Woe The Digital Sale: Handling The Undependable Buyer

Question from a salesperson:  I work for a large multimedia company.  During one of the most competitive times of the year, I was assigned a new account.  To make a good impression, I put the inventory the agency wanted on hold for almost three weeks  -- but when the launch date approached, they bailed on the buy.  I guess I understand that this happens, but now I’m getting reamed internally.  What is the best way to handle this?  How can I know if a buyer is worth her word?

Amy says:  First let me say sorry on behalf of that buyer.  For me personally, I try to make sure that I am communicating effectively and operating in good faith when I work with a seller.  Of course I am not perfect and I’m noticing more and more, especially in busy times of year, planning occurs in real time versus being able to plan campaigns definitely in advance.  This puts pressure on the agency team, who instantly become in danger of overpromising and underdelivering.  We need to be able to confidently say that what we are presenting to the client is available and that they can count on the media company to deliver on what is required.  Media is one of the most perishable products on the planet and if we don’t get eyeballs, we don’t help our clients make money.



I can tell you signs that may mean your buyer is pulling your leg or that she is sincere, but unexpected occurrences prevent her from keeping her word. Someone is probably pulling your leg if she makes a promise and you never hear from her again.  Some buyers don’t understand that at big media companies, there are sellers across the country out pounding the pavement and may need what is on hold to close a deal.  This lack of empathy is what motivates me to write this column in the first place.  Another red flag would be that the advertiser has never done business with the site before, so the buyer really may have no intention to buy and is just testing you to see what they can get away with.

But are buyers really that manipulative?  I’m not sure, though I’ve heard horror stories.  The reality, maybe, is that the client changes direction at the last minute.  Again, real-time is the world we live in, and you never know; if an advertiser misses their sales goals and finds out at the wrong time, the budget assigned to your buy may go straight back to their bottom line. 

Sometimes key decision-makers are not involved until the last minute.  A more junior client may be managing the process -- but when it comes down to formal approval, the marketing team is not on board.  Then the “No” comes from above, and it’s difficult for the buyer to do anything about it. 

Ask what the process is, ask who the clients involved are, ask if you can reach out directly to help sell it through.  We all know stuff happens -- but an educated seller is my best partner.

Sometimes I wonder, though, why do sellers even hold inventory?  Nothing is ever accountable until ink or virtual signature is on paper fax or electronic insertion order, respectively.  The dark side of me says it’s your problem if you hold inventory before the IO.  Jason, am I being too harsh?  What are publishers doing holding inventory anyway? Don’t they understand the risk?

Jason says: I have a growing shelf of voodoo dolls of people who have done this.

I'd imagine every industry that involves buying and selling is confronted with this scenario. If I go to a car dealer and say, “Save that nice yellow sports car for me,” I don’t actually expect him to do so without a deposit, even if I wink when I say it. When I want my house painted and tell the painting company the dates I have open, I wouldn’t expect them to hold that time ahead of anyone else who requests those dates. Maybe I’d get a heads-up call alerting me that I’m about to lose my spot, but I wouldn’t expect it. Even some snooty restaurants have been known to require a deposit when you reserve a table for a large group.

Conversely, this rarely happens in the general media business. When a print advertiser says, “I want the back cover of the May issue,” that's it. They take it. Your average TV buyer confirms commercial time in a program with an email: “Yes, I’ll take the schedule you proposed.” If the buyer in either situation backs out, there is, typically, hell to pay -- that is, no more prime placements for you, retracting advertiser. Come back: 1 year.

Here are the situations where inventory is held in the digital business:

1)  The buyer is asking for very precise targets that require very specific types of inventory (content or audience) targeting.

2) Very high-intensity campaigns that are time-specific, such as running millions of impressions over a few hours or a day.

3) High-profile placements like home pages or section specific placements or unique sponsorships (like a big football game this Sunday that, unfortunately, does not involve the Jets -- again).

4) High-value adjacencies like those associated with ultra-premium content, such as “Fashion Week” and “March Madness.”

The publisher/salesperson side of the business is more than happy to put effort into showing a prospective advertiser what the possibilities are, including reserving space to accommodate any of the above. This may take some work, but it is the cost of doing business. The hope is that when a salesperson is cultivating this sale, there is a general consensus on what is transpiring, and the doomsday scenario doesn’t occur. However, ultimately, it falls on the shoulders of the sell side to make sure that a lost sale of this kind doesn’t affect the business more than any other lost sale.

Anything that’s uniquely perishable should not be left to a last-minute decision. A go/no-go proposition to the potential buyer should be made far enough in advance not to disrupt the services of the publisher. Also, any salesperson doing this dance must be in frequent communication internally to let all pertinent team members know the status throughout. Along with the lead salesperson, any sales leader worth his smartphone should be on top of this, shepherding the process throughout.

So, if you requested this inventory three weeks ago, you should ask your manager (you know, the one who’s doing the reaming), "Where have you been?" Then, ask him for a lock of his hair.

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