Marketing

New Technologies Send Sales Execs Back to School

5/04/2007 8:00 PM Eastern

New digital-television technologies like video on demand and enhanced TV are fast becoming a big part of Comcast Spotlight’s local-advertising sales pitches. But the ad unit’s account executives can’t start selling the promising new options until they complete some behind-the-scenes class work.

Before hitting the street to sell clients on targeted addressable advertising and other interactive TV options, account executives within Spotlight and elsewhere have to study a detailed training guide, score 90% or better on a 30-question certification test and adroitly describe interactive advertising offerings in a 15-minute mock sales presentation to managers.

“We’ve taken our training to a whole new level with our certification program,” said Mark Runge, vice president of sales for emerging media at Comcast’s Atlanta-based Southeast Division and project leader of the companywide certification effort.

Spotlight is cable’s largest local-advertising sales organization, but it’s not alone in the effort to familiarize sales staffs with a host of new advertising options. As VOD, interactive-TV and “addressable” advertising technologies begin to take hold, thousands of local sales professionals are heading back to the classroom to learn about how the applications work, how to describe them to local advertisers, and how they can be integrated into local advertising campaigns.

BIG DEPARTURE

For an industry that has long revolved around selling linear TV advertising availabilities sandwiched into cable network program schedules, the new technologies represent a big departure from tradition.

“Our motto is: It’s not linear anymore,” said David Kline, president and chief operating officer of Rainbow Advertising Sales Corp., which oversees local advertising sales for corporate parent Cablevision Systems and its New York-area advertising operations.

In February, Cablevision began a months-long training effort designed to familiarize all of its local account executives with new ad platforms including category-specific VOD channels and Cablevision’s broadband Internet portal.

Kline said as those technologies become more prominent, it’s important to have Cablevision’s sales staff able to represent the new platforms to advertisers. “If you think of yourself just as a linear salesperson, you’re not going to make it here at Cablevision Systems,” he said. “You’ve got to be an expert in all facets of linear and interactivity.”

The large-scale training efforts suggest that the cable industry is moving beyond its earlier attempts surrounding interactive advertising. In many early deployments, only a handful of specialists were dedicated to selling the new platforms. But now, Cablevision, Spotlight and others believe they can make deeper inroads with interactive advertising by having most or all of their salespeople conversant in the mediums.

Spotlight’s Runge joked that VOD really stands for “value of distribution,” or the ability to leverage the client connections of the more than 300 sales representatives who work across his division. “The reality is, we have an army of AEs and managers that already have existing relationships with clients and agencies. So what better way to cross-pollinate new opportunities [than through] our existing sales force,” he said.

Cable operators haven’t done away with subject-matter experts entirely. Spotlight and Cablevision, for example, continue to employ specialists who have intimate knowledge of new advertising mediums. As does Charter Media West, the Los Angeles-area unit of Charter Communications that has deployed one of the broadest interactive local advertising options in the U.S. Among Charter Media’s offerings are so-called “telescoping” options that use interactive triggers within traditional 30-second commercials to allow viewers to invoke longer-form, on-demand advertisements. Charter Media West also offers a viewer-polling option tied to commercials that air within its network avails.

PROPER BALANCE

Derek Hanson, Charter MediaWest vice president, said he is trying to strike a balance between leveraging the feet-on-the-street resources of his sales staff with the need to develop a detailed comprehension of how new advertising technologies can be deployed for local clients. He said even the job of selling linear advertising time within cable channels can be taxing, given the volume of networks account executives represent.

“Clearly, we have a very vibrant product: the 40-some networks our account executives are responsible for. So what we have done is develop a team that specializes in [interactive] products. We have a general manager of advanced media here, and his sole job is to be that subject-matter expert,” Hanson said.

But the sheer number of clients cable advertising companies deal with can quickly overwhelm a single specialist or a handful of experts.

A smart compromise, Runge said, is to have experts who can advise and assist rank-and-file sales executives with interactive-media presentations and pitches, but not to attempt to do all of the selling themselves.

Runge has gone so far as to document “rules of engagement” that set boundaries around the contributions of his emerging media specialists vs. sales reps that visit with clients directly. “That way the emerging media manager isn’t nickeled and dimed,” he said.

Charter Media West also is trying to come up with the right work balance by training additional subject-matter experts who then are charged with helping account executives introduce the new advertising technologies.

“Our AEs are able to sell and utilize this product, but they’ve now got a team of people who are able to help them through this, and to help their advertisers through this,” said Hanson.

Where to draw the line in terms of training detail is another matter. Spotlight has tried to pare back to a big-picture view describing the value proposition and basic functionality of technologies like video on demand, plus Comcast’s “AdTag” and “AdCopy” options that let advertisers customize the creative content of their TV spots by geography.

“We’ve learned you can inundate with too much information,” Runge said. Instead, the overarching goal is to help sales staffs understand the value premise of new platforms, explain them to clients, answer frequently asked questions and respond to common objections.

Comcast uses a combination of individual study programs plus group meetings in which specialists describe new-media options and invite sales reps to role-play by staging mock pitches. But Runge said the most effective learning comes when sales executives make actual presentations to clients and then commonly follow up with Comcast’s emerging media specialists for help with particular questions. After a few presentations, according to Runge, the reps’ reliance on the specialists usually diminishes.

Even so, a need for ongoing technology-training seems likely to increase as local cable ad organizations further expand their interactive options to include new flavors of on-demand advertising, such as the ability to dynamically insert commercials into requested program streams, and more refined ways to present particular ads to particular types of households. Both are areas in which there’s considerable investment and research occurring.

Some training help may be forthcoming from an unlikely source: cable programmers that also are making forays into new media. A&E Television Networks, for instance, has trained its affiliate-sales representatives to help cable ad professionals understand how to integrate advertising into on-demand versions of shows such as Dog the Bounty Hunter and others, AETN senior vice president of affiliate sales and marketing David Zagin said.

The programmer used to have a separate ad-sales support team focused mainly on helping affiliates sell linear ad time. Zagin retooled AETN’s affiliate ad sales operations several years ago after realizing new program-delivery models would impact local advertising operations, as well as broader cable operations at large.

“The business was changing,” he said. “It was no longer a linear business model. And it required us to be smarter.”

As if understanding ad-supported VOD, interactive advertising and Web portals wasn’t enough, some cable sales executives are beginning to learn an entirely new side of the business: the provision of commercial communications services to area businesses.

Cable operator Suddenlink Communications, which serves about 1.7 million households, has recently held training sessions for its account executives alongside sales representatives who sell telephone and Internet services to area businesses. The thinking: The two arms of the company often deal with the same customers, and should know something about each other’s craft.

“We’ve had a couple of cases where we had a very successful ad sales rep who has been in the market for five-plus years, and a business services rep who’s been in place for two years, and they’ve never ever met each other,” said senior vice president Kevin Stephens. “So we have forced them to get to know each other, to talk about their accounts and opportunities, and in many cases we’ve had them make joint calls, and build products and packages that make sense. We believe we can leverage to the synergy.”

Comcast’s Runge, who joined the company last summer after working in the Internet industry, realized quickly that if his sales reps were well-trained, they could quickly begin to spread the word about new advertising technologies that Comcast hopes will generate incremental revenue.

“If we do a good job of training to carry that torch, I’m going to get there faster,” Runge said.

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