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.  


The opposite of selling is describing.

Selling means changing the outcome. It means turning a no to a maybe and a maybe to a yes. It means earning more favorable terms and protocols on a technology deal and overcoming the competition to have your content marketing program win the recommendation. Selling is persuasion. It’s leaving the world a slightly different place then it was a few minutes ago.

This all sounds obvious, but – sadly – it’s not. A great many sales executives in our industry (and I’d suspect many others) are not actually selling at all. They are part of the culture of description. They describe your products to the customers and then describe the customers’ reactions to the boss. They describe the market conditions or feature shortcomings that prevent the customer from buying. They describe technology and process in excruciating detail, and they describe their own backgrounds and track records on their ever-growing resumes. They’re just not selling.

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.

It would be natural for those of us who run companies and sales teams to lament this creeping cultural affliction. But first we’ve got to stop causing it.

Stop Loading Your Team Down with Stuff to Describe.  Between marketing, product – sometimes even your company’s founders or top brass – your would-be sellers are bombarded with a crushing volume of slides, concepts, diagrams, videos, demos and more. The message is unmistakable: Just better describe more of our stuff and everything will be OK! This happens for a reason. So…

Stop Worshiping Your Own Product.  The “Product-as-Hero” myth is a prevailing one, and companies in our world buy into it with enthusiastic myopia. When they buy, it’s because the product is great. When they don’t, it’s a sales failure. Yes, work to make your product and features great. But immediately recognize that great products don’t always win and you immediately recognize and elevate the importance of a strong sales culture.

Root Out Cultural Ambivalence about Sales.  If the language of sales – closing, pipeline, incremental commitments and more – seems somehow beneath the brilliant engineering and master-of-the-universe business planning of your company, then you’ve got a problem. If within your sales team itself there are no titles that include the word “sales” you might have an even bigger one. We need to be as great – and as proud of – sales as we are of our engineering and business plans. If we are not, they will never have a chance of succeeding. There’s your new mantra.

Don’t just describe the difference between sales and description. Sell it inside your own company.

This is a re-post of one of the most widely-shared posts in the 16 years of The Drift. We hope it strikes a nerve with you and your team as well.

Selling is Like Shaving.

The headline over today’s post references an old saying in direct marketing.  “Selling is like shaving,” the accountable direct response ad seller would say.  “If you don’t do some of it every day, you’re a bum.”  It was a handy way for DR sellers to contrast their work with that of the ad sellers out there peddling branding – which they dismissed as no more than a con.

But today the slogan takes on a deeper meaning for all ad sellers, publishers, tech and marketing service providers.  The jig is up, the news is out, the fatted calf has been picked clean.  For generations, we’ve organized our businesses and revenue models around the premise that our jobs are to help the advertisers and their legion of agencies spend their money… perhaps a little more accountably, responsibly, efficiently or viewably than the next guy.  We’ve all been citizens of the ad business, and we spoke its language and observed its customs.  But no more.

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.

Fundamental change doesn’t always break down the door.  Often it creeps in on tiny cat feet.  And while we were busy arguing and negotiating over how much of that big pile of ad money would go to digital or TV or something else, marketers have been undergoing their own fundamental change.  They’ve been under siege from direct-to-consumer competitors, a collapsing retail channel, online shopping and more.  In the face of this existential crisis, they’ve fallen out of love with advertising.

Well….to put a finer point on it, they’ve fallen out of love with advertising for the sake of advertising.

Which leads me back to the new premise.  Today we must all help the marketer sell – we must attach ourselves to business outcomes, become co-marketers…lest we be dismissed as bums.  To survive and thrive in what used to be called the ad sales business we must all go back to school and become fluent in the language and customs of marketing.  Someday soon our talk of rating points, viewability and attribution will sound as anachronistic as the Latin mass.

The 21st century ad seller is a business problem solver.  She doesn’t wait for budgets, she helps create them.  She avoids the watering hole where the herd gathers for RFPs and planning cycles.  She hunts alone.  She knows more about how the client’s business works – how he sells his products, who he sells them through and what gets them bought – than anyone but the client.

She sells.  Every day.  But she doesn’t sell ads.  She helps the customer sell product.