter Sabo from SABO media , February 6, 2014 at 10:21 p.m.
    Hysterical. When buyers stop asking or expecting tickets to Katy Perry concerts or Disney passes we will trust them.