Sellers Wanted, Sales Experience Negotiable

This transformation is endlessly fascinating to those of us who’ve grown up in this business because we’ve lived it.  When I started in digital sales in the late ‘90s there was no such thing as “digital experience.”  We were a motley band of sellers who hailed from all over the media map -- print, radio, outdoor.  I knew a guy from Kentucky who came into the business from an incredibly sexy job selling electrical distribution parts like light bulbs, conduit and wire.  That guy may or may not have been me.

But we followed our intuition as early adopters and lovers of the web and embraced the risk of selling an untested product without a proven model. We made and learned from a lot of mistakes and relied on adaptability rather than experience to evolve, endure and help the Internet grow into the commercial and cultural force it is today.

I think we’re about to come full circle on that talent profile.

Unlike traditional sales profiles that have seen little change over time, digital sellers have had to adapt to every consumer-driven shift in the Internet in the past two decades.  Like nomads, we’ve journeyed from the open web to portals to search to social.  We’ve traveled from desktops to laptops to mobile.  We’ve seen the definition of the term “platform” change and then change again with companies like Facebook and Snap the latest to take up residence.

The portal-based web bred sellers who sold ease of access to information and large scale audiences.  The search-based web -- and the advent of the long-tail -- opened up the bottom of the funnel to digital advertising and split sales into premium display, search and programmatic.  The social web is now evolving into a hybrid mix of social, entertainment and communication.

Sellers like me have had to ride these waves or die, with many going deep in developing specializations — from banner to keyword to programmatic to content — to mirror the trends of the Internet.  I used to dip into each of these pools to build my teams — a few people with display expertise here, another handful of programmatic experts there.  But increasingly I find candidates with great resumes and strong relationships, but who lack the kind of dynamic perspective we all need to succeed as the business shifts. On top of that, it’s tough out there, with massive sales forces coming into play from portals like my old friends at Yahoo, social platforms, television and elsewhere.

So, I’ve blown up my talent profile and started from scratch.  I no longer look at any one talent pool.  I look for people who both understand and are passionate about the social web.  Who get the native gestures and behaviors of the distributed web.  Who have an intuitive feel for how people share and consume content.

Don’t get me wrong; relationships still matter.  As do manners.  But I also increasingly find it critical to have talent who thoroughly understand and respect the production process.  For instance, I recently hired a creative lead from Leo Burnett with no traditional sales experience to run BuzzFeed’s Central Region. And she’s killing it.

I look for people who understand both the opportunities and constraints of mobile.  I’m searching for candidates who aren’t afraid of data, and know how to apply it to inspire creativity and impact distribution.  My talent profile puts a premium on people for whom selling digital is as much a career as it is a natural extension of their lives.  Sellers who engage and interact with the world as digital natives.

At BuzzFeed we’ve expanded our sales focus every year for the past three years.  We evolved from articles, lists and quizzes on our O&O sites into video distributed on the social web; then into original franchises like Tasty; now increasingly into original series like “Worth It.”  As a result, our sellers have developed into the same kind of multi-hyphenate, adaptable builders and thinkers as the people who create our content.

This new profile is liberating, because now I can go fishing for talent in new ponds.  I look for people from entertainment companies, where they know how to market and sell not just the media space but the idea occupying that space.  Creative agencies where people understand how to work across different mediums and canvases.  Nascent social platforms and even video production houses.  All uncharted waters for me.

Hiring good people is really hard, which is probably why it’s so rewarding -- and why retention is so vital. We’re hiring.  Sales experience negotiable.

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Lee Brown

Lee Brown is CRO of BuzzFeed where he leads all U.S. advertising revenue, client services and advertising operations.  Lee came to BuzzFeed from Tumblr and Groupon where he built their national sales organization from scratch and secured a number... read more