JOE PIERGROSSI USED to teach Advo Inc. sales reps how to convert newspaper advertisers to direct mail.
Now he teaches newspapers how to countersell against what has become their biggest competitor for local retail advertising. Advo and other direct mailers.
In recent sessions at the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association (SNPA) convention in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., Piergrossi said newspapers need to shake up the culture of their ad sales departments if they are to compete against the cutthroat tactics taught at Advo, a company that has built its business largely at the expense of newspapers.
"I look at the sales culture of newspapers as all too often order-taking," said Piergrossi, who runs the Duluth, Ga., consulting firm Pier Associates and who is scheduled to conduct six sales seminars for SNPA next year. "The culture you had in the past is not what's going to take you into the future."
The newspaper industry's own complacence helped Advo to grow from an $80-million business in 1980 to $950 million in revenues last year, he said.
To stem the loss of advertising to direct mail - especially from grocery and drug stores - newspapers have to counter perceptions, which Advo hammers home to advertisers, that newspapers are passe, ineffective, lethargic, passive and altogether a sleeping giant.
By contrast, newspapers themselves often describe direct mail as aggressive, rate-cutting, predatory and motivated in the selling of junk mail.
Too often, newspapers fall victim to the very propaganda used against them, said Piergrossi, who in the last 18 months has consulted for some 40 newspapers.
"In most of my work with newspapers," he said, "your salespeople buy into their arguments."
One of those arguments is the fact that newspapers cost too much. In reality, he said, newspapers on average cost less than 1/2 [cts.] per household, making them far cheaper than the 3[cts.]-to-5[cts.] mailers' charge.
Another claim - that direct mail reaches 98% of the market - is belied by a 1991 U.S. Postal Service finding that 77% of people sort their mail and discard what they don't want without reading it.
At the same time direct mail has become a major contender for ad dollars, the marketers who buy advertising have become far more sophisticated than the sales reps who sell it, Piergrossi said.
"Most people are overwhelmed by the buyer's ability to buy and underwhelmed by their own ability to sell," he said.
Part of the problem, the consultant argued, is that newspapers too often see themselves as simply selling ad space when they should be a "continuum of services," including total-market-coverage advertising publications delivered by mail or private delivery service.
While some newspapers have embraced alternate delivery, others are waiting for it to go away, he said.
Meanwhile, newspaper total market coverage products are rarely successful. Nobody in the room at one session objected to Piergrossi's assessment that, in general, neither readers nor advertisers support them, and sales reps fail to muster much enthusiasm in selling them.
Part of the problem is that newspapers have "a passive, order-taking sales culture," Piergrossi told the publishers. "It's a real problem in your business."
For one thing, he said, newspapers' sales reps don't prospect enough for new accounts. …