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Loss of a Good Ad Director

Posted on Monday, July 30, 2018 at 11:08 AM

A reader's question: How can we best cope with sudden loss of our ad director?

By William Dunkerley

Q. Boy, are we in panic mode. Our ad director suddenly passed away. I'm afraid that this personnel loss will set off a loss in advertising revenue.

We are a 20-year-old print magazine with a relatively new digital edition. Our readers are business professionals in a technical area. Frank, the ad director, came in 15 years ago and really turned around what had been a rough start-up. I think he must have had the Midas touch. Without him we wouldn't be where we are today.

Frank had a magnetic personality that got him great relationships with the ad buyers. He also had a knack for offering advertisers sweet deals that paid off big time. For instance, he saw that advertisers want preferred positions, so he created lots of them. Now we have a lot of big ads way up front in the book before most of the edit copy.

Although Frank had a staff of three, he was so much a one-man show. He hired people with limited abilities, ones who would support him but not carry part of the weight on their own. So that's what we're left with.

One of his staff has the title of deputy advertising director. I think she expects to move up now, and if she doesn't get promoted, chances are she'll leave. Maybe she would be able to carry on Frank's work if I got her a strong assistant. What do you think?

A. First, please accept our condolences on the passing of Frank. From the way you speak of him, I can see that he played a vital role in your organization.

What should you do next? In all candor, I don't think you should seek someone who is either in the mold of Frank or who could be propped up by staff to fit that mold. Based on the little you've told me, I suspect your publication may have greater potential ahead by taking a different path.

I see two significant flaws in the way Frank handled things. The first is that he arranged things to make himself irreplaceable. Apparently he never viewed members of his staff as potential replacements. That's not an uncommon way of handling things. Perhaps Frank felt some insecurity and selected staff to make himself look good by comparison.

The second flaw is the way he sold advertising. Based on your description, it may not have been the best approach for the long term. I'm talking about creating new "preferred positions." I know a lot of advertisers ask for preferred positions. Some publications have waiting lists for cover iv, for example. But beyond cover iv and one or two other spots, position does not seem to have a great impact upon an ad's effectiveness.

By creating additional up-front positions, Frank was responding to advertiser demands. But he was selling them something that would not really be of significant advantage for them.

The best way for a magazine to lock up a relationship with an advertiser is to produce the best possible results with its advertising dollars. Frank was smart to try upselling the advertisers. But selling contrived "preferred" positions was a poor choice. Selling bigger ads would have been better. Research shows that ad size influences effectiveness. Multiple ads within an issue would have been another alternative. Repeat exposure bolsters effectiveness. Instead of pandering to the advertisers' thirst for preferred positions, Frank should have suggested these better ways to spend ad dollars.

Now you have an opportunity to change that. There may be a lot of potential for growing ad revenue if you can do a better job of helping your advertisers. If they see better results from their advertising, they will be more inclined to spend more with you.

The challenge that I see before you is twofold: You need to fill the top ad sales job and you need to readjust your sales strategy. I recommend that you view the two as inseparable.

I'm often asked about what characteristics to look for when hiring key ad salespeople. Some publishers look for someone with a friendly, outgoing personality. Others believe that a gift for persuasion is the ticket. And still others base their hiring decisions on an applicant's past experience.

In my view, all three can be key. But the overriding characteristic that I've found to be a predictor of success is intelligence. It can make up for a lot of deficiencies in those other three key areas. Intelligence is so important that I recommend that publishers administer a simple IQ test to applicants, and to weigh heavily on how an applicant scores. (Use caution -- a simple test will have a margin of error that needs to be taken into account when comparing results from multiple applicants.)

What about your current deputy ad director? Here's my advice: Have a candid meeting with her. Tell her that you intend to reorient sales strategies and that the ad director's job will be somewhat different in the future. Ask if that opportunity interests her. If it does, and if you believe she has development potential, tell her you'd like to give her a chance for advancement. Administer an IQ test to see if results are consistent with that belief.

Offer to pay for some form of outside training for her. And meanwhile search for an additional ad sales staffer. Look for someone who has the potential for the top job in case the current deputy does not work out.

So get out of your panic mode. I've identified constructive steps you can take that will not only avert short-term revenue decline, but also will help exploit untapped potential for record levels of sales.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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