With Handshakes on Hold, Media Ad Sales Teams Must Navigate a New World Order

The pivot to video conferencing is finally happening

a person handing money to a computer screen
Handshakes and meetings have been replaced by videoconferencing as long as the coronavirus epidemic continues.
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Key Insights:

Media is a people business built on relationships. Whether it’s a night out at a concert, a conversation over drinks or the not-so-secret secret jeans parties and Apple picking, the relationship between buyer and seller starts and ends with face-to-face communication. Pressing the flesh wins deals in ways that spray-and-pray pitches don’t.

But when the industry works from home, where meetings are done via Zoom and relationships are strained because we’re all being socially distant, ad sales teams have to quickly reinvent their processes, if not their whole way of operating.

“It’s definitely not business as usual,” said Guy Griggs, executive advertising director at The New York Times. “We have a box at the Garden, at Barclays, where we had concerts scheduled [to attend] for the next two weeks. That softer sell—look, a lot of business happens in those soft times, where you find an insight or brainstorm idea—those things wouldn’t come up on a video call.”

As sales teams navigate this new normal, sellers say that while videoconferencing tools like Zoom or Uberconference are fine for the more transactional conversations like pitches or RFPs, nothing beats the in-person meeting.

“We just had a video conference with our bigger partners,” said Samantha Skey, CEO of SHE Media. “It’s hard. People were talking over each other. It’s hard to maintain relationships when you’re not able to catch the facial expressions easily. It’s challenging.”

For a lot of sales folks, it’s like losing a superpower—if that power is the gift of gab. With the pivot to videoconferencing, “the magic of sparking ideas, finding an insight or something off the cuff, which leads to another meeting, will be limited a bit,” Griggs said.

One C-level executive at a media company said that right now, it’s making sure that people—both staff and clients—are safe, then figuring out, day-by-day, how to operate. 

“We’re not rushing into, ‘How are we going to sell this week?’ but business will go on and we’ll find ways to work with clients that make sense,” they said. “Given how strong we are around the messaging of the virus [through its journalism] and how to keep safe, a lot of customers have already turned to us and said, ‘Can you give me guidance on how to advertise in this environment? We want to do it in the right way and not come off in the wrong way. We may have a service to be helpful. How do we give that message?’ Given our knowledge, we can help them communicate when they’re ready.” 

Other seasoned sellers echoed this sentiment, adding that it’s important for junior sellers, who may not have the gentle touch that more senior sales reps have, to really be sensitive to the moment.

“We were talking in my team meeting that we can’t be tone-deaf,” Griggs said. “People are losing lives, but also all of their money. There’s a lot of shit going down right now. I don’t want people to take their feet off the gas, but also don’t want them to be proactive in ways that don’t make sense. It’s a nuance, and you have to be careful.” 

For some, like Taboola CEO Adam Singolda, there’s an opportunity with everyone working remotely. 

“Now you can meet your clients all day long, all night long, from all over the world,” Singolda said. “Less downtime like this means more meetings globally, and your clients would love the ‘face time.’” 

Of course, we’ll still see the exchange of goods, along with the exchange of ideas. Watch for upticks in gift cards for Peloton or Seamless. Skey said that in this new reality, she expects we’ll see more healthy gifting, if not more overall gifting, like juicers.

Everything in the media business comes down to trust. Readers need to trust the journalism; advertisers need to trust their media ad sales partners. And the way that trust is built is through relationships. 

“Relationships are a huge driver of our business,” Griggs said. “That will be completely limited based on not having experiences together. I don’t know what that new world order looks like, but it’s definitely one in which someone has to be really creative.”

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