New Software Gives Execs Hard Facts

Laptops, PDAs, Blackberries provide instant ad-avail info

When Bob Beville began his TV-sales career 26 years ago, the most important tools of the trade were a legal pad and a couple of pens. Now sales director for Waterman Broadcasting’s WBBH Fort Myers, Fla., he remembers scratching out handwritten ratings estimates on pieces of paper and submitting advertising schedules to his traffic department. “It was a tremendously manual process,” Beville says.

For today’s TV-sales professional, those rudimentary communication tools have been supplanted by portable computers and software. These tools deliver instant access to the nerve centers of station ad-sales operations.

In recent years, station-software providers have added sales-proposal products by introducing home-grown applications, forging integration arrangements with outside providers or buying up smaller companies. In May, for instance, Harris Corp. fortified its presence by paying $32 million to buy Optimal Solutions Inc. (OSI), a Kansas provider of Windows-based TV-sales and traffic software.

Separating out supplier revenue from sales-support software (versus overall traffic and scheduling software) is difficult. Eric Mathewson, founder of San Francisco-based supplier WideOrbit, figures the roughly 1,100 U.S. commercial TV stations account for $33 million a year and a growing number of digital offshoot channels another $15 million.

The digital revolution adds another chunk of business. Sales tied to digital channels like The Tube and NBC Weather Plus helped Wide Orbit add more than 80 stations to its account roster through August, lifting its station total (including radio outlets) to 585.

The sales-support tools usually unify a number of the processes and databases required to propose ad schedules, submit orders and get booking into traffic systems. If there’s one symbolic victim of modernization from the TV-sales past, it’s the romantic image of the wheeler-dealer sales exec.

“It used to be, you’d write an order on a cocktail napkin and hand it to a manager,” says Mathewson, a former investment-portfolio manager. “Now, with one touch, you can get an order from an agency into the electronic workflow, get approval and get onto traffic.”

The new breed of systems integrates classic sales-support functions—contact-management tools, appointment scheduling—with station schedules, ratings information and inventory-management intelligence.

One result is to reduce the historical gulf between sales agents and traffic operations. Account execs get a clear window of available time they can sell advertisers, explains John Larrabee, VP North America for Pilat Media. That firm is testing a hand-held PDA that allows salespeople to schedule time buys while on the fly. Other software companies offer a variety of solutions, too.

“Salespeople are able to quickly and accurately propose inventory that is actually available and meets the ratings and audience requirements the advertiser is looking for,” says Lowell Putnam, CEO of VCI Solutions, which provides traffic and billing software.

Managers at WBBH, which installed a sales-proposal platform from Birmingham, Ala.-based OneDomain about 18 months ago, are convinced they’re getting more deals closed because of the new tool, partly because it lets account executives work more efficiently. “It has changed life dramatically for us,” says Beville. “We’re getting things done much more quickly.”

He likes the fact that OneDomain’s ClearView software integrates with VCI’s Orion traffic system. That means account executives can peer electronically into inventory conditions to ensure that the schedules they propose involve available inventory. The capability prevents conflicts that would have to be corrected later.

That may sound intuitive, but displaying a true condition of inventory demand can be surprisingly complicated. There are important distinctions in how inventory-sellout conditions are presented within software packages. Having a sense of real-time inventory pressure helps salespeople adjust pricing on the fly to fetch higher rates for inventory that appears to be attracting strong demand—and to avoid losing sales because somebody else grabbed the available time at a lower rate.

“What happens too often is blissful ignorance,” says Mathewson.: “The avail comes back, they want the inventory, and you say, 'Too late, sold out.’ What should happen,” he adds, “is that, as you’re quoting prices, you have been marking up your rates.”

Some systems automatically calculate higher rates based on pre-set conditions. Marketron, for instance, says its TV-sales software creates optimal spot pricing based partly on inventory-sellout levels.

The information-technology revolution has changed the business. “Most account executives are armed with laptops, PDAs and Blackberries,” says OSI VP/General Manager Ed Adams. That allows them to log into secured station traffic platforms from client offices or even a nearby coffee shop with wireless Internet access. Account executives from the 140 TV stations that use OSI’s AdConnections platform can extract up-to-the-day Nielsen Media Research ratings, view inventory conditions and produce post-campaign analyses for agencies off their computer, he says.

That keeps them selling, too, rather than doing paperwork. Says Putnam, “You meet with [clients] and then go down the street to Starbucks and do the work, e-mail the proposal, and move on to your next appointment.”