Media: All about ... Online sales operations

A lack of senior sales talent is hurting online companies.

There is, according to some observers, a huge online talent shortage. In the late 90s, online media owners were recruiting like there was no tomorrow, but when the dotcom crash hit, there was a mass clear-out - including a fair chunk of the brightest and best in that first wave.

Those that stayed through the darkest days took a gamble with their careers, but they've been rewarded hugely now that things have taken off again. They basically run the new economy.

And, of course, as Web 2.0 has gained momentum, there's been a renewed recruitment drive, but that second wave isn't really experienced enough to fulfil senior roles. Not yet. Certainly not in jobs that involve interfacing with the offline world and the broader economy. Advertising sales and marketing, for instance.

There's just not enough expertise to go round. One solution has been to poach people from conventional media owners - the likes of Andy Jonesco, a former ad sales director at the Telegraph and managing director of Express Newspapers, who became the marketing and ad sales boss at AOL in 2002, subsequently rising to UK managing director. Or Mark Howe, a former director of the digital television sales house ids, who jumped ship to become Google's commercial boss in 2006.

But, as recent events have shown, the major online media owners exert a tenuous hold on such so-called "old media" talent. Jonesco, for one, has recently joined Sky, to oversee its online business unit.

Of late, the big online-only media owners have seemed to combine in a game of poaching talent from one another to supplement the wave of senior people who joined from more "traditional" media businesses. However, with a series of recent departures, the talent pool is looking more than a little shallow.

It's just as well, you could argue, that advertisers are still in the mood to throw money unquestioningly at them. Granted, Google's inventory - and, indeed, all search inventory - doesn't need much selling. It's offered on a take it or leave it basis. Either it works or it doesn't, and its effectiveness is instantly and transparently measurable.

Display, supposedly online's big new growth area, is a far less mechanistic world. It doesn't sell itself.

1. Yahoo! has been hardest hit by recent events. At the start of October, Blake Chandlee, its UK commercial director, confirmed he was leaving the company to set up a UK sales operation for Facebook. Days later, Yahoo!'s head of agency sales, Miles Lewis (who had been poached from AOL in July 2006), resigned, and is thought to be joining the online music service Then, last week, Stephen Haines, the head of agency strategy, announced he was following Chandlee to Facebook. These defections came just after Yahoo! announced slightly disappointing third-quarter results. Worldwide revenues were $1.58 billion, but profits were down 5 per cent year on year to $151 million.

2. AOL has also been hard hit. Jonesco resigned in April 2007, followed soon after by Phil Guest, the head of commercial development, who left to join a non-media company. Then, in July, Michael Moore, who was instrumental in setting up AOL's European operations, having first joined the company in the US in 1998, left to become the executive director of consumer markets at Telegraph Media Group. AOL responded by poaching Michael Steckler, MSN's head of sales and business development. His arrival and subsequent promotion to UK managing director, confirmed last week, triggered the departure of the UK sales director, Giles Ivey, who is joining Times Media as its first digital commercial director.

3. The most consistent and highly regarded UK sales operation is MSN's, run by Chris Ward, who became the commercial director in 2002, but who has been with the company since 1996. Ward keeps a low profile, and MSN also escapes the sort of scrutiny that the other major players are subject to - its results aren't reported separately and remain hidden within the Microsoft figures as a whole.

4. Google has been hiring consistently since Howe's arrival in January 2006 (24 new ad sales employees in the first year alone), and high-profile additions this year have included Jonathan Gillespie, the former head of radio at OPera, to head up agency relationships; Philip Miles, a former group sales director at Maiden Outdoor; and Peter Cory, a former strategic solutions director at the Radio Advertising Bureau.



- Yahoo! would certainly seem to have the most to worry about following recent events. MSN is seen as solid and dependable, and AOL, principally under Jonesco, has built good relationships with UK agencies. But Chandlee has arguably been the UK market's most charismatic online sales boss - and he will be a hard act to follow.


- In recent years, the big online players have made great strides towards bringing some measure of consistency and decent levels of service to this market.

- But, in recent months, a number of (highly innovative) advertising projects have gone horribly wrong, with initiatives being given the green light by mid-ranking sales teams, then being subject to endless rounds of interference by senior UK executives before being canned at the eleventh hour by executives in the US.

- Agencies say that, even when at the top of their game, few online sales teams are consistently able to see the big picture in their conversations with advertisers.

- In terms of content generation and consumer interaction, the online sector is the media industry's most innovative and exciting place to be. It's unfortunate, to say the least, that the same can't be said of the sector's sales efforts.