My first month into the job, there were plans in motion for an offsite national sales meeting. We were instructed to call Jim Bailey, the Atlanta sales manager, to let him know if we were going to participate in tennis or golf. Jim was jolly. I could tell that immediately from the sound of his voice I heard after diligently picking up the phone to let him know, "It's gonna be tennis for me, sir." I think he heard my own voice cracking because after marking me down as a tennis player he offered some fatherly advice. Jim said, "Hey kid, life's better in the branches."
At the time I had no idea we had branches -- or that selling from them was less stressful. It was different back then -- no email, cross-platform deals or big ideas integrated online. Back then, you sold pages, and if you sold them in the branches, you went home earlier than most.
Life in the branches still has its upside -- but it's not where you want to live today. If you sell media, you want to live in Bigdealville. This is not a physical place, but a mental one where you constantly look for opportunities to create an extension of your brand that doesn't exist -- while making your quota disappear. The old guard refers to this as custom publishing; today it is called online sales.
Big "custom" ideas are requested with almost every RFP. "We are looking for an opportunity to tie into the user experience" is what I have read. One advertiser working with a client of mine eloquently explained, "We want to be part of your site but not appear as if we bought our way in." In this case, there was a way to do just that and create a benefit for the user simultaneously. That's where you want to live.
Building any big deal requires the "right material" obtained through attentive listening. As for what to build, here are three options I see. I am sure there are more.
1. Build something new. This approach often includes a "new section" woven into the site. Way back when, we were pitching a young men's deodorant campaign (I think it was AXE), so we created a "Babes" section on IGN, because it made editorial sense to have one -- and economic sense in having an advertiser support the launch. (P.S.: the section still lives on the site today.)
When this approach works, it works big -- while poor attempts are often rightfully shot down before they see the light of a conference room. Editors could be more open-minded to this approach as well. As a colleague of mine suggests, "Just because an idea comes from the business side doesn't make it a bad one."
2. Plug and play. Is there something existing or going to occur on your site that an advertiser can plug into? One of the most creative examples I saw of this approach came from Slate last July. The company sold a sponsorship of its own site's redesign. A fixed and non-standard ad unit read, "Slate redesign presented by Nissan" (Nissan's logo was in the ad unit). This was brilliant, given how car companies like Nissan care about "design" -- and it did not require anything new to be built.
3. Build something offsite. The microsite has its good days and bad days. The good ones, like what Vanity Fair sold to Lexus, are what keep this option viable. The challenge when selling microsites is how to price them. Here again, Vanity Fair used a method I encourage, which is to run cobranded ad impressions that will not only help drive traffic to the microsite, but even more important, give you inventory to price the package -- essentially making the microsite added value.
Life in the branches is nice. Building and selling big creative custom ideas, and being known at your company as the salesperson that did "that deal," is better living.