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Monday, March 30, 2009

The Lament of the Salespeople

If you work in media sales these days, you need to be something of an optimist. Long gone are the days when the business literally came to you without a great deal of effort. Recently, a few people have written to me regarding their frustration when calling on media buyers or planners. Given that easily more than half of the Media Realism readers are likely to be in sales, I thought it would be interesting to devote a post to the topic.

One fellow whom I know pretty well put it this way--"These days I have a hard time facing another 28 year old broadcast buyer or a 29 year old media planner." Clearly, my old pal has issues. But his complaint has some substance to it. The coin, however, definitely has two sides to it.

For the last two generations, the relationship between those in media sales and negotiators in media departments has been fairly cordial. Generally buyer and seller were able to come to an agreement that they both could live with. There were occasional incidences of buyers who became too close to sellers and situations where sellers did not meet the spirit of agreements. But, if both sides had even reasonable levels of good will, things were almost always worked out to some level of satisfaction.

Why am I getting such noise from the selling community these days? Well, think about it for a moment. We have mentioned in past posts how none of us mature types can ever recall a time when there was more nervousness out there. Everyone is afraid that they may lose their jobs--salespeople are given quotas in many instances that are absurd in today's climate. Agency media people are given more work as cutbacks are hitting virtually every shop. Everyone is starved for time and virtually no one is thinking long term.

What is going on? Here are a few suggestions.

We are not just in a downturn. The industry is going through a structural change that is PERMANENT. Salespeople may not like that people no longer do annual or quarterly deals. It is not the media staff's fault. Clients are holding back the funds until the last minute. They do not want long term deals as they worry about cash flow or are looking over their own shoulders. So, if someone calls far closer to air date than in the past, there is no malice. They were not given authority to proceed until the last minute. And, when we come out of this economic mess, the media mix will be different than it is today.

Many companies have not cut fat; they have cut bone as well. So, there are more situations where a young, low salaried person has been asked to step up in responsibility and job commitment when a more senior and better paid person has been "whacked." Many are eager but insecure about their new roles.

Some sales people refuse to shift gears. Here is a story I took part in a few weeks ago. Someone invited me to visit their agency. It was not a long trip from home and I knew a few of the players at the shop so I was glad to go and talk over the current environment. I was not trying to get a consulting gig; I was just there to say hi and have lunch.

In the middle of my visit, which was interrupted by constant breaks due to mini-crises, my host asked if I could sit in on a sales pitch from a media rep. I had not met with this organization in maybe two years, so I said certainly. My host had scheduled 20 minutes for him and his team and told me that he might have to duck out a bit early.

The rep came in, shook hands all around and announced that he would need at least an hour. There were audible groans around the conference room table. Ten minutes later, the rep was still on slide #2 of the power-point even after he was told sharply twice that his time was short. Twenty minutes later, only an unpaid intern and me, an unpaid guest, were still in the room and he kept talking. When he was done, I had a candid talk with him. He listened but countered that yes he had agreed to only 20 minutes but what he had to say was important and the agency team needed to hear it. He was not concerned about other demands on their time or how he fit into their clients needs. A world class jerk.

Here are some guidelines for sales people in 2009:

1) Be BRIEF! If someone has all the time in the world, something is wrong. The company is likely to have a big cutback soon as billing must be way off. If someone tells you that you have a limited time span, stick to it. All of us in the sales game like to talk, but these days being concise can pay unusually rich dividends.

2) Send something in advance that covers you company or service in depth. Some won't read it but many will and that means in a brief session you can get your main points across and answer any quesions that people have.

3) Be respectful and helpful to the under 30 crowd. Many are frightened but many also have significant talent. You can mentor them a bit because their manager may not have the time these days.

For agency media people, allow me to suggest the following:

1) The sales guy who seems high pressure is now often in the fight of his life. He may have a high mortgage or big college tuitions to pay. And, he has New York beating on his boss for more money when it is not to be had right now. So, you can see the pressure being put on him in many instances. Be human to him or her. You are not the only one under pressure.

2) Try to see people. Stay a bit late if you have to but make sure you see people on the outside every few days. Reps are an excellent source of information and the experienced ones who have lived through a few cycles are often quite wise. You can learn a lot by LISTENING. Don't have time or unwilling to make time? Maybe you should leave the business. It will only get harder and you do not have the right stuff to run the marathon of a advertising career if you refuse to work some nights and weekends.

3) Work to be a good will ambassador. You not only help your own career you make your shop look good. If you are seen as fair minded and accessible, your reputation will grow even in tough times.

One of my panel members, a sales pro, who is a friend but also someone whom I value and respect, wrote the following to me regarding this issue:

"I actually find the new blood exciting and even very necessary to the new digital age, as these are the ones who best understand the technologies we are all introducing. At the same time, the old guard still pines longingly for the days of mere spots and dots. Here's hoping that they retain their enthusiasm and optimism when we return to normalcy, creating leaders for tomorrow."

Isn't that a wonderful sentiment? If you are in sales make it yours and make some new friends. They can help you as we move into our brave new world of media.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may e-mail him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Dumbest Generation? A few others

Several people have e-mailed me regarding what I have been reading lately. Today, we begin a feature that I will update from time to time. It will be reviews of varying lengths of books that I have come across that might be germane to our readers interests.

Here are our first entries:

1) THE DUMBEST GENERATION by Mark Bauerlein (Penquin, 2008). This is written by a professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta. It is an angry book making many of the same claims that Allan Bloom made in 1987 in THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND. This book is far more passionate than "closing' and candidly more fun to read. Bloom himself wrote of it saying "an urgent and pragmatic book on the very dark topic of the virtual end of reading among the young."

There are some wonderul anecdotes in the book. Bauerlein states that college students today are "six times more likely to be able to name the last American Idol winner than Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House. Most don't know who their governor, US Senators or Congressman are." When he mentioned this at a symposium a student yelled out "American Idol is more important."

He also tells a very interesting personal story. Back in 1977, he returned from UCLA for the Christmas holidays to his home in Maryland. He caught up with his high school buddies and played lots of basketball. With lots of time on his hands he watched some TV. At that time there were four stations plus PBS in the Washington, DC area. PBS was screening classic films every afternoon and with a choice of soap operas or the Gong Show, he began viewing the films. Over a few weeks, he saw La Strada, Rules of the Game, and The 400 Blows among others. When he returned to LA, he always checked out what was playing at the local art houses, as they were then known. This hit me like a freight train. As a teenager my sister introduced me to PBS and sometimes a lofty film. In college my roommate and I, along with a couple of other friends, took over the campus film society and began doing more serious entries instead of recent commercial films. We eased into it with some Bogart films but then moved on to an Orson Welles retrospective and finally a Fellini festival. In many ways, it changed my life.

Bauerlein's point regarding TV was that " If I had 100+ screen options to choose from as they have today, watching PBS would never have happened". It is an intriguing idea. In the late 1940's, many commentators thought that TV was going to be the greatest educational tool ever. Ohers said the same thing about the Internet 50 years later, although for the first several years, it appears that only pornographers made any real money. So, have we in the media unknowingly hurt the education of the young?

He also makes the statement that nine of the top ten sites visited by students are for social networking. That seems a bit hard to believe but I have never seen the research to back it up. Professor Bauerlein also is pessimistic as he says he cannot find intellectual pockets out there where groups of students are faithful to academic rigor.

As mentioned in previous posts, I speak on a lot of campuses and will really ramp up my speaking in the weeks to come. I would say the quality of students that I see has actually improved in recent years. Some cynics tell me that is due to the weakening economy and people stay afterwards to try to get job interviews or references. I must say, however, that the questions asked are far more insightful than in the past.

And, here is the ultimate irony. What school's students have impressed me the most? Emory University, home of Mark Bauerlein.

I do not argue that too many people are in college these days. And, all of us need to read more. This was brought chillingly clear to me watching the 2008 elections. Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska was a great speaker, attractive, obviously intelligent, and vivacious. But, she had a frightening deficiency in core knowledge of basic facts that all citizens should know let alone a vice presidential candidate. After the election, conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer, who obviously liked her, said she "needs to go back to Alaska and read for several years." Retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor has started a Web site called Ourcourts.org to teach children some basis civics that they obviously are not getting at home or at school.

But Professor Bauerlein ought to follow me around into a few classes. Maybe he would see that the upcoming generation has some real stars in the making!

2) THE BIG RICH (The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes) by Bryan Burrough (Penquin, 2009)

I picked up this book for light reading but was immediately hooked. It had many themes--the "shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves" odyssey that hit many oil patch families over three generations, the funding that the political right received from Texas Oil at crucial times, and how the survivors learned to diversify to survive and prosper.

Let me end with a simple personal note. In 1997, I moved to Dallas, Texas. At noon one day, I had a media lunch scheduled at a posh watering hole. At the next table, a couple of old impeccably dressed fellows were on their second bottle of Chivas Regal which sat open at the table. In walked a big stereotype--big smile, big belly, tan suit, business Stetson and bolo tie. He joined my neighbors and they talked for a couple of hours as I tried to do a bit of business. The big fellow left first and a limo (thankfully) was picking up the two well lubricated lunch buddies. While waiting for the valet to bring my Subaru up, one fellow said to the other. "Our Fort Worth friend has done well. He has three units." The other nodded in agreement. Months later I discovered that a unit was Texas talk for a hundred million dollars.

3) HOT, FLAT, and CROWDED By Thomas Friedman (Farrah, Strauss, and Giroux, 2008)

I love reading everything Friedman writes from his New York Times columns to THE LEXUS AND THE OLIVE TREE, LONGITUDES AND LATITUDES and THE WORLD IS FLAT. This book had the same energy and fire of the previous three but struck me as unrealistic. He spent most of the book discussing the need for renewable energy sources with a tone of just do it. I was surprised at how naive he seemed. It takes a lot of steel that we do not have to build 350,000 windmills or millions of new solar panels. And the cost of harnessing renewables will likely rise and sharply. Also, some significant energy needs to be used to get us to energy self-suffiency. Nevertheless, he is always worth reading. Separately, he is a passionate free trade advocate which is interesting to see given his other beliefs. I became a free trader at age 20 after reading Bastiat.

4) TAKE THIS JOB AND SHIP IT By Senator Byron L. Dorgan (Thomas Dunne, 2006)

The North Dakota Democrat never impresses me when I see him on CNBC or C-Span. I read the book only to test my free trade position. He surprised me with an emotional appeal discussing America before globalization and how small town America thrived prior to NAFTA. I have newfound respect for him as he cares about everyday Americans but I firmly believe that free trade opens far more doors than it closes.

5) TWILIGHT IN THE DESERT By Matthew R. Simmons (Wiley, 2005)

The author is a Houston based investment banker who specializes in oil related activity. This is an alarmist but brilliantly researched book. His main point is that the easy oil has been taken out of Saudi Arabia and right now they are maintaining heavy production only by injecting vast quantities of water into the wells to get sufficient yield. By 2013, he states they cannot keep the game going and we need to develop alternative sources NOW. The book is intensely difficult to read and a bit labored at times but his point is very well made. Even today with oil at roughly 1/3 of its high a year ago, he stubbornly maintains that, when the global economy snaps back, we will have the mother of all oil crunches.

For a contary opinion, try THE BOTTOMLESS WELL By Peter Huber and Mark Mills (Basic Books, 2005)

The thesis here is that "technology will trump geology" and we will continue to have all the oil we need as recovery of existing discoveries will only get better.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you can reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Case for Streaming Video

In California, a trim ebullient 66 year old attorney spends an hour each day in his office watching Twilight Zone episodes from the early 1960's on Hulu.com (I wonder to whom he is billing that hour!). Three thousand miles away, in the mid-Atlantic, an erudite and lovely lady of a certain age never misses The Daily Show on Hulu.com or Grey's Anatomy on ABC.com. Her husband, a 59 year old crusty curmudgeon, is a private investor struggling through a winter of discontent. The old grouch rarely turns on his TV but he watches 30 Rock on his laptop thanks to Hulu.com and monitors his sinking finances via CNBC.com daily. What on earth is going on? Streaming video has changed their habits forever.

What is streaming video? Simply put, it is video that is watched in the digital space. It may be the latest episode of a mainstream TV series, a home made film on You Tube, a news or sport clip from CNN or ESPN, or a vintage movie that you watch for free on an illegal site based in China. Or, it could be Video on Demand that you pay for via your Comcast or Time Warner subscription. As it catches on, it will change our way of using media in general and in launching and supporting brands.

Almost exactly a year ago today, NBC Universal and News Corp. (Fox) announced an unusual joint venture with a strange Chinese name. They dubbed their new service Hulu.com and it grew steadily from day one. Hulu featured hundreds of episodes of old TV shows from decades ago as well recent episodes and clips from current shows on NBC, Fox, and a number of cable channels. They also had a motley mix of feature films. The service was free to consumers but ad supported. Viewers only saw roughly 1/4 of the advertising that a live viewer on TV would see. The model seemed just about right--viewers would put up with a bit of advertising when the service was free. Advertisers like it as you cannot zip or zap commercials as you can with a remote in your hand or a DVR. And, you watch what you want exactly when you want. Hulu distributes content to its own site but also syndicates it to many others. They have received a lot more attention in recent weeks after launching an ad campaign in Super Bowl XLIII featuring Alec Baldwin.

Time magazine, in its year end issue, rated Hulu.com the 4th best website of 2008. The editors sent shudders to the big MSO's when they said "when cable eventually dies, websites like Hulu will be responsible". They go on to describe the service as a corporate knockoff of YouTube that "has untethered TV from that box in your living room".

Why on earth would NBC Universal and Fox create Hulu.com? Doesn't it merely hasten the decline of their networks? Yes, to a certain degree it does. To me, both companies are being realistic. People are abandoning broadcast and now cable to watch video online. So, by creating Hulu, they have created an advertising supported service that still reaches many viewers to their key programs. And it catches some light viewers, and very importantly, some exceptionally light viewers. Today, Hulu.com outdelivers ABC.com and other leading players in the field. As of August, they sell local availabilities across any DMA in the U.S. They are pricey locally just as the CPM is higher for spot TV vs. network. However, you must see the commercials to get to content so real world delivery of the message may be nearly as efficient as TV. CBS has announced that it will soon release a Hulu clone with some of their programming. If you haven't tried Hulu, do so soon. It does not save as much time as a DVR does but it is close and is a very good experience.

But streaming video expands far beyond Hulu. This morning I was dying to see highlights of the epic Syracuse-UConn basketball game that went to six overtimes. I scrambled to ESPN.com and patiently watched a 15 second commercial prior to seeing the clip. Magazines, even highbrow books, offer it on their sites and when buying ad networks, bring the topic up with your sales rep. You will be surprised where your spot will be shown. And, the odds are good that you will introduce a substantial number of blue chip viewers who have either been underexposed to your commercial via broadcast/cable or not seen it at all. In an era when reach & frequency projections are suspect, authentic fresh reach, although small at present, is highly desirable.

Finally, some research, admittedly fragmentary, makes a case for making streaming video a part of your marketing mix. When advertisers have used streaming video and TV, they find that key brand metrics and message communication work just as well via streaming video as with conventional methods of delivery. And, again, streaming has the added plus of finding some of those hard to reach light TV viewers like many of us in the business.

Is video the future of digital advertising? I would say that it has to be. For years, critics blasted television content. It was considered "a vast wasteland." Yet viewing levels continued to inch up year after year. David Moore, CEO of 24/7 Real Media put it well last year when describing streaming video--"No other advertising vehicle combines the sight, sound and motion of television ads with the interactivity, targeting, and measurability of the Internet."

Face it! Americans, particularly younger Americans do not read enough. But they watch video anywhere, including their cell phone. Recent studies have shown that teenagers now go to YouTube in many cases before Wikipedia when they are researching a topic. The thought process is that maybe a video in some form is available on the subject.

Last month, America celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. Libraries highlighted dozens of Lincoln biographies on their shelves. C-Span and the History Channel gave him great coverage and commentators quoted him at length. Well, I dug up a quotation from Honest Abe that could be an exellent fit with today's situation regarding streaming video. Lincoln said "the best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time."

So, take a tip from our 16th president. You do not have to plunge into streaming video tomorrow. But, start to get ready. Maybe test several low cost venues later this year and certainly next. Once consumers of all ages get into it, there will be no turning back. Get to know this powerful new media force well before it becomes mainstream.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you can reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

Monday, March 9, 2009

Regional Sports Channels--Time for Another Look

Regional sports channels have been around for a long time. But they are perhaps the most misunderstood medium of them all. Much of the problem is they are neither fish nor fowl--not a national network such as ESPN and not spot TV either. This causes them some real problems in selling their products and also, to a certain degree, in evaluating their effectiveness.

What is a regional sports channel (RSN)? It is a cable channel that generally devotes 100% of its airtime to cover sports programming. Unlike ESPN, which is an amazing success story, regional channels, by definition, are not national in scope. They deliver as little as a single Nielsen DMA to a dozen or more simultaneously. The focus is on local teams both professional and college. There are also some excellent syndicators such as Raycom which air basketball and football such as the ACC Conference on broadcast TV in a number of markets and have splendid production values. Cable giant Comcast is entering the fray in many parts of the country and, if they stick with it, should have some success down the road.

The largest player is Fox Sports which has 10 owned and operated regional networks crisscrossing the U.S. plus partial interest in others and serves as a sales organization for 35 entities. They at one time probably thought they could compete head on with ESPN by delivering large numbers in home markets across the US. String the local numbers together and you should get far more than ESPN could with a national game. Somehow it did not work out that way in terms of dollar sales. ESPN is one of the greatest success stories in TV history. They have branded themselves better than almost any other product or service in the world. Their Sportscenter program is Appointment Viewing for many young men and has turned people across the country away from late news on their local affiliate. When college football appears on ABC, it tellingly is billed as ESPN on ABC. No one would have forecast that years ago.

So while Fox and other RSN's often deliver surprising numbers in the 2009 media world, they do not get the respect or outrageous premiums that ESPN does both nationally and in local cable. Young people tell me they watch a game on Fox but afterwards switch to ESPN to see the highlights rather the Fox post game show. I guess the spirit of Rodney Dangerfield still lives on as Fox gets no respect. Certainly, they and others in the RSN space do not get what they deserve from the advertiser community.

Another problem for the RSN's is finding out who the decisionmaker is regarding their use. Is it the client? Agencies hate it when they are bypassed by salespeople. Is it the spot buying director? The planning supervisor? The media director? You have as many answers as you have agencies so this hybrid medium which is a tough sell to begin with has logistical problems that other media types do not have to hurdle.

Salespeople in the regional arena have always been problematic to me. I have never seen such wild extremes in quality. Two of the best salespeople that I have ever encountered across all media types were RSN reps. One was from the midwest; the other the Carolinas. But very often the new rep assigned to an agency seems to have had 48 hours of training and is turned loose on the ad world. They are particularly ineffective if they cannot shed the mindset of spot TV salespeople which many of them were prior to joining the RSN. They are very presumptious and feel they deserve a share of a local market buy. Talk to them of "crossover points" (where regionals become a better value than buying the covered spot markets) and you get a deer in the headlights response.

But RSN's have a great deal to offer. Here is a brief list that an energetic salesperson should get across in a 20 minute meeting. In no specific order, we find:

1) They are a network and by definition networks save advertisers money over spot.
2) It is a wholesome environment which is increasingly rare in TV. (A few hockey games may negate this!)
3) The pods are shorter. In a world of men grazing across the satellite and cable universes during breaks, this is important.
4) As DVR penetration grows, sports are probably going to be a affected a lot less than primetime series. (In our January 6th post, "The Elephant in all Our Offices", we discuss how even sports is losing a bit due to DVR growth)
5) The teams featured are local or regional at worst. This goes a long way in instilling viewer interest and loyalty.
6) One of the last bastions of "Appointment TV" which has largely disappeared from broadcast TV.
7) Regional networks generally produce their programming which gives them great flexibility.

Flexibility requires a bit of explanation. RSN's often produce their own games and can create client oriented exposure with customized and fun features that the networks and ESPN cannot or will not do. The good ones will get out in the community for you with player appearances at retail locations and build consumer interest. Solid promotions, on-air contests and access to the teams are much more than their competitors can do. Long term with TV slowly sinking, this might be their best avenue of growth and financial survival.

They also listen to clients because they have to. Regionals are a very tough sell and often the advertiser is as involved as the agency in putting a deal together. Saavy clients need to ask for something that is unique to them. They usually can get it.

Finally, let's face it. When broadcast catches a cold, these guys at RSN's probably have walking pneumonia (basketball excepted early this month). So, they are very much in a "Let's Make a Deal" mode. There may not be a better time in the last 20 years than now to take the plunge with RSN's. Values are excellent and they are very hungry and that should spawn imaginative packaging.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you can reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com