Something Very Real at the IAB.

Something pretty terrific happened yesterday at the IAB’s Annual Leadership Meeting.  Leadership.

There are two moments in particular that I feel are worth calling out; one that I expected and one that I did not.  I fully anticipated IAB CEO Randall Rothenberg’s masterful illumination of the direct brand economy in which unencumbered upstarts like Dollar Shave Club, Glossier and Warby Parker soar at the expense of Gillette, L’Oréal and Lens Crafters.  Along the way he got very specific about the continued growth of these players, how they’ll reshape the businesses of the major corporations that compete with or perhaps acquire them, and how data becomes the new capital of the 21st Century.  R2 closed by committing the IAB toward adapting to and embracing the Direct-to-Consumer ethos.  That was big.

What was less expected was what happened next.  A 150-year-old multi-national marketer took the stage and gave what I considered one of the most important speeches in the history of the advertising business.  First, some background.

Last year at the same conference, Procter & Gamble’s Marc Pritchard famously called out the tainted supply chain that the digital ad business had built over the past decade, a set of institutions and practices that had promulgated fraud, waste, lack of accountability, shady content adjacencies and more. And then he pulled all his company’s money until very specific steps were taken.  Pritchard lit a fuse that sent shock waves of immediate change throughout the business.

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This year Unilever’s Keith Weed did him one better.  In a well-crafted, visually-arresting presentation, Weed raised the stakes and the temperature.  While our “sleepwalking through the swamp of the digital supply chain” may have once (like in 2017) been seen as an advertising problem, it is now a full-blown social issue.  “Now it’s about how it’s impacting society.”  As the events of the last year have shown, the digital advertising machine has become a dependable financial bulwark for internet trolls, hate speech, misogyny and political destruction.  And Weed’s unambiguous message was that since marketers’ money had fed the beast, only the future use of that money could kill it.

He went on to say that that marketers will be defined and rewarded based on whether they end up on the right side of history on several closely-linked issues.  Yes, the kind of content a brand sponsors and enables is a critical responsibility.  But so is the battling of gender stereotypes in advertising and packaging; so is the protection of children; so is indirect stewardship of the environment; so is the economic treatment of growers and farmers and others in the physical supply chain.  The marketing dollar can either support good or evil in the world, and Weed has committed that Unilever’s dollars will stand for good.

Over a decade ago, Unilever acquired Ben & Jerry’s, one of the original direct-to-consumer, socially-conscious brands.  Up near my home in Vermont there was a righteous fear that Unilever would change Ben & Jerry’s.  Maybe just the opposite has happened.

Marketing Trigger Words.

In workshops and coaching with sellers, I see a recurring language pattern that’s shutting down the client conversation before it even truly gets under way.  With all the best intentions, sales reps toss off careless simplifications of their client’s business and marketing needs.  In uttering or typing these Marketing Trigger Words, the seller ends up with no idea of the damage they have caused.  They know only that the sales call and the relationship have gone sideways, but they don’t know why.

There are several Trigger Words – and Phrases – but there are a couple of threads that tie them together:  predictability and lack of specificity.  In terms of the predictable, it’s almost as if we’ve passed around a book called “Stuff Reps Say”…. Lazy casual phrases that are tossed into emails and conversations with no real research or understanding.  And even when the seller does have a clue about what their client might need, they talk about it so generally that it ends up falling flat with the customer. A few examples:

Could you and your sales team stand a little disruption?  Want to take some new looks at seemingly-intractable sales problems?  If you’re a qualified media sales leader, request your invitation to Seller Forum on Wednesday March 7th in New York.  Better yet, sign up for a season’s pass and secure 1 or 2 seats at each of our 2018 Forums.  Go to TheSellerForum.com for more information.

“Reach.”  This is a very real thing, of course…just not in the way most reps refer to it.  “This customer really needs to reach millennials!”  Yeah, maybe.  But they don’t necessarily need you to help them do it. Reach is a math problem they can solve lots of other ways.  What are you really bringing to the table?  The ability to tell the audience a better story?  Insights to help the marketer connect with that customer?  But if you open with “reach,” you’ll never really get a fair hearing on what you can really offer.

“You compete with…”  This is a swing and miss for so many reps.   Not because it’s a bad idea to bring up the client’s competitor…no, that’s a great idea!  It’s just that the seller tosses out the most simplistically obvious one.  Ford/Chevy, Coke/Pepsi, Samsung/Apple, Verizon/AT&T and so on.  To make the competitive dynamic meaningful, you must make it specific.  Don’t mention five different competitors; pick one.   Don’t leave it at the corporate or brand level; say which specific products, car models or cell plans are in competition.  Speaking specifically about your customers fight is your first chance to show them how much you know and care.  Don’t half-ass it.

“Branding.”  This might be the mac-daddy of them all.  Sellers who are diligent (or lucky) enough to get face time with marketers will then casually toss out the B-Word.  “Our company can help you build your brand in the eyes of our audience!”  If the advertiser is able to get past the feeling of condescension in that statement, they will then realize that the rep has little idea about what goes into building a brand – or how customers are moved along the scale from awareness to association to preference to intent.  Good rule of thumb:  If you can’t explain it, don’t say it.

You and your company have a lot of great things to offer to marketers and agencies.  How tragic, then, that it often goes wrong so early.  Take care with your words and you’ll find yourself in the deeper, more productive conversations that both you and your customers crave.

Get Your MacGyver On!

While a pale reboot has recently hit the airwaves, there can only ever be one true MacGyver.

If you were a live, viewing American in the late-80s, you tuned in weekly to watch Richard Dean Anderson (in the title role) save himself – and often Western civilization – from deranged villains and foreign powers.  What was so unique and magnetic about the character was how he beat impossible odds every seven days:  he was an ordinary guy (no super powers) who figured shit out.  Example:

A massive explosive charge is set to blow apart a dam and drown thousands of downstream villagers.  Racing the clock, MacGyver finds himself with nothing but a butane cigarette lighter, a transistor radio, a nylon poncho and an aging truck battery.   Within the allotted 42 minutes, a counter charge would be delivered by improvised parachute and detonated just in time to disable the bomb.  Village saved. Easy-Peasy.

Could you and your sales team stand a little disruption?  Want to take some new looks at seemingly-intractable sales problems?  If you’re a qualified media sales leader, request your invitation to Seller Forum on Wednesday March 7th in New York.  Better yet, sign up for a season’s pass and secure 1 or 2 seats at each of our 2018 Forums.  Go to TheSellerForum.com for more information.

During a half-decade that included Iran-Contra, Black Tuesday and tense relations with a failing Soviet Union, this was soul-food.  Ironically, the MacGyver of 1988 is the perfect man of the year for 2018.

At a time when many in our industry are blaming an array of villains – the Duopoly, automation, consolidation, changing Facebook policies, etc. – for the impossible bind we find ourselves in, we may just all need to start channeling our inner-MacGyvers.  Figure shit out…come up with a solution…expand the possible.  We need to ask ourselves, WWMD?  What would MacGyver Do?

He’d work with the tools on hand.  MacGyver never had all the perfect tools and resources on hand.  He focused on how to use what was immediately available.  Many of us do just the opposite.

He’d work fast.  MacGyver was always conscious of a ticking clock. It gave him a mental clarity that allowed him to dial right into the heart of the problem.  He spent none of his precious time lamenting the situation.

He’d come up with unusual combinations.  MacGyver never picked up just one tool and asked, “Will this work?”  Nope, he was all about how the battery acid and the butane would blend to form a new compound, and how the nylon poncho could be used to parachute the charge to its destination.  Far too many of us think about selling and applying one product at a time.

He’d attack big problems, head on.  MacGyver wasn’t about just finding a way out of the locked room, knocking out a guard and alerting the army.  Nope…nothing incremental in this guy.  From the jump he’d be about finding the biggest, hairiest problem to solve…with the biggest stakes.  Too many of us take tiny swings at marginal issues, expecting that showing a quarter-point of difference will somehow buy us another 15 minutes of consideration from our customer.  It’s a sucker’s game…and MacGyver wouldn’t play it!

Sure, MacGyver was just a TV show.  But still, each of us has a little MacGyver inside.  Maybe this is just the environment where we let him loose.



I normally write for sellers.  But I wanted this piece — originally published with 212NYC — to resonate with our entire community – buyers, sellers, clients, data providers, HR people….everybody.  So I’ve chosen to address the elephants that dwell in all of our rooms:  cynicism, burnout and disengagement.

We’re still very much part of a growth business and we’re all paying people pretty well, at least compared to the average American employers.  Hell, a lot of us even provide snacks and in-house recreation for our employees.  But whether you’re running an agency, a publisher sales team, an account management group or any other group of people in our business, you struggle to create a strong culture of possibility and hope.  As a result, otherwise-talented people burn out…they complain to one another… they disengage….and quite often they leave you too early.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The Drift is proudly underwritten this week by Digital Remedy, a digital marketing and technology solutions partner to publishers, advertisers, and influencers. Digital Remedy delivers performance-based and cross-channel solutions to increase monetization and operations potential of any organization while exceeding standard KPIs. Visit Digital Remedy to learn more.

The first step out of this downward spiral is to acknowledge where your people come from and what they’ve come to expect.  The vast majority of our team members (millennials in particular but not exclusively) grew up in cultures of short-term success.  Take a class and in 9 weeks you get a B or an A.  Try out for a team and in fairly short order you know if you’re on the roster.  Apply to colleges and within four months you get your acceptance letters.  Given that we are hiring from among the graduates of fairly elite colleges, they’ve won a lot more often than they’ve lost.

Now put your people into our ambivalent, asymmetrical business world.  As managers and leaders, we are still running cultures of short-term success (“…win this RFP….win this agency review… break this technology client…”), but that success can be ephemeral, fleeting and often entirely beyond our control.  To those accustomed to consistent and well-scheduled victories, this can feel hellish.

The answer is stop concentrating on success.  Instead, focus your team on deserving success.  It sounds like a semantic change, but it’s far more than that.

Shifting your focus to deserving – the sale, the account, the client’s agreement, the budget increase – means you are now talking about (and rewarding) excellence.  Winning is entirely out of your control:  a team can do literally everything right and still have the ball bounce the wrong way.  Deserving success is completely controllable.  It’s about preparation, work ethic, genuine empathy for the customer, diligence and grit.  Deserving success means focusing on process and standards – on how (and how consistently) you play the game.

As Thomas Boswell wrote in “Heart of the Game,” success burns out the athlete.  The pursuit of excellence, on the other hand, nourishes and motivates.  A famous soccer coach was asked what kind of players he tried to recruit.  “You can keep the ones who want to be the best player on the team or the best in the league,” he explained.  “Give me the ones who want to be better than they were yesterday.”

And as John Adams wrote to a nervous Thomas Jefferson when the fate of the American Revolution was at best uncertain:  “We cannot assure success.  We can only deserve it.”

So deserve it.  It will center your people and your company on excellence and will make you a truly exceptional leader.

If you’re a qualified digital sales leader and want to disrupt your team’s thinking and open up new possibilities for them, join us at Seller Forum on Wednesday March 7th in New York.  Request your invitation or visit www.thesellerforum.com. 

20 Years.

This particular New Year’s Day was a special one for me.  It marked the 20th anniversary of the incorporation and launch of our company – Upstream Group. Some of you reading this may know us only as publishers of The Drift, but we’ve also led sales and management workshops for several hundred digital companies over the past two decades, and continue to produce The Seller Forum, a peer-to-peer gathering of digital sales leaders.  We also played an early role in helping Rick Parkhill launch the first iMedia events, launched and ran the “Upstream Habitat” program for two years, and have been close to several great companies and leaders during their primes.  All in all, a pretty great run so far.

But you don’t spend time reading this or any other blog for nostalgia or self-congratulation.  So that will be enough of that.  I’d like to spend the rest of this post on a part of the past 20 years that many of you as readers and customers don’t see.  The part about running a small business.  Specifically, I want to give away some of the ideas – often stumbled upon – that have allowed us to flourish over such a sustained period.

The Drift is proudly underwritten this week by Digital Remedy, a digital marketing and technology solutions partner to publishers, advertisers, and influencers. Digital Remedy delivers performance-based and cross-channel solutions to increase monetization and operations potential of any organization while exceeding standard KPIs. Visit Digital Remedy to learn more.

Know Who You Serve.  We’ve always been super clear on this point. Our customer is the head of sales at the publisher, ad technology or data company.  Period.  Many businesses try to hedge their bets and keep all their options open, only to lose focus and belief.  With so much else uncertain, getting this one right early really helps.

Find a Repeatable Unit of Value to Deliver.   Early on, when your company is small and new, you’ll feel the pressure to chase all kinds of projects and contort your business to meet the latest needs of each new client.  Having one repeatable service you can offer quickly – in our case it’s been the sales team workshop – anchors your business financially and gives you something you can continue to get better at over time.  It also helps…

Make it Easy for Customers to Work with You.  When someone says “We should find a way to work together,” your response shouldn’t require more than a few words.  Having straightforward products and services and consistent pricing helps you two ways:  you quickly qualify and start business relationships with customers, and then – with the commitment settled – you can immediately begin to individualize and personalize your service.

Sweat the Details.  Your weakest moment can define your company in the eyes of a customer.  So be relentless about your execution, not just in your core product or service but on unsexy stuff like billing and logistics.  They will always remember how they felt about working with you.

Hire Well and Trust Quickly.  I’ve had to work on both of these. Especially when you have a small team, ask prospective employees process questions – get them to talk about how they’d solve a problem or overcome an obstacle.  Hire grit.  Then once you’ve brought someone on, trust them with more than you’re really comfortable.  They’ll either delight or disappoint you:  either way, you’ll have your answer.

Don’t Be Incremental.  Embrace big ideas and take big swings.  Approach each project and customer like you’re in a position to really change the world for them.  Great business relationships aren’t built on “one percent better.”  You will be defined by your ambition for your customers, and lack of that ambition means you will be forgotten.

If our small business has made a difference in your business or your life during the past 20 years, feel free to share a comment. Just click on the little grey envelope at the top of the post.  Thanks for reading, and here’s to starting the next 20!

The first Seller Forum of 2018 is happening Wednesday March 7th in New York.  If you’re a qualified digital media sales leader, request your invitation today.  Or go to thesellerforum.com to learn more.