The Binary Future of Digital Ad Sales

At Monday's iMedia Brand Summit in Coronado I had the opportunity to speak with a group of 150 sales leaders on a topic of pretty serious urgency: the sales talent crisis....with a twist. The position I shared with the group was that we don't have a sales talent crisis: We have two of them.

Harkening back five years, the profile of the successful digital seller was pretty clear: The job was squarely focused on selling the placement of ads on sites (or groups of sites) to digital media planning groups through the successful management of the RFP process. If you sold for a site, you might stress sponsorship or specific placement; a network rep might heavy up her offering based on reach or optimization. But everyone was pretty much casting their lines in the same RFP pool. To say things have changed would be a significant understatement. In the intervening years, two major forces have disrupted the picture.

The Movement of Audience Buying: The agency holding companies have decided that automated audience buying is the key to digital profitability. You all know the rest of the story: Exchanges begat DSPs, which begat Trading Desks and so on. Anyone engaged with the audience sale pulls ever farther away from the skills, new buyers, new picture. (And meanwhile, the planning groups continue to lose mojo and headcount.)

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The Facebook Effect: Part of the reason marketer's have helped Facebook Bank $4 billion in ad sales is that they want to be part of the consumer's life; they want an embedded presence within something the consumer is doing....something important to them. Now that they've breathed this rarified air, will they ever be happy with dated ideas around 'sponsorship' again? No, they'll demand that the seller who's representing a site help them really become part of the experience. Take me deep or take me home. The net effect of all this? Two distinct digital sales models emerge, and look less and less like each other with each passing month:

The Audience Seller: Armed with reasonably strong quant skills and a deep understanding and comfort with a technical sale, the Audience Seller will have to be able to lead a team into long term, complex, enterprise sales environments. Once the automated future is built, we aren't going to let just anyone run things.

The Experience Seller: Equipped with both deep marketing background and a mastery of consumer behavior and user interface, the experience seller must also be able to navigate multiple levels of the client/agency hierarchy. She must be as comfortable talking with creatives as she is with brand managers or researchers. As these two skill profiles pull farther and farther apart (and away from the current people-driven RFP process) they present the digital sales leader with a very stark set of decisions. How do I find, train and retain these new levels of talent? What will my organization rely on? If I'm to offer both audience and experiential sales, how do they coexist within my sales team? And what am I going to do now with all these 2006 sellers I just paid for?