#deserveit.


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.  


Sales Christmas.


As this is the last Drift of 2017, I want to use it to thank and appreciate the sellers in our industry; the women and men who put themselves on the line every day and who monetize all the great digital content and services that the other 99-plus percent of the world take for granted.  I also want to send along a few gifts – sales ideas and insights I’ve shared with salespeople like you in workshops throughout the year.

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.

Don’t Tell Me What You Sell, Tell Me What You Solve.  The era of the product describer armed with his dense PowerPoint and techie demo are over. You will succeed because you obsess over the client’s business and marketing problems and start every note, every meeting, every sentence with them.

Presence is Power.  We all live in a multi-screen world of perpetual distraction.  Your customers and co-workers feel alienated, unheard and ignored.  You will be amazed at how much your full, undivided attention and empathy can do.  Once they feel truly seen and heard, most of your job is done.

People Always Buy the Same Thing.  A Better Future.  It’s always been true.  Don’t tell me about your tech or content.  Tell me how my life will be different when we are working together.  And then work hard to live the promises you make.

Action Forms Around a Point of View.  Many sellers are afraid to take a position, to commit, to adopt and defend an opinion in the presence of the customer.  So they wait and see what the customer thinks and then change their own colors to fit the moment.  In doing so they leave their most powerful tool on the shelf.  Your informed point of view is fuel to the client relationship.  Bring it.

You Get Delegated to the People You Sound Like.  In our comfort zones we all speak the local language of tech and media arithmetic.  And we rarely realize that senior customers don’t speak those tongues at all.  So they send us to the people who might understand what we’re saying.  Commoditization ensues.

Do the Math.  Then Show Your Work.  When we estimate the actual size and cost of our customer’s marketing and business problems, something magic happens.  Don’t tell me you can help me be more efficient:  tell me how much money you think I’m losing every month I don’t work with you to fix my problem.  I’m not going to ding you if your math is off.  Show me your work and I’ll help you adjust your numbers.  I’ll also appreciate your vision and lean into our relationship.

#deserveit.  Nothing more needs to be said.

Live and Work in the Present.  The past is all nostalgia and regret.  The future is all hope and anxiety.  None of it does you any good.  The best sellers – the best people – are the ones who stay focused on what’s right in front of them.  If you get sideways or lose your bearings, sit down and make a list of what you’ll accomplish in the next few hours.  Win today.  Be happy today.  Do it often enough and you will build a truly great life.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and a wonderful 2018 to all of you. We never stop thinking about you and send you our very best wishes for health, hope and happiness.


Saving Programmatic.


Last week in this space I suggested that one unintended outcome of our decade-long dance with programmatic buying was the dark, dangerous alternative world we’d brought into being.  Borrowing an analogy from the Netflix series Stranger Things, call it “The Programmatic Upside Down,” rife with fraud, bots, hate speech, fake news and every other means of foul beastie.

In a speech last week in Los Angeles, I suggested that while an uncritical devotion to “tech for the sake of tech” had opened the breach to this world, it was people who would help close it.  Here, then, are the four types of people we should endeavor to find, groom, hire and deploy in the programmatic world of the next five years.

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 Activator.  Ironically, those who plan and build programmatic stacks and strategies can be too closed in their thinking and too slow to act on new insights and improvements.  The Activator is the executive who can not only explain why, but why now.  He or she can create urgency around meaningful change and development from the outside – who can lay waste to the kind of group think and inertia that assure many a programmatic strategy will bear poisoned fruit.

The Fixer.  The role of The Fixer is also to disrupt the destructively myopic processes and decision making of the group.  Except he or she works from the inside out.  The Fixer is willing to call out the bad outcome the group might not be considering…to ask the hard question.  Blessed with a good strategic mind and highly-evolved pattern recognition, The Fixer can help the group abandon the path that leads into The Programmatic Upside Down.

The White Hat.   A few years ago, Chief Privacy Officers were all the rage.  Perhaps the next five years we’ll see the emergence of the Chief Hygienist….The White Hat.  An unwavering advocate of transparency and quality, The White Hat invites scrutiny from meaningful third parties and holds the organization to the highest standards.

The Integrator.  For most of its existence, programmatic has run along its own parallel track alongside creative solutions and direct sales.  Clearly those tracks are starting to cross now, which leads us to the need for The Integrator.  He or she will be the one who plans and sells programmatic solutions as part of a larger marketing, creative and business mix.  The question will no longer be “how much should we spend programmatically?” but rather “how will programmatic solutions help us scale and deliver all of our unique benefits to marketers?”

Your organizations – publisher, agency, marketer, tech provider – will call these archetypes by scores of different titles.  But know that you need them…now and for the rest of your existence.  They are what stand between you and technology run amok.

Read my original article on 212NYC’s new thought leadership newsletter, The Scryer.


The Programmatic Upside Down.


There are no serious spoilers in this post, so if you’re not yet finished with season two of “Stranger Things” – or if you’ve not seen the Netflix show at all – you’re safe.  I’m giving nothing critical away by telling you that the core of the story revolves around a dark, frightening dimension that’s a reverse-mirror image of our world; a place that’s slimy, cold and gray and full of dark corners and scary things.  It’s called “The Upside Down.”

Over the past decade we’ve all been part of the invention and growth of programmatic advertising.  While there’s no question that data-fueled automation and process reform are hard trends that will continue to grow and develop, it’s also true that – just like the scientists on “Stranger Things” – our blind devotion to technology may have blown open a passage to a dark version of the internet.  Let’s call it “The Programmatic Upside Down.”

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 internet we describe and sell to advertisers is filled with great articles and creative videos, all being eagerly consumed by attentive customers.  It’s a well-lit world with laws and crosswalks and predictable ROI.  But along with the rest of us, marketers are now seeing that our sometimes-myopic devotion to technology for its own sake has meant that their brands and messages sometimes end up in The Programmatic Upside Down.

The Programmatic Upside Down is a cold gray place of fraud and bots, of risque content, hate speech and fake news mills.  It mimics the shape and structure of the internet we describe, but it’s in no way the one that marketers would willingly buy into.

The good news?  It’s that 2017 brought its existence into focus with unmistakable clarity. We can see it and we can understand why it’s happening and what’s feeding it.  Collectively we all now have a mission:  we must now devote our business models, our technology and – most importantly – our people to shutting off access to The Programmatic Upside Down.  Devotion to purity of supply and quality of data are a good start.  Embracing the oversight of qualified third-parties to police us is also critical.

And perhaps most important is that we fully realize that there is no longer a convenient, situational middle ground:  you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.  There’s no time to waste:  The Demo-Dogs are already on the run.