News International is reportedly planning a similar move that will group the sales operations for its online newspapers, including Timesonline.co.uk and Thesun.co.uk, with other digital assets, such as MySpace, into a single unit.
These moves provide further evidence that traditional newspaper groups are taking the rise of digital seriously, as they continue to shell out cash on digital acquisitions. But, is creating a separate digital division the right move?
Advertisers are increasingly buying into campaigns that span web, print and other channels, so it starts to make sense for newspaper groups to have one sales team capable of selling across media.
Associated has always had a separate digital division, Associated New Ventures, which houses flagship sites such as Metro. co.uk and Thisislondon.co.uk, as well as recent acquisitions like Allegran Dating. The newly merged Associated Northcliffe Digital division (AN Digital) will also incorporate regional newspaper web sites.
Andrew Hart, former chief of ANV and new MD of AN Digital, thinks digital and print should be sold as a package, but says the firm has been doing this for some time. "If you look at what we're doing with classified, the Metro, Standard and London Jobs are sold as a combined package, and we have people on both the digital and print side selling them."
But, he adds that the group is investing more in cross-media sales. "We are going to have new roles within the newspapers that are cross-media. So, each national newspaper will have one person who is a digital expert and will report directly into the newspaper but also liaise with the digital-only team."
AN Digital is also moving into the main Associated office so both sales teams will be in the same building, which Hart says will help raise the profile of digital and encourage integration.
Meanwhile, reports last month suggest that, as well as creating a single unit for online ad sales, News International is considering group deals across its four national newspapers, and tying together its print and new media properties. This suggests it wants to encourage more collaboration between its on- and offline sales teams.
Paul Hayes, managing director of Times Newspapers, said recently that he sees sales teams merging in the medium term.
Jeremy Hill, partner at digital media consultancy Circus Street, thinks the ultimate aim for big newspapers should be a single, cross-media sales team.
However, he says digital is growing so fast that it is forcing traditional companies to install temporary structures to cope with it short-term. "Could these companies get their press people up to speed quick enough?" he asks. "Probably not."
Hill adds: "I think a lot of media owners are doing the right thing whereby they realise the end-game is to have a group of sales people who can deliver across platforms, but they need a range of short-term structures right now to deliver on digital."
Hart agrees a single sales team for print and digital should be the long-term goal. But, he says a huge amount of the company's inventory is digital-only, while most agencies still buy digital separately. "If you look at traditional agencies, radio, TV, print and online are all bought by different people," he adds.
Simon Waldman, director of digital publishing at Guardian Newspapers, feels that this is a key point. "There is still a very distinctive digital-media trading and buying market out there, and therefore you need teams with separate skills. The general principle is that you need digital specialists to deal with digital agencies and print specialists to deal with print agencies. But, you also need to be able to pitch both together at the right time to clients who want to do both."
Waiting for demand
While agencies are gradually moving towards a more integrated approach, it is unlikely that integrated teams that plan and buy across all channels will be a reality any time soon.
"Sales teams will probably mirror what agencies do and I don't think any agency has got it together to do joined-up stuff yet, so media owners will probably wait until the agencies demand it," says Ian Tournes, head of press at agency Starcom.
In turn, the agencies are waiting for the clients to demand it. "As soon as clients demand it, agencies have to follow. I don't think clients are demanding it yet; otherwise agencies would have done it," adds Tournes.
So, will it ultimately be the clients that spark the shift? "It's a bit of a vicious circle to be honest, whereby you've got the media owner, ad agency and client. Nobody knows where it will come from first, but it will definitely come," adds Tournes.
Getting rid of old school structures, both on the selling and buying side, is going to be difficult for some, says Waldman. "Whether you have one or 20 teams depends a lot on your culture as a business. If it is your natural culture to have separate teams doing things, then you'll work with that," he says.
"We have one sales team for The Guardian and Observer, so it's our natural tendency to bring things together, rather than operate them separately," he adds. "Associated has separate teams for the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and Standard, and NI has separate teams for its papers, so it's quite counter-culture to bring things together."
Another issue is that, in many cases, these separate sales teams will be incentivised to sell against one another. Print and online also have different commission structures.
"People will think 'if I'm out there selling press, but not getting bonuses for online, why should I sell that too?'," says Hill. "It's not enough for senior management to say the future is digital and this is where our business is going. Sales teams need to know how this is going to work on a day-to-day basis. Publishers will need a more flexible and innovative approach."
Hill adds that AN Digital's announcements may be small steps, but they are steps in the right direction. "They are starting to innovate a lot more with their structure, rather than their product. That has been the problem; a lot have focused on their product, rather than the way they are going to deliver it."
Most in the industry believe single, integrated sales teams are inevitable, but the market is not quite ready yet, and getting there will be a slow and gradual process.
"The most important thing is agency structure. As and when that changes will be a key, determining factor," says Hart. "As will the time when we have a common currency across media, so you can combine a package and advertisers know exactly what they're getting."
Meanwhile, it is important that publishers don't get too preoccupied with building their separate digital business.
As Waldman points out, the long-term challenge is no longer about simply building a good digital business. "It's about building a strong, multi-platform publishing business for the future. That means you have to look at all the options and you can't operate in silos."
- Leader, p25
HOW SOME OF THE MAJOR NEWSPAPERS SELL DIGITAL MEDIA
AN Digital has a dedicated digital sales team, selling across all national and regional sites, and cross-media packages. AN is creating cross-media specialist roles within each of the national newspaper print-sales teams.
It has separate client and agency-focused sales teams for print and digital, but says they work closely for cross-media deals, particularly client-side.
Online ads for newspaper sites, including The Sun and The Times, are sold by separate sales teams, but the firm is reportedly considering creating a single unit to sell across all sites, and tying print and digital more closely.
It set up MGN Digital last year to sells ads on The Mirror, Sunday Mirror and The People sites, and work with the separate press teams for cross-media deals. Sales on the regional newspaper sites are handled by Amra, Mirror Group's sales house, which has a dedicated digital person, and locally.