Do you remember that old story about the snake?
A little kid is walking home from school, and sees a snake. The snake looks up and says, "Hey, would you play with me? It's lonely here just lying in the grass. Don't worry - I won't bite you." The kid thinks about it. The snake looks and sounds sincere, so they start to play. And after a few minutes, the snake coils up and bites him. The kid is stunned and says to the snake, "What happened? You said you weren't going to bite me." And the snake replies, "Kid, I'm a snake. That's what I do."
Now don't take this the wrong way, but that's pretty much how it is with media buyers. No, they're not necessarily snakes, but they are media buyers. They'll let you buy them lunch, take them to the big game, and do them favors. And they can be charming and friendly throughout.
They'll do and say whatever it takes to get that mission accomplished. And in the process, they'll pick at all your station's weaknesses.
So, if you're the big all-news station in town, they'll tell you that your audience is too old.
If you're the rock station, they'll tell you that you don't appeal to women.
If you just had a good book, they want to see a 4-book trend.
If you just had a bad month, that's all they want to buy off of, so put away your 4-book trends.
If you're the alternative station, they'll tell you your audience is too young.
If you're that hot new station, they'll want to see another book before they jump in.
And if you're the jazz station, they'll tell you that no one will hear their spots because everyone's listening in the background.
These things will happen whether you're top-rated, back in the pack, or somewhere in the middle. And it will happen regardless of your format and your target demo.
That's because for every strength a station brings to the table, there's a corresponding weakness. And media buyers are paid to focus on the latter.
They're media buyers. That's what they do.
Now there's nothing inherently wrong with all that as long as the account rep understands the process. The media buyer, after all, is just doing her job. Like the snake, that's who she is.
But where things go wrong is when that same account rep marches back into the station, armed with the media buyer's reason for either not buying or not paying the desired rate, and starts questioning the station's guiding strategy.
"The buyers are complaining that we're too male-heavy."
"...just a one-book wonder."
You get the idea.
Since when did the negotiation become an excuse for questioning a station's music, slogan, or strategic plan?
We start running into serious problems when we let media buyers begin to dictate our brand strategy. And trust me that this is happening all over the country.
Somehow, just about every station is unviable in the eyes of buyers. And instead of championing their format, accentuating its value and its assets, and making a strong case that their station can get results for the client, too many account reps are apologizing, knuckling under, or worse, questioning the basic fundamentals of the stations they've been hired to sell.
In the old days, when great ratings were all you needed to be successful, this didn't matter all that much. But today, when a top 5 ratings performance in a target market often isn't enough to get on the buy, account reps are questioning everything.
And management is often listening.
Many years ago, we were hired by a certain men's magazine that was known for featuring plenty of nudity. But on the other hand, there was also excellent editorial content, and very loyal readership. We conducted focus groups among buyers and planners in order to learn more about their psyches, and how decisions were being made.
And not surprisingly, some told us that even though this was a great, respectable brand, complaints from customers about advertising in the publication could become problematic. It was a lot like buying Howard Stern. You were getting a quality audience, but you also opened yourself up to all sorts of complaints from consumers and advocacy groups.
In the "client room" after the groups, the management team began to discuss what they had just seen and what it meant. And the head of sales actually asked, "It sure would be a lot easier to sell ads if we didn't have so much nudity."
Right. But then you wouldn't have much of a brand left, would you?
So in these challenging times, how does a rep work successfully around these complaints, assertions, and accusations about station "weaknesses?"
First of all, so much of so-called "sales training" deals with CRM and other generic concepts. Too many account reps don't have to learn what's really important - understanding and appreciating their own product, and learning how to convey this value to advertisers.
So in the spirit of trying to help solve what is becoming a chronic problem, here's my list of things that AEs should be doing in this tough climate:
1. Learn the brand - Too often, account reps don't listen very much to their own stations. Become a P1, get to know the station inside and out, and start to determine for yourself what works and what is effective.
2. Understand the audience - Show up for stations events, whether they're for your client or not. Gain an understanding of who's in attendance, how they look, how they talk, and even what they have to say. The more you know the audience, the better you can market them back to advertisers and deliver the desired results.
3. Get hard data - Between Scarborough, audience ratings, and even internal web polling and perceptual studies, there's a lot to be learned about the station and the audience. You won't get to see everything, but you'll be able to fill in some of the blanks and put together a picture that can help build successes.
4. Get to know the programming staff - Chances are good that you're working with dedicated professionals who truly care about how their station sounds. Work with the PD to accomplish your shared goals, and gain an appreciation of the folks on the air who are charged with appealing to the audience. Solid relationships with them will lead to better results for your clients.
5. Find something cool to sell - The ratings will only get you so far. And when they're bad, what do you have to sell? Every station has hidden jewels that no one bothers to champion. It could be that acoustic show on the weekend that has plenty of unsold inventory. It could be that studio webcam that is generating mega-page views but hasn't ever been sponsored. It could even be "Two-Fer Tuesday," the audience's favorite feature each and every week that has never had a title sponsor.
6. Stop the whining - Your job is difficult no matter what. When the station has lousy ratings and has to claw back from the depths, it's not fun. But when the station is on top and management's demands go through the roof, that can be even tougher. But that's just the way it is. There will be good books, bad books, crappy weeklies, and surprising monthlies. The morning guy will go into rehab, and you'll be attacked by the big conglomerate across the street. It will rain on your outdoor festival. In the face of inevitable adversity, build value for your station in the collective mind of your clients, and the roller coaster nature of the ratings and life's events won't be so difficult and daunting to overcome.
7. If you don't like the station, get out - I know this sounds blunt, but it's hard to imagine anything less fun or fulfilling than selling advertising for a station that you don't believe in, don't like, or don't listen to. If you simply cannot get your sales head around the station, do everyone a favor and find a format or a station that you can embrace. You don't have to love the music or the morning show, but gaining an appreciation of their appeal and their ability to sell product and put butts in seats is really what this game is all about.