Cable’s secret ad sales weapon: people

In a local advertising marketplace where lines of demarcation between media providers are blurring, cable’s most effective competitive weapon isn’t addressable advertising, dynamic VOD insertion or multi-screen advertising placement, says Time Warner Cable Media President Joan Gillman.

It’s people.

With the Yellow Pages market unraveling and the radio business consolidating, the local cable advertising industry now has one of the larger feet-on-the-street salesforces in the local media sector. Last week we collected estimated counts of account executives from four of the industry’s largest players, tallying up more than 3,500 total AEs from Comcast (2,200), TWC Media (700), Charter Media (500) and Viamedia (350). Those companies collectively represent more than half of the industry, but there are other significant sales teams in the market representing Cox Media, Cablevision Systems, Mediacom Communications, Suddenlink Communications, Cable One and others. A conservative estimate is around 5,000 AEs in the U.S. local cable advertising sector.

I spoke to Gillman recently about the relatively unheralded resource possessed by the local cable advertising industry. She thinks the ability to maintain consultative relationships with thousands of local businesses at a time when advertising options are plentiful — and often confusing — is a big plus for the sector. “I truly believe it’s one of the most significant differentiators of our industry,” says Gillman. “When we touch a client, the client feels it.”

The impact isn’t just reflective of the client-facing team alone. Beyond its 700 commissioned AES,, Gillman notes TWC Media is made up of more than 1,700 total employees, including specialists in video production, market research, operations and related areas. But it’s a sales force connecting tens of thousands of local business owners with an increasingly complicated electronic media marketplace that gives cable a potential advantage.

Within the last 10 years, businesses have flocked to search-based online advertising and seen an uprising in local video advertising options from websites established by newspapers, local broadcasters and independent online publishers. At the same time, cable’s bread-and-butter business of selling local commercials within ad breaks of cable TV networks has been battered by eroding household circulation and viewing fragmentation. Cable companies like TWC have countered by establishing representation and interconnect arrangements with the likes of AT&T’s U-verse and Verizon’s FiOS TV. But there’s no question the environment has gotten more complicated. That’s why Gillman and others believe cable, with large numbers of local sales reps who call on businesses daily, has a chance to stand out.

“We’ve had people tell us what we do is like bringing Madison Ave. to Main Street,” Gillman says, referring to the ability to help make sophisticated electronic media options easy to grasp. As the local advertising world becomes even more complicated, that sort of human touch could be more important than ever.