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A Changing Publishing Environment Requires New Thinking

James G. Elliott Co., Inc.

Every publisher is experiencing new challenges.   Some are investigating and adopting new solutions, while others are trapped by legacy structures and hidden biases that prevent them from considering the full range of options available to them.
After more than 30 years running an advertising sales company, I often wonder why many publishing operations maintain their own sales force.  The media embrace independents.  Heck, agencies themselves are independent!  Maintaining a direct sales force can be a distraction that doesn’t make economic sense or contribute to the primary mission of today’s publishing brand: creating content for multiple platforms. 
Often, new thinking about this question is hindered by one or more of the following issues:

  • Lack of awareness— many publishers do not really believe that there are any serious alternatives to running their own sales operation with headcount for direct sales staff and managers.   These publishers may have experimented unsuccessfully with independent reps in the past. They may believe that independent representation requires coordinating the efforts of a hard-to-manage group of local or regional independent representatives.  Those publishers are surprised to learn that alternatives exist with strategic as well as tactical capabilities.  Our firm, for example, manages salespeople in offices located in the major advertising centers, as well as marketing services and research.  Our staff is very similar in composition to a large publishing operation.
  • History—“it’s always been done that way.” Yes, there was a time when salespeople entertained lavishly and often at fine restaurants and clubs, on corporate boats and even jets.  When the buyers were more like Don Draper, golf or tennis with clients was an every week, if not every day, habit.  It’s different now, when buyers are so harried that a salesperson is lucky to get them on the phone.  Back then, the skill set of a big-time magazine salesperson leaned toward entertaining; today, knowledge and ability to work fast are much more important. 
  • Quality concerns—publishers who have been in the business for a long time may feel that direct salespeople are of higher quality than independents. This idea has roots in the days when most of the best jobs were at big publishing houses with big salaries and bigger expense accounts, so they may have hired the best people.  But now those expense accounts have been whacked back and the corporate fleet is in mothballs.  Quality is measured differently now.
  • Image—some publishers fear that buyers may think less of them if their representative is independent instead of employed directly.  Doesn’t that depend on which independent and which direct? Media buyers certainly don’t care who employs the reps calling on them, so long as they get quick and complete help when they need something.  After all, broadcast and radio are sold largely by independent reps. And, media buyers themselves work for independent companies hired to represent advertisers! The publishing industry alone is slow to embrace the benefits of outsourcing.
  • Control—there is a common misperception that direct employees are easier to control than employees of an independent sales company. Not necessarily, because standards can be built into the representation relationship.  Outsourcing to a sales firm that manages salespeople in an office environment can actually increase control compared to a single direct employee in a distant field office or home office. Publishers have long outsourced many functions; most national publishers outsource both printing and subscription delivery.  Why not sales? 
  • Personal history—many publishers who came up through sales remember when the heart of the operation was the sales force, “our people.”  Sales drove the boat; remember the jokes about editorial being “the stuff that goes between the ads”?  Now that content is being recognized even more as the reason publishing brands exist, and there is a proliferation of platforms for this content and new ways of buying (including programmatic), it could be time to change.  Generating revenue is still crucial, but the old reasons for keeping sales in-house no longer hold. 

Publishing is vastly different than it was 30 years ago. Outsourcing the entire sales operation to a national firm—once a heretical thought—is being investigated and embraced by a growing number of publishers.  It is an option worthy of consideration.

The James G. Elliott Co., Inc., founded in 1984,  provides full-service national ad sales operations to print and digital publishers.  Mr. Elliott is a frequent speaker on advertising topics, and will be a panelist at the upcoming Folio: Show on October 21. He is also a Charter Advisory Board Member of the Magazine Innovation Center at The University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism and New Media. Jim can be reached at

James G. Elliott Co., Inc.

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