Commentary

The Sales Generation Gap

They "doth protest too much, methinks." Shakespeare's dictum seems well-suited to the current broadcast thought--leaders who are protesting online trading. News flash: online trading already occurs. It's happening in every sales department and rep firm cubicle...today, right now! Those who think otherwise are out of touch with account executives and sales practices in their organization. Pitches and proposals sail through online technology everyday. It's called e-mail. Face-to-face selling is now the exception, not the rule. Media buyers send e-mails. Sales reps respond by e-mail with a proposal and attach a few "one sheeters." It's a clunky, unorganized, inefficient "system," but it's what evolved when technology took a dominant role in our business. We've migrated from manually written traffic logs to ones generated by high-powered computer programs. We no longer cut and splice 16mm film for our 6 p.m. news shows, preferring digitized images edited on a computer. We wouldn't think of manually running a commercial from a film chain with slides and a cart (don't forget to flop the mirrors), quad carts, or three-quarters-inch tape. Instead, the air product is automatically and smoothly switched by a computer program that cues, rolls, and switches a commercial from an array of hard drives. The disconnect in today's discussion of online trading is not one of technology. It's more simply defined by the old-fashioned concept that faces every family with teenagers in the home: the generation gap. Our industry is suffering a generation gap between the buyers--mostly 20-something-year-old women who grew up with a computer mouse in one hand and a cell phone in another--and the sellers, 50-something-year-old executives who struggle to stop the VCR from flashing 12:00. Neither speaks the other's language or understands the other's technology. Several high-profile media executives (I won't embarrass them by mentioning their names) have told me they don't understand computers, don't like to use them, and struggle to turn theirs on every morning. They believe their sales reps still go out everyday and make in-person calls all day. The business, they say, will never go to an online trading platform where computers organize, systemize, facilitate, and process sales. Really? As a senior member of a technology-savvy group owner told a conference earlier this year, those are the type of "executives" his company is looking to retire or fire. Like it or not, technology now drives our business--and, to the extent it expedites product or process, technology enhances profit margins and efficiencies. In my more recent days as a chief executive of television stations, I've watched seasoned sales people e-mail a sales proposal, complete with attachments, to a client who was only four blocks from our station! "Negotiations" with media buyers in distant cities occurred online via e-mail. The final order was faxed in and manually typed into the traffic system. Then the cancellations and make-goods began, through a slow, manual, labor-intensive process. Online trading is here, and it's here to stay. Broadcast thought-leaders who want to eliminate online selling can do so only by removing computers and e-mail addresses from their sales reps. Or, they can put a tracer on e-mail traffic and fire a sales rep on the spot when caught e-mailing a proposal to a buyer. We all know neither scenario will happen. The relative discussion, then, is not if or when--but how--online trading will develop. Will the industry choose an auction environment where sellers throw spots up in the air for sale to the lowest bidder? Or, will the industry adopt a platform that keeps all players in the game, preserving the art of negotiation in the buy-sell process? I think the choice is a clear one.
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