Digital Media Is Like Ice Cream


In the late 2000s, I received meeting requests from every digital ad network that existed in the country. I was running digital media for Ford, and in those pre-programmatic days, we spent a lot of money with ad networks. As most of our spend was concentrated with a few select partners, almost none of these presentations from other networks went very far.

After one such meeting, the rep and I met up for dinner… and a real conversation. Divorced from the sales presentation that had come from New York, he asked me the frank question he should have asked before we even had the first meeting:

What do we have to do to gain your business?

My response:

Ask more questions. Understand our needs. Once you do, you’ll find where the opportunities are – and you’ll stop trying to sell me something I’m already buying from someone else.

In this case, it was digital display media inventory through an ad network. It was Vanilla ice cream. And the official deck from corporate (which he admitted was mandatory to use) was trying to sell me more Vanilla ice cream. Not even a variant, like Vanilla Bean or French Vanilla, just the same old stuff we were already buying.

I explained that if he wanted to win our business, he needed to offer something different. Something better. He needed to explain why either 1) their Vanilla is uniquely superior to what I’m already getting, or 2) they have an entirely new flavor or product I should consider.

So what could that look like for display networks (keeping the ice cream analogy alive)?


Premium or Unique Inventory – access to certain sites I can only buy direct or through their network. Premium inventory on brand safe sites (particularly contextually relevant to what I sell) always gets our attention.

1st Party Data & Algorithms – access to first party customer data I cannot buy on the open market or recreate with different partners. Better data, better targeting, better ROI.

Same Quality, Less Money – deliver our ads to the same customers on the same brand-safe sites at a fraction of the cost. But remember switching costs are real – and you are asking me to divorce a team I already trust to go with an unproven new partner. If you can’t save me ~20% I probably won’t make the jump.


Brand new market offerings – what can you offer I haven’t seen before? Sometimes innovations were just significant iterations of existing products, but those new products that were interesting, relevant, and exclusive had a much better shot at our business.

In the case of this rep, he took the challenge and pursued the creation of a new ice cream treat. Five months later – and after frequent check-in conversations (not presentations) – he brought us something completely innovative and unique to his company; it was the equivalent of introducing Klondike Bars to a room full of Vanilla ice cream eaters. And he scored a huge sale for the firm he was representing.

Although the world of digital display has evolved significantly since those network days, the two fundamental takeaways for anyone in ad sales is the same:

  • Know your client: What does your potential client already have in place? Do you know why? Do you understand what they are trying to achieve? If you don’t, that should be the sole agenda item of your first meeting. You should be building a relationship with the client (and their agency), not just making a sale. And periodic check-ins can insure their priorities haven’t changed
  • Know yourself: What is your unique selling proposition (USP)? Can you succinctly articulate how and why you are different than your competitors in the space? Do you know who they are? Can you offer something truly different? If not, your real job might be to tell your product engineers what your customers really need.

Marketing tech will continue to evolve, but reps that listen, build relationships and are self-aware will always be the ones that sell the most … of anything.

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