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The Real Poop

There's a fire juggler, a circus geek who just bit the head off of a chicken, a snake charmer, and a bearded lady. And the ringleader yells, "Ladies and gentlemen, gather 'round, have I got a deal for you! Fresh, hot snake oil here! Two jugs for a dollar!"

Grabbed your attention, right? (Yeah, advertising works.)

Well, some people think advertising sales representatives are a modern incarnation of 19th century carny. In fact, you might paint lawyers and public relations consultants with the same brush—after all, both of these character groups also make a career out of spinning versions of the truth.

In reality, however, a reputable advertising sales rep/account executive can provide an advertiser with valuable exposure in the particular market that the business wants to reach. For the publisher, the ad sales person is their lifeblood—without 'em, the company has no revenues and well, sadly, they die. (And consider the power dynamic if the ad sales person wants a raise…if they just quit, the publisher is often up a creek—the more well known the publication, the less powerful the ad sales person; that is, The New York Times is a "known" product; "anyone" can sell it—but your Daily Blog is er um less well known so sellin' it requires skill—and usually commands higher commissions.)

The ad sales rep lives and dies based on how well he/she is respected by their clients. And in fact many ad reps outlive their relationship with the publisher for whom they work. The rep moves on to another publisher, then another—but the clients are always "there." That is, Coca Cola, Ford, and Verizon are pretty much always going to be spending money keeping their brand names fresh and engaging. Like breeding camels, publishers, however, come and go.

One hump or two?

So who do these ad sales reps work for? Well, you'll find almost as many types of ad salespeople as you'll find frou-frou dog breeds. Some ad sales reps work for a publisher such as a newspaper or magazine; the rep twists businesses' arms to convince them to pay for advertising in that publication. TV and radio ad sales reps use the same approach, except these hucksters are selling airtime instead of print space. Got it so far? Good, now we move on to ad agencies.

Ad agencies are talent pools that sell their creative services to many different clients. A full-service ad agency might provide copywriting, graphics design, video production, and specialty services within a certain geographic or industry market. The agency sells its services to clients within that market. From an ad sales standpoint, if publishers resemble frou-frou dog breeds, ad agencies resemble German shepherds—the two entities are that different. An ad agency media buyer serves as a middleman (or woman) between the ad agency and the client (or advertiser). The agency buys up huge blocks of print space or airtime (or Internet capacity, but we'll get to that), and sells it to businesses that want to appear in that media. The agency buys the media cheap because they purchase in bulk; the agency in turn sells to its clients at a profit (capitalism at its best).

So wouldn't it be useful to get some info on each type of media? Yep, and here we go. Let's start with print media, and no, we don't mean the Dead Sea Scrolls or quill pens on parchment. We're talking about newspapers, which to many people are almost as ancient (and probably on the Endangered Media Species list). Newspapers have traditionally sold run-of-site display advertising, which means an ad might appear anywhere in the paper. Advertisers would typically have to pay a higher price for guaranteed-position ads.

Magazines are another print medium, although they're radically different from newspapers in one aspect: Newspapers typically use a "shotgun" mass market approach while magazines are geared to a specific market group. For example, the New York Times' circulation area is all of New York City. Different boroughs, different income levels, different reader interests...it doesn't matter. Everyone can get the New York Times dropped on their doorstep or stuffed in their mailbox. In contrast, a computer magazine prints stories and publishes ads that only interest computer users and rabid geeks...you might say these users represent the magazine's "target market."

Moving on to electronic media...here we sell airtime rather than print space. Television stations print a rate card that assigns different ad rates to different times of day. Rates are based on ratings books surveys compiled by firms such as Nielsen (yes, that's the company that asks you to write down all the TV you watch during a given time period). These surveys are notoriously inaccurate, as viewers might easily be jotting down shows they've never seen in order to skew the results. Probably a fun practical joke.

Based on this questionable data, TV stations construct their advertisers' rate cards. "Prime time" refers to the most desirable time slot (7pm to 10pm, Eastern Time). These ad spots are the most expensive because they typically have the largest viewership. In contrast, an ad that runs at 2am (think infomercials and blatant sales pitches) may cost next to nothing or be included in a package arrangement. Radio stations' ad spots use the same principle: Morning and evening "drive time" ad spots are the most desirable because the maximum number of people are listening (think a captive commuter audience).

Okay, now that we've got print, TV, and radio down, let's add cable channel advertising. This fast-growing medium allows advertisers to target their messages to a pretty narrow audience.

Let's say, then, that you run a business restoring and selling 1960s muscle cars. You want to reach guys (and maybe ladies) who like these souped-up rides and have the money to buy them. Do you advertise on Home Shopping Network? Nickelodeon? Animal Planet? Not likely. Think Speed or perhaps the Barrett-Jackson muscle car auction segment. Of course, you've spent some time researching your market, so you know how they like to entertain themselves.

Advertisers (and perhaps industry trade groups) pay for market research that identifies and analyzes their target audience's consuming habits (and maybe how those habits change over time). We already know TV stations use Nielsen surveys to obtain viewership data. Radio stations use Arbitron statistics and newspapers use NAB-generated information. Lots of names for numbers and graphs. From the advertiser's perspective, the more you know about your target consumers, the better you can tailor your ad campaign to their needs and wants.

And then there's Internet-based advertising, or more accurately, the monster that's on its way to ruling the media world (led into battle by Google). Would you believe $30 billion—that's 30 billion dollars—in projected web advertising sales in 2012? Would you believe that by 2015, Internet advertising will virtually (ha ha) destroy all other forms of advertising? Yep, we're serious—and we don't have any leftover snake oil, either.

How could you not trust packaging like this?!

So how does Internet advertising work? Well, website publishers have three ways to make money: (1) They hire their own reps to sell website display ad space; (2) They market the ad space through an ad agency; or (3) They use Google Adsense to generate income when readers click on website ads. As you might expect, ad space buyers have different motivations, budgets, and tactics. It's eerily like traditional advertising media—who would think?

So, you say, let's ditch the smoke and mirrors and talk about a real-world ad campaign. Let's say you've hooked up with an ad agency, and your favorite client has developed a new line of ladies' workout gear. The collection's bright colors and slinky feel mask the clothes' real appeal: the shells, shorts, and leggings change colors with users' workout intensity. Your client can't wait to get the gear in the hands of female fitness fans everywhere. First, though, you must put together a successful ad campaign to tell the ladies about it. You can't just throw money at the media without a clear strategy; your client will go broke fast and get nowhere. Here's a generic ad campaign sequence you can apply to many types of products:

• Select an ad campaign goal: What do you want to accomplish?
• Allocate your campaign funds: How much money can you spend?
• Identify your target market: Who are the people you want to reach?
• Profile your product: Use it, wear it, photograph it, learn all about it.
• Select your advertising media: How do your customers get news/keep in touch?
• Develop your print/electronic/web ads: Agency graphics/video team works with client.
• Place your ads in your chosen media: Ensure ad quality and schedule accuracy.
• Evaluate your ads' effect: Did sales/customers increase? Decrease? Stay the same?
• Adjust your campaign accordingly: Tweak your copy/graphics/schedule as needed.
• Monitor your client's customer purchase patterns: Propose timely new ad campaigns.

Since we're writing our own story, let's assume all your print ads run with no errors. Your TV spots run when they're supposed to, instead of getting mysteriously shuffled to the 2am graveyard slot. Your client is swamped with distributor phone calls and emails; people are even calling when she's in the bathroom. She has to hire two admin assistants to handle the onslaught. Your client is pleasantly surprised, and your agency manager has given you a bonus and your own office. Everybody's happy—at least for today.

Since everybody's happy, let's talk about some of your ad sales career perks. Your flexible schedule tops the list. Do you need to schedule a doctor's appointment? Get your car's oil changed? Attend a parent-teacher conference at your daughter's school? Reenact a Civil War battle? Hey, we’re not here to judge. Chances are you have the flexibility to handle this personal business, no matter how dorky it may be. The reality is that your boss just cares about performance—you’ve been given a $322,000 quarterly sales goal—if you make one sale in the first 10 minutes of the quarter for $325,000 and then don't have to work again for 89 days, awesome. Go work on your putting and chipping. If it takes you a thousand hours and you only book a hundred grand in sales, you’re likely fired. Hard work doesn't matter in this gig; effective work does.

Almost all reps are given sales goals—it's both a carrot and a stick; miss the goal, and…monster.com; beat it and you usually get extra commission or bonus money or a free trip to Hawaii for you and your loved one—or just the hottie you want to bring along. Sales goals and rules are commonplace in America—insurance sales agents, yacht dealers, and car salesmen hate sales goals as much as you do (if they miss 'em). And to add insult to injury, you likely must document your daily activities via an online sales tracker program. Consider the perspective from the sales manager. It is the manager's job to herd all the sales cats and in aggregate hit or beat the quarterly sales goal the CEO sets. If the manager misses big, she's out of a job—so that manager, if there is a miss, better know why. And they also better know early in the quarter so that they can perhaps save their bacon by communicating clearly with upper management to adjust costs and generally figure things out. Without that continual feedback, companies get fragile fast and the bankruptcy bogey always looms.

Back to the sales tracker programs, the bane of most ad sales reps' existence. Many sales managers love these programs because sales reps must prove they're on sales appointments, and not shopping at the mall or sunning on the beach. (If they are somehow doing all three at once, a manager might actually be impressed by their multitasking abilities.) Sales reps often dislike the programs because they don’t especially love having "Big Brother" looking constantly over their shoulder, and not just because they don’t want him to notice their dandruff problem.

Oh, sure. Blame it on the birds.

Also, let's face it. Ads don't always run correctly. Sometimes a printing malfunction results in ad copy so blurry it looks like an eye exam taken without your glasses. Your client's ad might also feature washed-out color graphics or incorrect contact information. Guess who that client calls about these problems? It isn’t the Ghostbusters. And don't think you can escape her wrath by avoiding her calls or texts. She'll max out your minutes or text limits. She'll come to your office. She'll leave notes on your car. She might even follow you home. Best to face the music and move on.

By this time, you probably realize that most sales jobs bear a striking resemblance to a pressure cooker. Insert the sales rep, tighten the lid, and pile on the heat. Ad sales is no different; it's a high-pressure game suited to those with a thick skin and a high tolerance for the word "No." On the bright side, though, many powerful CEOs began their careers in lowly sales positions. Their salaries stunk, and they depended heavily on commissions and bonuses to make ends meet. Clearly it worked for many of them—will it work for you? After you've heard the pros and cons of an advertising sales career, are you game to play the game? Good—let's see if your personality will fit well with this line of work.

You like to schmooze with all types of people, irritable, impatient clients won't bother you, and you thrive on unpredictability. In fact, the idea of not knowing how much you'll make every month fills you with a giddy sense of adventure. Congratulations—you just might be a born ad sales rep. Or an actor.

Okay, let's fast forward a year or two. You're a super-successful ad sales rep. Your clients love you and refer business colleagues every week. You make a comfortable living and drive a new Beemer convertible. What are your chances of moving up the ladder to a cushy sales manager job? Or we could also imagine that you're a bottom-scraping slacker who works as little as possible. Are you likely to get kicked upstairs? Or just kicked out onto the street?

Your answer could depend on your top management's objectives. Maybe the muckety-mucks see you as a dynamic leader who can transform a haphazard collection of misfits into a crack sales team. Or perhaps management is looking for a scapegoat to blame for the company's spiral into the toilet, in which case their foot may be headed for your crack. Either way, you should step back and survey the landscape before you act.

Okay, let's assume you're totally jazzed about an advertising sales career, but you don't know where to find opportunities. Your location will partly determine your options. In a small town, for example, you might check out the daily or weekly newspaper. You'll also find radio and television stations in major metro areas, smaller cities, and regional markets. Don't forget regional cable companies, as that industry continues to add new offerings and open new markets. Add a couple of local advertising agencies to your short list, too. Some agencies focus on one specific industry; other firms adopt a “jack of all trades” approach to attract varied types of clients.

Finally, here's some advice you didn't pay for: Consider selling advertising for trade, hobby, or professional magazines. These publications often rely on advertising revenues to pay for production costs, meaning a capable advertising sales rep is a valuable commodity. A word of caution, though: Closely evaluate each publication's financial health before you jump on board. Many mags and other pubs aren’t exactly thriving these days. Many newspapers are taking their last gasp, and may soon be old news.