The Buyer and Seller As Caricature

As I write, I am on one of my favorite journeys -- traveling to a twice-yearly gathering of digital media executives, a massive assembly of agency and publisher folk at iMedia. Its agenda: buyers' and sellers' meeting to connect, delve into issues, foster understanding and open the door to more business together.

Because I've always resisted stark black and white distinctions between buyer and seller, I welcome the time to really get into it over a few days in mixed company. And, because, like many of us, I have been at this business for a while, there are many friends in the room: old guard, peers of my more youthful youth, and people whose intelligence I follow, no matter where or how they hang their hats.

This time, we will in fact dig directly into this theme of driving greater understanding between buyers and sellers. Some of the conference programming is built around the idea of trading places with each other as a catalyst to simpatico. So, while I will squirm for a moment when asked to put on a "buyer" nametag -- I am sure we will all be a little better for the give and take of the conversation, if we lead with empathy.



However, because this conversation is recurring and fueled by the natural tension around inherent stereotypes, I cannot help but wonder when we will become A LOT better for the conversation. What is required beyond provocative, thoughtful conversation in order to move us all up to a higher plane once and for all? As we prepare, here are just a few of the areas of conversation I am thinking hard about, wondering how we can translate them to real movement:

Stereotypes and Caricatures Are Troublemakers

The lifeblood of this conversation is bad behavior and stereotypes. We all can recite the bad stuff: cold calls across the main line; cold 500-word pitch emails; advertising chit-chat; premature over-socializing at the expense of talking real business; the no-show buyer; the overprotective, client-sequestering buyer; various forms of bait and switch -- and on and on. There's a certain joy and drama to dishing these caricatures. A few things are true about stereotypes, however: 1. If you focus on them too much, you miss the good stuff. 2. Usually there are threads of truth within.

The adversarial shtick is a cop-out. We have to be better than that grind. Improvement requires talking very mutually about our businesses and our approach to client and partner success. And, while we certainly can train our staffs to transcend the stereotypes, it's important to acknowledge the temptations implied by some of them. For instance, under the pressure of quotas and within a competitive environment both internally and externally, a seller might resort to firing off the tome of a cold-pitch email or throw down a canned 100-page PPT deck. But we can be led to a better way by example.

There is an art to building your own development approach over time, honing your practices based on what you've seen work. Your career progress is largely characterized by getting better and better at developing business. Your wins come not only from more concrete deals time after time, but also from earning a reputation that will move business and not impede it. And we get better by interacting with folks who live this idea.

What Do You Mean, Developing Business?

Like many, at every turn I am in the business of developing business. And, when I talk to you, I presume you are, too. That's my perspective. This means I will always approach business situations as though we are all in this together. There are some things I might buy from you, but I also am developing an exchange with the client -- aka, selling. The civil, engaged client quietly understands the sell component of our interaction but is more focused on the greater build. I hope for the same advanced understanding in my interaction with partners, media companies and vendors I need to be able to trust. The transaction is there, but within the context of a greater co-build.

The trust we speak of is essential but also earned. It's a progression. Often, we have to be able to move on things before trust is certain. It will be instantly obvious if one of us cares more about transacting than jointly developing business. On my end, if, in our interactions, you boil us down to a buy/sell swap and treat our engagement as a stark transaction -- I not only distrust your imagination, but it may take longer for me to trust you with the client.

Of course, our reputations proceed us. The longer we have been around, and the more public credibility we've already established, the more trust walks in the door on day one. That's just helpful. We still have to hit our own groove together.

Hearing and Listening

Intellectually, we know there is a difference between hearing and listening. But, in the exchange we're talking about, it's most relevant when it comes to really understanding and advancing a client's business. Listening is mandatory. We flatly speak the truth: "understand the objectives and then determine what needs to be done." Or, "Don't talk tactics, utilities, vehicles until you have backed up and had the conversation about the client's business." OK, for real -- that sounds great, but for many this is just chatter.

Getting authentic on this point is a religion we have to keep as we deal with our teams and with each other. Maybe the first real meeting together is solely a deep look at client marketplace, competitive landscape, marketing objectives and learning to date. Go away, take it in, and come back with a real plan.

We could talk all day long about the stereotypes and caricatures that pepper the world we share - but the point is, it's a world we share. Yes:

1. 100-page decks are laughable.

2. If I say I have half an hour, I have half an hour.

3. I should never stand you up, and I should always call you back.

4. Just because I don't want to go to a two-hour lunch with you, doesn't mean I don't want to do business with you.

5. I may or may not really receive 300 calls from publishers and media companies.

6. You should be careful with your "101."

But, if there's good business to be done between us, let's put venting on that stuff into a box called "Waste of Time" and get on with it. Lock-step may be too much to ask. But humor, empathy and a co-development ethic can help us shake that monkey off our backs, freeing ourselves from the grips of the buy/sell caricature.

3 comments about "The Buyer and Seller As Caricature ".
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  1. Andrew Budkofsky from Rolling Stone, May 18, 2009 at 11:33 a.m.

    Ahh, one of THE most talked about topics in our business. Love the article. I shared it with my team.

  2. Carol Lewis from Riverton Media, May 18, 2009 at 11:55 a.m.

    Excellent points, well-put.

  3. Clyde Boyce from Firefly Media, May 19, 2009 at 12:54 p.m.

    Having been on both the sales side and the buying side, this subject always intrigues me. When I was selling, some of my management direction was "just get out there to as many people as you can and sell our story. If you do it right, you will get the business" As a buyer/planner, I want to hear a story that is relevant to my client needs, not just how great you magazine or websites demographics are.

    As you mentioned, listening is the key to sales, not talking. Listen to what the needs of buyers and their clients are and tailor the pitch to those needs. A 45 minute 30 page generic document that is the same for every sales call is of little value to me. A 2-3 page document on a specific program built to serve the needs of my client based on our conversation about those needs, is perfect, and always valued, even if it isn't bought!

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