How have media owners sales teams helped themselves, their coworkers and their clients to cope in difficult, uncertain times?
It is said great media sales people have certain qualities. They’re confident and extroverted. They’re ‘always on’. They’re resilient, good listeners and optimistic. They’re focused, are great multitaskers and are persistent. And they know how to read the room and the people with whom they’re negotiating. Face-to-face is how they operate and engage best.
But when South Africa locked down at the end of March 2020, things changed. Printers closed down for all but the most essential newspapers. Journalists, agency professionals and sales teams were sent home. Advertising took a dive. And we all learned how to Zoom. Quickly.
On 17 March 2020, ahead of news that South Africa would go into lockdown by month-end, The Media Online published a piece by Park Advertising’s Chris Botha on 25 ways Covid-19 would impact the media environment: “Media owners will be making less money. The result? Either offering more discount to get their share of the pie, or severe margin protection – where the clamp will come down on clients looking to cut spend. Relationships between media owners, media agencies and clients will be tested around the negotiation tables.”
And he was so right. To that end, we asked senior sales personnel at Spark Media, Media24, Tractor Outdoor and Mediamark how they rallied their teams and learned to survive in what are the most challenging circumstances they’ve ever had to deal with.
Bridgette Manamela: Key account manager at Spark Media
As media owners, we had to take stock of what lockdown meant for the category of local newspapers. As an essential service, local news has a major responsibility to provide potentially life-saving information to the various clusters of South Africa.
As a team, it was pertinent to recognise that as an essential news provider, we had a major role to play in informing the citizenry of what the pandemic meant to each and every community we serve. Only a selected number of newspapers could be printed during level 5, our commercial printing factories were halted and no inserts could be produced.
The team worked hard to communicate the frequent fluctuations in our newspaper print orders to busy and stressed clients and agencies. We promoted the crucial role of local news in a pandemic, and worked hard to remain relevant, top of mind and easy to work with for advertisers’ future campaigns.
Our strategy was based on empathy, being in it together, finding solutions, and understanding the gravity of the situation and the need to be partners through this uncharted journey. We could empathise with the restrictions, limitations and uncertainty. The clients and agencies we work with in the retail industry were limited to essential items in various lockdown levels, they had stock issues that needed to be taken into consideration when advertising, and they had the responsibility of ensuring precautions were in place to protect their staff and that customers were advised of their safety measures.
Knowing that every client and agency we worked with was dealing with this unprecedented time too, we set out to minimise their Zoom fatigue by being focused on getting quality time to give concise solutions that anticipated their needs. One of the needs that we predicted would arise was greater access to consumers. With people leaving their homes less frequently, brands had fewer contact opportunities with shoppers. The heft of Caxton’s distribution network, combined with our ability to write content that resonates with readers, paved the way for an all-encompassing solution called INTRODUCING!SA, offering an in-home sampling solution, as well as other content marketing opportunities.
Our sales director encouraged us to be human; this approach inspired the team not to feel alone, even though we were all experiencing different difficulties dependant on our individual circumstances. The team were calling one another just to find out how they were, as people. There was a willingness to take time out to listen to colleagues when they just needed to share. Spark Media has always had a family-based culture, and this cohesion pulled us through tough times together.
I’d say value is the new normal, and not only in the form of monetary value. Adding value to our clients is an entrenched part of the Spark Media ethos and we continue to deliver on this.
Ultimately, the three biggest lessons learned during this time were as follows:
- Our physical and mental health need to prioritised in modern society.
- Resilience is real. As people we are stronger than we think we are, and we show our true strength when we are tested.
- We should celebrate even the smallest milestones, every little thing.
Tasmia Ismael: General manager commercial at Media24
For almost a decade, print media brands have travelled an arduous journey towards transforming legacy platforms and aligning their future with rapidly changing media consumption habits.
What is apparent to both readers and advertisers is the switching of delivery platforms (subscriber and retail sales) to online subscriptions. Less apparent and running concurrently with these seismic and often painful changes brought about by technology is arguably the most awaited shift within print media organisations: transforming their internal sales and marketing strategies to address both direct client and media agency requirements.
Marketers and their agencies have not escaped rampant technological changes. A recent article in The Media Online argues that it’s all about data, and marketers who fail to embrace the changes and upskill will be most severely affected.
Late last year Ads24 successfully completed the realignment of its media sales division to mirror the significant advances the group has made in expanding their brand portfolio. The future is exciting and recent market share gains are positive.
We need to understand that clients are going through changes as well – from tech to Covid-19 and a weak economy, the impact is great. This philosophy of placing the client first is not a new one but will be welcomed by advertisers who see media channels as partners, not merely ad salespeople.
We have undergone significant training and upskilling to equip our teams to understand client pain points; we need to know what keeps them up at night and how we fit into their world.
Our teams acknowledged change as a motivator and adapted rapidly, realising failure was not an option and client-centricity was a powerful mechanism to engage and build strong relationships.
From the outset, the questions we ask advertisers were centred on the stories behind their brands, and how they wanted them told in order to engage audiences and create an impact.
We worked well towards reshaping thinking and creating a culture of achievement, ensuring nsure our client-facing staff are comfortable with the vision and approach we are taking with clients. While there have been some difficulties in meeting face-to-face, we are willing to accommodate this, and remain determined to communicate and sell solutions – not just ads. At the end of the day, good sales teams shine through.
In addition to putting clients first, salespeople are equipped to deliver integrated, multilevel platform solutions, and create a communication solution tailored to brand goals and targeting audiences that matter. The sales team has come alive to the potential of selling solutions across multiple platforms, from print and television, through digital and content marketing, to providing insights.
To communicate the strides made internally, the Ads24 trade marketing team has a number of active communication channels aimed at advertisers; these include webinars, newsletters, data reports and mainstream and social media campaigns. They are in the process of introducing a brand makeover in support of the internal vision and sales strategy.
Competition remains active, but gaps in the market have been created with the closure of magazine and newspaper titles. We ask ourselves where these readers have gone; has this left gaps and what content we can give them that will create revenue opportunities?
Lizelle McConnell: Sales director at Tractor Outdoor
It was an incredible learning for us as a team, as salespeople feed off time with clients and each other. We rely on seeing clients to build relationships, hear first-hand what challenges they are facing and brainstorm ideas on how we could assist. With strict lockdowns, this human connection was removed immediately. We changed gears and focused on meaningful conversations, engaging with clients on a human level, checking in and supporting, as we were all in the same situation after all.
Client confidence in booking out-of-home (OOH) was a big challenge due to the lockdown levels. Most clients moved their spend into digital and TV. We offered innovative options to clients to book, like removing cancellation clauses, and moving as many campaigns to digital OOH so they could play and pause with no penalty as and when lockdown levels changed. We removed buying hurdles and discounted heavily in line with traffic data. We also deferred a number of campaigns, offering clients financial relief during hard lockdown. For the most part, we really used the hard lockdown as an opportunity time to connect with clients rather than just sell to them.
Lockdown also led to us investing more heavily in real-time data so we could update and track audience movements and plan accordingly. We focused a lot on digital OOH innovation, with data being at the forefront. This fast-tracked us into new innovations like DOOHshare, pDOOH and dynamic artwork. We also spent a lot of time on bettering our internal systems and processes.
We learned importance of being a partner to our clients and vice versa no matter the situation. Clients helped us by not cancelling where they could and we helped them out when they had no funds. This solidified our relationships with clients.
Working remotely has affected people differently. Some of our team had to take on new roles at home (teachers, childcarers and so forth). We had to adapt our approach to allow our team the flexibility to do what they needed to do and show them the support they needed to be productive, and safeguard their mental well-being. Another initiative that added value to the team during this period was our Lockstep masterclasses, which were hosted on a weekly basis, and which facilitated both personal and professional development.
With our head office being in Cape Town and the majority of the sales team based in Johannesburg, we were well equipped for lockdown already. We made use of internal platforms, Microsoft Teams, Slack and Teamphoria. We used Teamphoria a lot, giving our team members recognition linked to an incentive.
We hosted weekly ‘slowdowns’, where we would have quiz afternoons and virtual social events, allowing staff to wind down and connect with each other. It was also a core priority for us as a business during this time period that we retain all staff, and we did not enforce any salary cuts.
We very much moved into the realm of ‘business with purpose’, which has been an ongoing theme in our company. We’re now in the process of obtaining our B Corp certification, which is granted to companies that meet the criteria of balancing profit and purpose. Our responsibility to shareholders will remain, but there’s now a greater emphasis on the role we play within our community.
Cindy Diamond: Chief revenue officer at Mediamark
The first challenge was getting the Mediamark team mentally, emotionally and digitally connected. We had to ensure the technical infrastructure was in place, and that the sales teams had the tools and support needed to function effectively through all the changes and challenges.
Retaining high levels of personal connection was a priority, ensuring all staff were able to communicate remotely using available tools like Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Regular virtual team meetings and check-ins were set up with a dual focus: to share information about the business; and to keep track of how everyone was coping both personally and professionally with the changes.
To lead the teams effectively, virtual measurement tools were put in place to monitor performance. These included adapting to e-learning formats as well as driving one-on-one coaching sessions via Microsoft Teams and the like.
Mediamark is a solutions provider. Our primary sales strategy is to ensure we sustainably support and add value to our clients in every interaction. The reality of our clients’ time pressures, financial challenges, childcare worries and so forth led to us implementing a bespoke engagement plan. This meant customising each client contact to best suit the different approaches needed in linear and non-linear formats.
Webinars, virtual hot-desks, one-on-one virtual sessions (formal and informal) as well as all forms of social media channels were engaged to connect with our clients. Strategies also included personalised deliveries to bring a little light and joy to our clients through virtual experiences such as chocolate tastings and fine dining.
Tailoring our touchpoints successfully helped drive proactive pitches and demonstrate our desire for partnership. Collaboration became critical, as did a streamlining of processes and communications to maximise efficiency and impact.
We demonstrated continued commitment to the acceleration of our digital transformation through key partnership with dY/dX to automate and re-engineer our workflows, and bring about an ‘agile’ work culture.
We found motivation is closely linked to confidence, which can be difficult to build in challenging situations that have no clear end point in sight. A lack of structure and routine is harmful to levels of motivation; we addressed this by working with individuals to develop their own unique blueprints to navigate daily work requirements more effectively.
The concept of value has always been the driving force behind Mediamark and its media brands. We have always been committed to being in tune with what our clients and audiences expect of us, and then striving to exceed those expectations with great value and great entertainment. Whenever there is increased pressure on resources (time, money, attention), value will play a significant role in any decision-making process.
Confident, knowledgeable sales experts are better able to collaborate with clients as effective partners who can add value to the client’s business beyond negotiating discounts, and this approach remains a focus area for Mediamark.
The three major lessons we learned:
- It is possible to find, engage and close new clients virtually.
- Move fast and break things. Innovation is a journey, a blend of human connections and technology to learn, adapt and iterate.
- Allow people the opportunity to surprise you – nobody could have predicted the impact of a situation in which so many people have proven themselves extremely resilient.
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