Santa Claus, The Tooth Fairy, & 100% Sellout

The online publishing world is becoming more and more data-driven, but past experience and conventional wisdom still greatly influence the strategies of many top media sellers. Conventional wisdom can be useful because it gives us fixed guidelines that allow for rapid decision-making. The pace of the digital world demands lightening-quick reflexes, so speed matters A LOT.

But every once in a while, it’s worth reflecting on conventional wisdom and asking whether tried and true methods are actually outdated myths that may feel right, but actually prevent progress.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the idea of 100% sellout. Media owners love this moment of constrained supply because tables turn and leverage shifts. It also sends a strong subliminal marketing message by showing the property is in demand.

And of course it stokes media buyers’ natural competitive spirit: Has the space been bought by a competitor? What about my other buys? Am I going to lose out? I’d better take action!



But as digital media has evolved, does the sellout scenario hold publishers back? And does this cause media owners to miss emerging opportunities?

100% sellout certainly still happens during peak demand periods or with certain products, but almost every publisher today makes heavy use of  third-party monetization tools. This has created the rapid ascent of the programmatic marketplace, which gets mixed reviews from some publishers. But the reality is that by holding on to the dream of 100% sellout, many media owners end up drawing false conclusions and missing programmatic opportunities. Here are a few of the most common myths I have seen, and what I think they should actually translate to:

“My sales team isn’t any good” should become: “My team needs to be retrained and redesigned.”

This myth starts when managers look at sell-through rates or CPM levels and see a lower number than expected. Yes, it’s true that some of the sellers on the team may not be pulling their weight, but it’s also possible that a supply spike has brought more inventory than expected. Or perhaps the forecast for sell-through was never right to begin with? Or maybe the demand landscape is simply shifting?

A better approach might be to look around the company (or the industry) at sales channels, teams or sellers that are having success and see how to replicate what they’re doing. Is it the people? The products? The training? All of the above? Global digital advertising spend continues to grow aggressively, so there are definitely success stories out there to learn from.   

“I don’t understand or trust tech partners” should become: “The best tech partners are driving growth and innovation – how do I work with them?”

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the ad tech landscape. Myriad companies that sound alike, but claim to be different, can cause a lot of confusion. And what’s the right price to pay for these services? These concerns can add up to a lot of mistrust. Many publishers simply throw up their hands and walk away. Big mistake.

Technology companies are driving huge change on both the publisher and marketer side. Sure, there’s a lot of confusion, but that comes with disruption. And there’s no question that many of these companies are adding substantial value to the ecosystem.     

“I’m not going to focus on remnant inventory” should become: “I need to get a better understanding of how my inventory drives revenue and margin.”

Many publishers like to ignore “remnant,” or non-premium inventory, because they are “focused on the important, high value stuff." That makes sense, but only if “important” and "high value” are properly defined. If the remnant pool is making up a substantial chunk of revenue and growing, I’d say it’s pretty important. And if that revenue can be produced by using automation and technology with a low COGS, I’d say it’s pretty high value.

The point is that publishers should be looking at their revenue holistically and understanding where the growth and margin are coming from.

Simply put, digital publishing is breaking traditional models today. The frequency of content updates, spikes in traffic and the easy ability to add/subtract ad units all create huge variances that can’t be managed using traditional sales and yield practices. Plus, there’s  all the data that buyers have available for targeting.  

Instead of longing for a lost dream of 100% sellout, publishers should take an unbiased view of their business and embrace growth trends in the marketplace.

2 comments about "Santa Claus, The Tooth Fairy, & 100% Sellout".
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  1. Daniel Ambrose from, corp., January 30, 2014 at 12:18 p.m.

    Well said Jeremy. I especially second the motion about investing in training (which I do). In an environment changing as fast as digital publishing, on-going training is critical. Bringing in an outsider always provides a needed new perspective.

  2. Jeremy Hlavacek from The Weather Company, January 30, 2014 at 1:26 p.m.

    Thanks Daniel. Things are indeed changing fast. There needs to be more training, but also flexible employees who learn on their own and are open to change.

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