Print media has struggled for years with declining magazine ad sales revenues and now, more than ever, major magazine media companies are retraining and retooling their ad sales forces to cope with the change.
The magazine industry spent the good part of the recession balking at flagging subscription rates and struggling to refashion print editorial content into online page-view fodder to drive digital ad sales, which have been growing, but failing to make up for losses in print revenue.
But 2010 proved to be the year magazine publishers took hold of the reins, aggressively integrating and retraining print sales teams with their digital ad sales counterparts. So far, big names including Conde Nast, Hearst and The Atlantic Media Group, have all merged digital and print quotas.
The effort contributed to a marked recovery. According to figures from the Publishers Information Bureau, magazine ad sales revenue was up 3.1% in 2010, a turnaround from an 18% decrease in 2009.
Industry experts attribute this resurgence not only to economic recovery, but also to the growth of digital ad sales in the last year.
"Ads have always been a discretionary spend, so they're the first things to be cut in a recession," said Jeff Leibowitz, CEO of the Laredo Group, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based sales and marketing training organization. "But publishers' focus on [digital ad] sales has certainly been a factor in helping the recovery. Economic difficulty has serendipitously forced what should've happened all along."
More publishers are now herding their sales teams toward digital ad initiatives, even as print advertising still accounts for the majority of their current revenue. At Hearst, for example, print ad sales make up roughly 80% to 90% of ad sales.
"A significantly dominant share of our revenue still comes from print advertising," said Michael Clinton, marketing & publishing director at Hearst. "But with that being said, we are very aggressively joined into the digital future -- that includes all of our magazine websites."
And with tablet and iPad sales to double in the U.S. to 19.4 million units this year according to forecasts from eMarketer, a New York-based online market research firm, publishing companies are hiring and training salespeople to cultivate selling groups that are well-versed in new media and, increasingly, the latest consumer electronics.
"[Ad salespeople] should be helping advertisers talk to consumers as they follow content," Clinton said. "The timing, especially with emerging tablets, is perfect to move our strategy to integrating [different media]."
Advertisers have also changed the way they purchase ad space, making "integrated" buys, executives say: purchasing out spots in multiple properties and on multiple platforms for just one campaign.
"If it's in the women's space, they might buy Cosmo, Marie Claire, Harper's Bazaar," said Clinton. "It's all part of the integrated selling efforts with, print, digital, and now the iPad."
The Laredo Group, which offers ad sales training for individuals and over 700 corporate clients including Hearst, Gannett and Hachette Filipacchi, has nearly doubled its business last year, as more publishing firms sought to retrain their print sales teams.
"It was toward the end of 2009 that we started seeing companies come to this realization -- we can't hire new people, so let's start training who we've got," said Leibowitz. "Now salespeople are being required, for economic and logical reasons, to do pretty much everything."
Pointing to the complexity of digital media tools such as websites, blogs, flash videos and interactive presentations, Leibowitz noted the importance of sales teams to fully understand the medium in which they're selling ad space, in order to cater to advertiser needs.
"Nobody ever asked how a four-color printing press works," said Leibowitz. "It wasn't necessary to describe how a printing press works to make sales, whereas in the interactive world, there are many ways to present your point. And it becomes necessary to talk about it and what standards you're adhering to."
Roughly over 50% of the attendees of the Laredo Group's public courses enroll and pay their own way. Prices range from about $800 to $1300 for beginner to executive-level courses.
But some media companies such as Meredith, whose digital sales team trains its print team on new media ad sales, are wary of the one-week-at-a-time classroom approach, which its executives believe doesn't necessarily pave the way for lasting education.
"If you're not doing something everyday you forget it," said Michael Brownstein, chief revenue officer of Meredith National Media. "The best education is being in the marketplace and doing it everyday."
Talking the Talk
"There's a whole nomenclature that our digital teams speak," said Brownstein. "The terms of measurement, what ad units are, etc. -- the language and metric that you have to re-learn are different from those of the print side."
Understanding language arms sales staff with the skills to handle the increasingly consultative nature of pitch meetings, where clients seek integrated buys, or ad packages for a particular campaign across multiple platforms.
"The training gave us an understanding of what customers are planning to do on the Internet, and what questions to ask them, how to talk to them," said Donna Lagani, publisher of Cosmopolitan Magazine, one of the top ad revenue generators among Hearst's 14 titles. "In my whole career in sales -- from a junior to senior seller -- up until a few years ago, our job in any iteration was just to change the print product. Now we're immersed in a totally different medium, understanding the Internet, the language."
Lagani's sales team works with clients such as Loreal, Maybelline and Dove, who mostly buy packages that include space on print as well as online and digital media. Her team's training with The Laredo Group in June last year emphasized the need to connect with advertisers well after the sale has been made on such packages.
"The seller's job now is to listen and report back to the people who can make the change," said Brownstein. "The back office makes the necessary alterations to the ad, so we need to learn the language to communicate both internally and externally."
A reason for the heavy emphasis on communication is the changing nature of sales campaigns, which are now ongoing. The real work in online ad sales, executives say, begins after the sale is made, when the sales team has the responsibility of ensuring the ad gets the visibility clients pay for.
"When the ad sale is done in a [print] magazine, you book an ad, it runs, and it's done," said Clinton. "In digital, the sale begins after the ad runs -- you have to make sure impressions are delivered on the ad that has been bought -- fulfillment doesn't happen till the impressions are met."
On the other side of the transaction, clients too sometimes remain fragmented between print and digital sales teams, which can complicate the sale, veterans say.
"There's as much [lag] on the agency and client side as on the vendor side," said Randy Novak, director of strategic insights for NSA Media, the largest national buyer of newspaper print advertising, according to the company. "This is definitely a transition period. But ultimately, it's always boiled down to not selling inventory, but solutions."
Hearst recently announced the opening of "The App Lab," an internal research and training facility for iPad ad sales, at the Hearst Tower in Manhattan. The company also created and filled the post of ad director for tablet media last September in anticipation of the iPad boom and attendant growth in advertising with the medium.
"We've already sold seven figures in advertising on our iPad editions," said Clinton. "It's clear advertisers want to play in this space."
The lab will serve as a learning center for both internal sales teams and offer programs to educate its clients.
"Tablets and iPads are different than websites," said Clinton. "The effective ad salesperson today will be someone who understands print, digital and tablet ad sales. They're really going to have three sets of skills that they will be out selling with."
At the end of the day, industry veterans emphasize the need for constant training and retraining of skills ad sales professionals need to stay relevant and productive.
"Interactive media is not 'the' next thing, it is 'a' next thing," said Leibowitz of the Laredo Group.
Though the majority of the current revenue is still print, executives say the proportions are constantly shifting, with the increasing prominence of digital ad sales.
"It's not that print is going down, but that digital sales is rising," said Brownstein of Meredith. "It's a bigger piece of a bigger pie. We don't necessarily see one dollar going to the other."
The advent of the tablet will create a paradigm shift in ad sales, say executives, who anticipate that interactive ads, which have been slowly increasing in the last few years, will soon start to dominate revenue.
"It's been a lot of learning, but that's part of what we do," said Lagani. "What makes you excited about a job is that you learn something new everyday. If not, I would stop doing it."
Write to Sindhu Sundar