We've come a long way since the idea of separate business units was first articulated.
The idea was fielded - and largely ignored - by established media years ago, first by the "Newspaper Next Project" and then by Borrell & Associates who made it a mantra. In reality it is clearly impossible to build a new company that takes advantage of disruption in the marketplace, by operating inside the organizational structure of the old company. An independent business unit - not company - is needed.
But the original idea infiltrated its way into established media in pernicious ways - and that is one reason why it was not adopted faster. For one thing, many executives interpreted the theory as meaning that everything digital had to happen over there.
Today not even "separate or perish" guru Gilbert Clark is willing to go that far.
Remember when some legacy teams were often not even allowed to sell digital?. I personally battled this one out in the C-suite, lost, and had to explain to print reps why they were too... ?... to sell digital campaigns. No fun.
We've all seen a gungho digital expert deploy a fancy new sales team - and denigrate established media teams as people who "can't do it" - without being able to produce revenue results, new market share or new business models. Ouch.
Eventually most of these "separate teams" collapsed into an integrated sales force because the pure digital sellers simply could not sell accounts in competition with legacy reps whose relationships went back years. By the time the point was won, time was lost, trust was an issue, blood was all over the floor. One of the victims was the concept of the separate business unit itself.
How about the old argument: If the legacy reps won't sell digital, by God, the digital only sellers will. Trouble was, this approach failed to leverage current relationships and still did nothing to build marketshare. It just threw more resources into the same old accounts, who, by the way, were not all that jazzed up about banner ads to begin with. Today, if advertising sellers can't sell digital, they are out of a job.
On the other hand deep search products seemed to do best with a new sales team, but could be sold by the legacy team, with at least an initial assist. Ah ha!
Clearly media sales teams had been over-analyzed and misunderstood. Fortunately most media companies have gotten better. And today, a small, but level-headed cadre of executives is creating separate business units again. This group understands how to value and utilize legacy teams, and fully articulate the areas where separate teams run by a parallel new unit, developing new products, are best deployed.
Television stations, never had the sheer number of local accounts, so creating a new digital only team to sell new digital only accounts, and reporting to the head of interactive, made sense at WBOC.com, this week's case study. This core team will eventually launch independent products as well. The reporting structure for a new business unit will be largely in place, should the company head down that path.
Already most large media companies have corporate interactive positions who regularily create programs they hope will be a little like lightening streaking down to reenergize the digital sales effort - but which don't always, well, have that effect.
A greater scope of mission - to take more of the digital marketshare in their DMA away from all the other digital competitors - requires investment and, yes, even the dreaded digital-only sellers. This time, however, maybe the new interactive sellers will finally focus on gaining new markets and their managers will understand and respect the talent within the legacy company.
New business units, with, this time, more respectful management, can provide legacy sales people and managers with more opportunities, not fewer, within their own company. Good for all concerned.
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