What I learnt and loved about running a sales team during Covid
A view from Marco Bertozzi

What I learnt and loved about running a sales team during Covid

Spotify's EMEA ad sales boss picks eight highlights from this pandemic year and offers some suggestions for the post-vaccine era.

By this time last year, I would have visited every sales team in every country at least three times for varying lengths of time, I would have had client meetings in every country, presented at conferences, attended CES, Cannes Lions and Dmexco at a minimum.

Instead, I have been in my room, staring at my screen. I have not visited the office in close to nine months and have seen members of the team in person only once.

Sales leadership is something that is heavily influenced by human interaction. The people interactions are huge, people feed off each other in a very immediate way and momentum comes from those relationships. I have seen teams go up or down very rapidly based on those engagements.

Morale is very fluid, and so, in the past nine months, we have all had to adapt dramatically. I want to pause and give a huge shout-out to all those sales leaders out there – I have had a chance to talk with some of them and know they are feeling it too.

The pandemic has been like being in a car, seeing the corner coming but not having a steering wheel to turn.

At least in previous recessions the steering wheel was turning to the team, brainstorming, taking refuge in humour and finding camaraderie in facing something together – maybe a drink, maybe a meal, a fitness class, a pool night, things to break up the relentlessness.

This time it has been different and every single one of us in our industry has had to adapt and fast.

I can say, personally, that going to countries and walking in the office gives you a chance to chat, speak to different people, learn about them on the fly. You can talk to them directly and you can get feedback. Questions asked are important to me and in-person time tends to help draw that out.

The Hangouts/Zoom/Teams set-up means that is very hard in a larger group and you get the sense you are broadcasting the whole time. That’s my biggest sentiment – you are on broadcast, one-way dialogue.

It does get better in smaller groups, of course, but there is still an element of that, especially with people having to keep up with dialogues not in their first language.

The biggest casualty of Zoom days is that we tend to cut out the personal chat, or reduce it to a bare minimum, and that’s where we lose the connections.

And spare a thought for all the new people who started in a lockdown. We have had many and I have made a point of speaking to them all (on-going!). I am amazed at how positive they are and pleased our teams are rallying around them but excited about when they get back into the buzz.

So, when I look back on this year, what have we changed, how did we do it and how in all this craziness did we win Sales Team of The Year at Campaign’s Media Week Awards?

Agility

This comes top of the list for me. We all set so much store by strategy, we must have a plan and stick to it. This year was about how we adapt that plan or, indeed, whether we throw it out. Everything from how we interact, commission plans, market insights, the type of engagement, turnaround times, business rules around bookings and so on.

The pace of adaptation was amazing to see. My biggest goal was sharing of ideas/work/ideas across the region. The amount the teams have been inspiring each other has been incredible.

Brand

In sales, what you sell is crucial, and Spotify Advertising stepped up in the past nine months. A drumbeat of insights, updates and analysis (not to mention some big acquisitions and announcements) allowed the team to be active in the market, visible and relevant – turning pandemic insights into something marketable. Marketing that would have taken weeks was signed off and pushed out fast.

Offline to online

Linked to the above, the business had to get off its drug of live events, a focus we take for granted in sales. So, no Cannes, no Dmexco, and none of the local events. The transition to online saw us run LoveAudio events online across the region and they drew huge crowds. It is a topic for another day but there a lot of pros to these online events.

Team

We would all agree that we are burned out with video calls. However, it was still important to bring people together and build team spirit. I can’t think of a single thing we would do in person as a team that did not make it onto video hangouts: yoga, fitness, cooking, quizzes, training, drinking, eating, nail bars, hairdressing, concerts, interviews. You get the idea. All of these supplemented with chat groups that never stopped with humour and chat rolling every day – and, of course, UK boss Rak Patel’s music playlists being pumped out every day.

Empathy

Something that I know has been on all my leads’ minds has been how to make sure they can look after their teams and how each member of the team has been looking out for all the others. This has been huge, and taken a big, extra step in how we think about each other. When you are together every day, those conversations happen more easily and frequently, so through these incredibly stressful times, taking extra time to think about your colleagues and reach out has been crucial.

A big shout-out to the teams that lead amazing Employee Resource Groups, like Heart and Soul, supporting everyone. I hope this has made us all more empathetic than before, thinking more laterally about the team.

Sales skills

I will say that, as a sales team, we have got better at sales. I am talking about Spotify but I am willing to bet it went beyond us. Sales changed this year. We had to listen to advertisers’ needs more than ever, we had to be agile in our solutions, we had to adapt what we had to support the brands looking to spend and, indeed, those who didn’t. We had to dig deep into what sectors were benefitting and those that needed time.

It has been so tough this year, but I genuinely think we grew as a team and we come out better than we went in, with regard to sales skills. I have learned a lot personally and when I moved to sales from agency-side, this was not one I had prepped for – but what a learning curve.

Our clients

I think as an industry we came together like never before. The feeling of unity in such difficult times led to some meaningful questions and genuine conversations about life and business. We were all collectively grappling with what was in front of us and helping each other wherever possible. There was an openness about learning from each other.

I felt, as a sales person, that clients wanted to hear what we had to say and apply it to their own challenges. Too often, media brands are put in a box and opened up only when there is a very relevant connection. This past nine months have been more about learning collectively and thinking differently.

On-boarding

We have had to be really thorough around the process of on-boarding and make sure people have a real chance to learn about the business. I think this is a good thing that will stand us in great stead for future hiring, lockdown or not.

There is so much more I could cover. I just feel that, as a person, a team, a business and as an industry, we have grown and perhaps some of the new behaviours started in lockdown will carry on beyond.

Here are some things I would love to see continue in the post-vaccine era:

1. Not all client meetings have to be in person. The default question should be: does this meeting have to be in person?

2. An openness to listen and learn and not pre-judge what media brands have to say.

3. Purposeful meetings, shorter and filled with more challenges and ideas.

4. Events being professionally run to embrace online and offline elements, so they are more inclusive.

5. A camaraderie at an industry level – thinking collectively and in a way we solve things together.

6. Flexible working and more trust. Everyone has proved they can work from home. Let’s find that balance.

So, we are coming to the end of this 2020 and it could not have been harder. It has allowed me to grow, and I hope the team as a whole has grown and learned.

But there is no substitute, as a human being, to be around other human beings. No-one will persuade me otherwise.

Well done, all. Here's to 2021.

Marco Bertozzi is vice president of EMEA sales & multi-market global sales at Spotify. This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on his personal blog.

Photo: F.J. Jimenez/Getty