Woe The Digital Sale: Going Over The Media Director's Head

Question from the mailbag:

I've been in the digital media business over 10 years.  I am now a VP-level media director and I've worked with dozens of site partners for many years.  A premium site I have done A LOT of buying with for many successful branding campaigns over the years recently gave me the hard sell to become part of a client's direct-response campaign.  I was skeptical that the site would perform against our aggressive goals due to high CPMs, but the site was willing to negotiate to get the buying rates where they needed to be.

I was open and honest with them.  I verbally informed them that their site was recommended as part of the plan at the negotiated rate for a pretty healthy budget amount, but couldn't sign an insertion order until the client approved the plan and the authorization was signed.  Based on our history, I thought that would be enough assurance.  Apparently it wasn't.  The sales rep and site management contacted my CEO to see what could be done about getting on the plan and getting an insertion order signed.  I was appalled.  Was my word not enough?  Did they not understand that sometimes it takes time for clients to give approvals?  Who started the rumor that CEOs make media planning decisions anyway?!?



Amy says: I am constantly amazed at how little sales reps know about agencies, agency structure and how they work with their clients.  When I was a media director, I would always say that the supervisors and planners were the key purchase decision-makers, and I was just the talking head.  This site was lucky that you, as the VP,-MD, were involved to advocate on their behalf in the first place.  Why they went to your CEO is almost too weird for me to even address.  But since that is the point of this column, here I go.

Maybe the team was very close to making their quarterly goal and this buy was the last few dollars they needed before they could relax.  Maybe they had a bad experience with your current agency before you arrived and they are superseding you because of prior bad acts.  Either way, I am using this column to say to all sales folks:  going above anyone's head to get a signature on an insertion order is dangerous business.  First off, you are going to alienate the person you go over and, in this case, how does it make you look when you are contacting a CEO of a national agency for a media buy?  Do I even need to elaborate? 

How do you think a CEO of an agency spends her day?  Revenue and client relationships dominate the mind of an agency CEO.  Specifically, she is thinking about millions of dollars of revenue and dozens of clients, which doesn't leave much time and effort to focus on one insertion, of one campaign, of one individual client.  This is not to say that a CEO will not address a very specific issue to do damage control, but in the course of normal business this kind of detail is not something that she would have time to do.

Clearly there is something fishy here, although I can't really figure out what it would be.  Jason, why would a CEO be solicited by a sales team for something as normal as this?

Jason says: It's people like this who make me look wildly successful! My sales team pep talk need only go, "Here's where the bar is (no, we are not out drinking. I am merely extending my arm out at waist-level). All you have to do is be a little bit better than this." It is negative motivation, but I use it to let people know that one does not need to hit a home run every time at bat.

The lack of talent and expertise in this business never ceases to amaze me. In our last column (link unnecessary because I know you all read me religiously), I spoke about a dearth of training. Thus, once again, I am not surprised that the situation above occurred -- gobsmacked, embarrassed, ashamed, amazed and admittedly a bit giddy, but not surprised. Add the lack of experience to a down market that has never before occurred in the media business, and you get some very nervous sales executives. Nervousness causes people to act in bizarre ways. Lack of revenue can cause people to act recklessly; just ask Bernie Madoff or MC Hammer. In fact, I just created a new formula that explains this easily:

Nerves - Revenue x Negative Economic Growth = Hammer Time

Thus, once the "premium" site that formerly received brand dollars was chasing the direct-response budget (something that even surprised the agency person), I would have predicted that something weird was going to happen. The "premium" site in question officially "jumped the shark." And we all know once that happens, it is a quick and painful race to the bottom.

I can neither explain nor rationalize why this occurred, but in this market, it will not likely be the last time the Hammer shows himself. For the time being, the media director may just have to say, "You can't touch this."

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6 comments about "Woe The Digital Sale: Going Over The Media Director's Head ".
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  1. Dan Vaughan from Competitor Group, Inc., October 9, 2009 at 2:40 p.m.

    Ummm... the agency is going the way of the DoDo (whether this audience is willing to admit it or not), and i think sales reps smell the blood in the water and have less regard for the chain of communication/command. Certainly disrespectful that reps take 'alternative routes to paydirt' - but the traditional digital ad buying world is coming apart at the seams - so there are gaps to exploit, as any good sales rep would do.

  2. Kerry Inserra from CBS Integrated Media, October 9, 2009 at 3:14 p.m.

    Very indicative of the tough times we are in. However as a long time sales professional, I would never consider going above the VP/decision maker, without his/her blessing. Relationships are everything, even more so now. To supersede the VP and go straight to the CEO for something so trivial, reeks of self importance and demonstrates to the agency that you do NOT have the client's best interest front and center-only your own. The salesperson has now jeopardized a valuable relationship and most likely done irreparable harm. Even if the salesperson has a great relationship with the CEO (which I have with several of my agencies), everyone within the agency has a role and it's incumbent upon the salesperson to respect that chain of command...simply put, it's sales 101. Why would one risk making their key contact within the agency look inferior to others? Very poor judgment in my opinion. Thanks for sharing. A good reminder to not take short cuts. Patience is a virtue. Approvals take time.

  3. Tim Carney from tc inc, October 9, 2009 at 3:42 p.m.

    This piece is just SOOO indicative of how outdated agencies have become. Being in sales for close to 20 years, I can't tell you the number of times I've heard clients complain to me that they can't trust their agencies to generate original ideas and thought. Why? Because agencies are set up to buy in specific ways. Broadcast is lucrative for the shop, with radio, print and all others falling in behind.

    Now, because of the changed media landscape, agencies are left with an old model and cling to staid old buying routines.

    My frustration with agencies was that in following the buying "rules", we would pitch to a blank room of stares and the promise..."we will let you know". And then NOTHING. I'm sorry, but when my company invests in an idea, creates a presentation, flys us in, rents a car a hotel etc....they have a real monetary investment in the process. We wouldn't be investing OUR time and money to the idea if we din't feel it would benefit the client, but somehow, the agency worked as a black hole time and time again....

    In the above instance, I'm suprised someone even bothered to contact the agency CEO. What's the point? The agency "MO" was reflected in the lower echelons.Why waste your time at the agency at all.

    Let's face it clients are where the real decisions are and always will be made. People on my sales team aren't doing their job effectively if they aren't on a first name basis with the client. Does it piss off the agency? Too bad....We all have jobs to do, so agencies, if you can't make a decision, stay outta the way....

  4. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing Holdings, LLC, October 9, 2009 at 4:46 p.m.

    Jason & Amy,

    Just loving this column -- nice job. And that formula Jason, is both hysterical and dead on.

    Going above someone's head is like winning at blackjack -- you only remember the few times you win and you deny all of the losses.

    As a salesperson, you target your relationships -- so it's best to target well and then dance with the date you brought. Sometimes you lose out, but at least you don't lose credibility by trying to change dates mid song.

    In defense of this particular situation, it appears the senior manager made the call to reach out to the client and the rep did not stand up and convince their manager not to.

    Again, great job capturing the realities of buying and selling media.


  5. Laura Riemer from Valpak of Greater Houston, October 10, 2009 at 8:52 p.m.

    Bottom line in this type of situation... what goes around, comes around. This is just a "law of physics" in the huge melting pot of humanity. A rep's reputation is built on all that we do well and also what mistakes we make. We have to strive to keep our mistakes small and infrequent just like we strive to always offer the utmost in customer service for all clients no matter how small or how large.

  6. Clyde Boyce from Firefly Media, October 13, 2009 at 3:20 p.m.

    Having been on both the sales and media planning side of the business for a total of over 30 years, this is an issue that began long before digital became a part of the media landscape. I've experienced both the sales rep (usually based on the manager's insistence) going over my head to higher ups or directly to clients. As a sales manager for a national print magazine I had the same pressure from some of my higher ups.
    Truth is, the mantra that I went by was to respect the people who were responsible for the evaluation and recommendation of what I had to sell and to give that same respect and opportunity to sell me to sales people. If what they had to sell was truly on strategy (which they should know before they come in to sell) and was leading edge, we were the first people to champion the idea to clients. No need to go over my head or to the client. Great sales people should know if an idea is on strategy and has a chance to be sold. That's what makes good sales people. Media folks should always be looking for great, new, innovative ideas for their clients. That's what great agencies do.

    To suggest that agencies (as a whole) are outdated or soon to become extinct is asinine. Just as media has evolved, agencies are evolving as well. Sure there are some who are behind the curve (possibly from their traditional roots) but many agencies are the best salespeople that the media has!

    And finally, as Kerry noted, building a relationship at all levels of agency and client organizations is critical to being able to act as a partner to both and not just someone who has something else to sell.

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