In-Depth: Time Inc. COO of Sales Mark Ellis On New Selling Structure & Strategy
Time Inc. turned heads in August when it announced it would be nixing the “publisher” title in favor of brand group directors. The change in nomenclature was an effort to move the company further from the print-centric reputation of yore and market itself as a digital-first company.
Yet more significant than the publisher title switch, is the massive shift Time Inc. has undergone in its entire advertising sales structure. The new setup will be based around category, brand, and digital sales. Most noteworthy being the new category sales, which enable Time to serve big-name advertisers that want a one-stop-shop for reaching massive consumer bases around “Food & Beverage” or “Beauty.”
It's a large-scale change for a large-scale publisher, but any publisher with multiple brands should take note. At its core, the strategic move reflects the changing spending behavior of marketers that care more about audience data and outcomes than publishers’ individual brands.
“Really what we are doing is just changing the way we sell based on the fact that the customers are changing the way that they are buying,” says Mark Ellis, president and COO of Time Inc. sales and marketing.
Time Inc. is certainly not the first to adopt this approach, but it solidifies how important it is for multi-brand media organization to know their audiences across brands and platforms and be able to serve them to marketers regardless of individual brand engagement.
There’s also no doubt the move is an effort to keep pace with the likes of Google and Facebook by better leveraging Time Inc.’s total audience. It “widens and deepens” the conversations Time Inc. can have with large advertisers, says Ellis. And the move ties nicely with the publisher’s acquisition of Viant this year, a play that ratchets up the scale of Time Inc.’s first-party data and targeting capabilities.
Ellis acknowledges the shift in structure calls for updated sales techniques. For instance, salespeople will need to be able to handle the complexities of large-scale content and data-driven programs and assess clients’ business needs, while the organization will have to provide support from video, social, or data specialists.
The new structure preserves the opportunity for “endemic/brand advertisers” that want to engage directly with specific audiences (fittingly named “brand sales.”) Meanwhile the “digital sales” team will focus on growing digital revenue with digital-only, non-Time Inc. advertisers and provide digital experts to support category and brand sales.
In this in-depth interview, Time Inc.’s Mark Ellis discusses what compelled Time Inc. to make the change, how the new strategy will affect sales tactics, and what aptitude is called for in the new sales environment.
This is a large-scale change for a big organization. Can you offer some background on why this kind of change was necessary?
So I worked at Time Inc. back in the 90's for about 8 or 9 years. Then I was gone for a long time -- I was at AOL, Yahoo, doing mostly digital sales roles. I came back here about 10 years ago and part of the reason was to help Mark Ford [EVP, CRO Global Advertising at Time Inc.] drive Time Inc. more digitally and make it a more centralized organization. We had been operating 26 different small companies.
[Today] our customers are buying much differently from the way it was back in the 90's: it has been a move toward bigger deals with fewer partners, data-driven solutions, wanting sales organizations to really understand their businesses, turnkey solutions, cross-platform stuff. All of which is really difficult when you have 26 different teams walk in the door, not to mention the bandwidth challenges with customers.
In the course of probably the last year and a half, we’ve talked to customers, we’ve looked at the competition, we’ve looked at internal structures, looked at lots of different options. We sold in our management team and sold in our board that this was the right approach.
Can you explain how the category sales structure works?
We really launched it at the beginning of this year with three categories and the three categories we started with were telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, and autos.
We essentially created teams of industry experts. We took a lot of our internal people that worked out of those businesses and hired a handful of outside people as well to really call exclusively on accounts in those categories. And we told the rest of the 26 brands that had been calling on them to stand down.
Why did you eliminate the publisher title and replace it with brand group director?
We have these 26 brands. We just consolidated them to put like brands together. We thought it was a good idea to eliminate the publisher name. Much of the functions still exist but really the name was pretty outdated. If you look it up in the dictionary it really is a print-centric name. If you look up “publisher,” it’s a person or a company whose primary business is publishing books, periodicals, and things like that. Fundamentally, the publisher role became a head of sales role over time, because we had centralized things like consumer marketing, some of the PR functions, and things like that.
Why hold on to the brand sales component if you are selling across categories effectively?
There are some companies that want to do business with one or two brands because they’re so endemic to their businesses. You know an example would be a home products company that would be so endemic for Real Simple and a perfect advertising vehicle. We still want to have Real Simple people calling on those types of accounts.
Pretty much the larger accounts are accounts that run across multiple brands, tend to buy audiences more, and tend to benefit from a consolidated approach.
What does a consolidated sales approach mean in practice?
You walk into a company armed with a good understanding of how they operate and what their challenges are. You have a team that can go wider and deeper inside one of those accounts. That way we don't have 26 people calling on the same large consumer goods account. It’s really a dedicated team calling on a large consumer products account that can really focus on that piece of business -- bring a bigger program, an audience program, a multi-brand program across print and digital, and really solve a big problem.
With this consolidated approach, how does the sales role evolve and how are you supporting greater sales complexities?
I think that the role of media sales has evolved generally speaking from being a full on EQ role (where you just have to know how to develop relationships and find buckets of money) to being a combination of EQ and IQ. The programs that we’re building have to be creative, but they also have to show ROI. They all have targeting now and back-end metrics and things like that.
Generally speaking the sellers have to be thinking bigger, they have to have packaging sensibilities, but you cannot expect them to also know you know 30 different brands on every single platform. We have to surround them with experts so that when they have a data conversation that needs to go much deeper they pull in a data expert. We bought a company a year ago called inVNT, which gives us event marketing capabilities. We bought a company called Viant at the beginning of this year that gives us deep data capability and people-based marketing capabilities. So we have got all these assets now, we founded the Foundry which is our content creation operation in Brooklyn, where we’ve taken a lot of our content creators, programmers, technologists, and put them together and they create all of our native content. They have launched new brands out of there. So we have all these capabilities and you want a seller who knows enough about all of them to get a conversation started but then you also need to supplement with the specialists.
So the digital sales group will work in tandem with the category and brand sales leads?
Yes, we have to continue the digital transformation of our company. We felt it was important to have a standalone digital team. They deploy digital experts into our category and alongside of our brands. They also go after business from digital non-spenders. These are accounts that fit into our category teams that are under-leveraged digitally, so they help there. Then there are accounts that we deal with that are digital only. And then they also go after non-Time Inc. spenders, which are a whole bunch of prospects that are spending with our competitors, and aren't spending with us digitally.
To what degree is the category approach a response the conversations competition like Google and Facebook are having with advertisers?
Obviously they influence a ton of spend. Google and Facebook both go to market with industry teams or category teams. Yahoo is set up that way to a large extent. AOL is set up that way. I don’t think we are copying them, but certainly we are watching what they are doing and our customers are telling us daily, “We need you to know our businesses is better. We need to have one-stop shopping and access to all of your stuff through one conversation.” You can organize in a lot of different ways. In my estimation, this seems to be the smartest way for a media/publisher that has a lot of brands to organize.
What do you expect the results of this change to be and how are you measuring success?
Overall revenue growth is going to be our KPI. Digital revenue growth or digital as a percentage for overall business will be a KPI. We have got softer KPI's, like getting wider and deeper inside of organizations and talking to different types of people. I kind of describe it as having lots of PT boats riding around the ocean and trying to take down an aircraft carrier. It just can’t happen. You got to band together and be a larger organization. Getting wider and deeper inside of a company instead of just going to the logical people that buy media would be another metric. Number of deals in a pipeline would be another metric. New revenue streams. Breaking business with advertisers we haven't done business with in the past. So we’ve got a lot of different metrics of success we’re looking at.
Are there challenges associated with the new sales approach?
To be fair yes. There is a percentage of our organization that has already operated this way. Already having bigger conversation selling cross-platforms, just because they were responding to how their customers were buying. There’s a percentage of the organization that you know needs to be trained up and is very capable of being trained up to sell in a new way. And there’s probably a percentage of any organization that is not capable of learning or adopting the new way of selling.
How are you helping folks adapt to the new sales environment?
Our entire organization is IAB certified, so starting last year we put everybody through the IAB digital training course. Everybody studied and passed the test. We do a ton of internal training here, sometimes using internal peoples and sometimes using external people to keep people current on video, for instance. How to tell one Time Inc. story, which is new to a lot of people because they have been telling a brand story. Social and native, there is ongoing training there. There is product training. We’ve done digital training. We have done big idea selling training. We do a really good job on keeping our sales teams trained and current and relevant.
When you hire are you looking at different skillset than you used to?
Yes, no question. We are looking for digital natives in a lot of cases. And like I said earlier we are looking for people who have EQ and IQ because what our customers are telling us, what every CMO in the world needs to do, is drive acquisitions as cheaply as they can -- whether they’re selling cell phones or cars or perfume. They also need to build a brand and create a brand loyalty and things like that. They have to play on both sides of the barbell and we want sellers that can operate on both sides. They can do high-impact content programs that drive brand loyalty and give brand lift. They also need to be able to construct patterns that show ROI and do retargeting on the back end.
I really think with our Viant acquisition we are one of the few companies that can play both sides of the barbell. Both in creating content because we are a company of content creators, and we’ve always operated on the high-impact content side of the business. Now we are increasingly through our programmatic stack and through Viant, able to compete and to put together end-to-end programs. We can sell a red carpet sponsorship and take it all the way down to retargeting people across devices and showing ROI on the back end.
With an audience category-based sales approach, do the brands and the magazines still have equity?
I think the health of the brand to a large extent lives with the editors and the marketing people at the brand. As long as we’re putting out a great product, and creating great marketing solutions, I think that’s what shows vitality. I don't think it’s necessarily a salesperson out there telling a story -- that helps for sure, but I think that we depend heavily on our editors who are now working close with our advertising partners, and our marketing teams that are creating really great home ideas, fashion ideas, sports ideas, that we take out to our customers. If not for 45-plus really strong brands you know we don't really have anything to sell. The reason we get in the door, and the reason we're able to deal with big audience programs, is because people trust our brand.
Denis Wilson was previously content director for Target Marketing, Publishing Executive, and Book Business, as well as the FUSE Media and BRAND United summits. In this role, he analyzed and reported on the fundamental changes affecting the media and marketing industries and aimed to serve content-driven businesses with practical and strategic insight. As a writer, Denis’ work has been published by Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Fortune, and The New York Times.