The Death of Ad Sales

Easily the most provocative and thoughtful book I read this summer - or any previous summer for that matter - is "The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century" by Tom Friedman of The New York Times. My purpose here is not to give the book yet another glowing review, but to pick up on one of its threads and apply it to the marketing world where you and I live. For those who've not yet read it, a bit of brief exposition is needed.


Friedman's brilliance is in his blending of major global events and trends like open-sourcing, outsourcing, supply-chaining, free trade, the end of Communism, 9/11 and the release of the Netscape browser into one unifying intellectual platform. The world is indeed flat now; borders have vanished, distance is no longer a factor and protectionism of any kind is pointless and irrelevant. One of the reasons this book is so powerful is that Friedman offers his premise with a cool pragmatism that defies any political or economic label. As you move into the body of the book, Friedman's case becomes so self-evident that you quickly lose any vestiges of doubt or prejudice and start asking, "So how is MY world getting flattened?"

My corner of the flattening world for the past 23 years has been advertising - specifically selling it - with the past 12 years focused on internet advertising. And when I look at "selling space" in light Friedman's "flatteners" I'm driven to this assessment:


Whether your currency is the 30-second spot, the column inch or the leaderboard, if your primary function is to manage its supply, demand and pricing yield, there is a target on your back. Somewhere in a graduate lab in Krakow or Beijing a technology is being perfected that will automate supply, delivery and pricing management for ALL forms of media. And you can bet on it being a quantum leap beyond today's ad management programs. But certainly customer service will always be important, right? Sure. But if you're counting on great phone manners and speedy turnaround on RFPs to get you that summer house in the Hamptons, think again. They have phones and web browsers in Bangalore... and an entire generation of eager, polished, well-educated young people whose English is better than mine.

At this point, you're probably greeting this idea with either denial or despair. If you chose denial, consider this: Over the past decade the twin forces of web-based automation and outsourcing have radically changed dozens of industries, and eliminated high-priced middlemen (and middlewomen) from the sale and management of commodities. Twentysomethings in Delhi are now the voice of well-known catalog marketers. Housewives in Utah take all the phone reservations for JetBlue - in their own homes and on their own time. Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs have single-handedly (double-handedly?) given pink slips to most of America's music and bookstore clerks. Now ask yourself: why should OUR industry - where similar forms of inventory are bought and sold by high-priced humans in a market environment - be immune from the same forces? Nostalgia and romanticism are weak pillars for rationalization.

So what to do if you're an advertising sales professional? EVOLVE! Assume that you're no longer (or not for long to be) engaged in the low value, commodity aspects of our business. Learn, develop or buy the high level strategic skills that are at an even greater premium in a flattened world. The media salesperson of tomorrow (and I do mean TOMORROW) is going to think and act very much like a marketing consultant. He or she will have an intricate knowledge of client industries and market dynamics and will be so closely aligned with customers that the "vendor/client" distinction will vanish. Short-staffed customers will even turn over entire projects or business problems to their media consultants, a phenomenon that Friedman calls "insourcing."

In short, if you don't want to get crushed in a race to the bottom, then start racing to the top. EXPERT and STRATEGIC and CONNECTED used to describe the top handful of advertising salespeople. Now, they are the entry-level criteria for anyone who would have a career in our industry. And if you're wondering who's going to talk to all those media planners about their RFPs, know that the same forces are already reshaping the agency business; the RFP is already becoming automated, and the person overseeing it might just be in Guadalajara or Provo.

While no one can predict the exact nature and pace of change, I'm pretty sure of two things. First, radical change in our industry is inevitable: running out the clock is simply not an option. Second, it's going to happen faster than any of us can imagine. If you're in ad sales today, you owe it to yourself to immediately embrace that change and rise to the challenge it presents.

Being strategic isn't just a good idea; it's your life now.

Send your comments and questions directly to Doug Weaver