When revenue plateaus, you’ve got to change. John Jordan, the former head of digital revenue at The McClatchy Company—the United States’ third-largest newspaper publisher by daily circulation—shares insights into how he helped a 161-year-old sales organization achieve double-digit revenue growth with digital solutions and needs-based selling.

Want more? See them speak more about this topic at VendastaCon in Banff, Canada, April 3-5th, 2018. vendastacon.com

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George: It’s another edition of the Conquer Local podcast. When we thought about building a podcast, I wanted to make sure that I brought guests on to the show that had been there, done that, doing it, and delivering. I will tell you that this edition has been five years in the making. There’s one person that I have been talking to over the past five years that’s really shaped the way that I see a go-to-market strategy and I’m very pleased to bring him on to the program. Next, I’m also very pleased to announce that I am working with him at Vendasta Technologies as of earlier this year.

John Jordan, the former head of Digital Revenue for the McClatchy Company and now, Executive Vice President of Partner Development of Vendasta, coming up next. I’m gonna take you back about 14 months ago. This gentleman, sitting across from me and I, were at a convention in San Francisco, John Jordan, the former head of Digital Revenue for the McClatchy Company. Welcome to the podcast. I got to tell the story, though. John’s now joined us at Vendasta Technologies as our EVP of Partner Development. But before that, I met him five years ago and about 14 months ago, we were in San Francisco around the Union Square area. We walked back to the Hilton Hotel, met a gentleman from the NBC station in Iowa or Illinois or something with an I, some state with an I. And he’d won an Emmy Award. And John and I borrowed his Emmy Award, got a picture. I’ve posted it numerous times on my Facebook and Instagram the night that John Jordan and George Leith won an Emmy award. So I don’t know if this is Emmy Award-winning podcast material yet, but let’s see how the next 20 minutes or so go. Welcome to the podcast.

John: Thank you, George. I’m excited to be here with you.

George: So John, just give us a little bit of your background and how you arrived here. You’ve been involved in the newspaper business for a long time.

John: Yeah, actually I’m a newspaper dinosaur in a lot of ways. I’ve worked in newspapers my entire career, never outside newspapers, actually, for about 40 years. And I believe in journalism. And what we’ve been doing is transforming journalism. I first moved to digital in 1993, way back. And part of that was to protect journalism and move it forward. And that moved in to really driving revenue and driving audience. And it’s something that excites me and I have a passion for and I think that I wanna carry that on here with Vendasta as well.

George: So you and I used that term “dinosaur.” I talk about the gray in my hair after I stopped coloring it here recently. You know, we’ve been doing this a long time, but definitely, anybody that knows you or anybody that’s worked with you would not call you a dinosaur because you are an early adopter of digital and you also are a disruptor. And you’ve been a disruptor over these years as you’ve tried to transition a legacy, you know, a newspaper company that has a long and storied history in the United States, try to move it into digital, and I…you know, there’s some great lines that people that have worked with you have told me about you.

First one is #DigitalRevenueNeverSleeps and it does take naps though. And then the second one being #DoubleDigitGrowth and that was the things that you pushed into the organization was this thing isn’t going away, and this was in the early days, it isn’t going away. We’re gonna do it and we’re gonna be successful with that. Let’s talk about five years ago. I think you moved into your last role about six years ago when you were just starting to make this change. Let’s talk about some of those steps that you took.

John: A lot has happened in that time. Back then, when I transitioned into the Director of Digital Revenue from McClatchy, I think the organization, really the industry, was still about selling products and training was product-focused. And in the end, it was really about what was better for us than what was better for the client, driving revenue and receiving their commission. And what happened is we were able to get early success but that had more to do with the inefficiencies of the sales teams and trying to get them organized and getting them organized and turning that on than really being scientific on how we were going to approach the business. As the revenue started to grow, double-digit growth for McClatchy year after year and the nut was larger to continue that growth, we had to become more sophisticated and we really had to deal with the churn issue. And the churn issue meant…part of what we had to do is we had to really change the entire way we went to market.

George: So two churns. And I’d like you to cover this because, you know, let’s look at both churns. There was a churn in the clients but there was also churn in your salespeople.

John: Yes. The churn in the salespeople was intentional. You’re talking more about recently. Let me get to that. I think the churn of the clients, I think, especially for your listeners who are from the newspaper industry, in particular, I think, know what happened the last 10 years. We were in free fall early after the recession and I think that changed. And we’ve been recovering from that ever since then. Part of that recovery, quite frankly, though, is revolutionizing the way our sales teams works. And McClatchy’s been working on that for the last three years or so, initially started out calling it sales reinvention. I don’t know that it’s really the sales reinvention anymore, it’s the sales evolution because it continues to change. But what that also means, depending upon the newspaper property McClatchy walked into, the ad department from leadership on down is probably completely different today than it was 18 months ago. There are some organizations where there’s been a complete change.

George: Right. You know, to take this for our audience and we’re excited to say, we’re getting listeners from all around the world, when I was on my recent trip to Australia, we went through the Fairfax organization. That is a title. Those titles in Australia have been around for hundreds of years and when you go to their newspaper buildings, it’s not in the old building that it used to be in downtown. It is in a bright, modern, more like a tech feel. I come from a tech company at Vendasta, but the newspapers in Australia feel like tech companies. And you’ve saw that as well inside McClatchy and there are other organizations in the U.S. that have done this as well.

John: Right. I wouldn’t say that all of ours have made…I know ours, all of the McClatchy properties have made the transition to looking like a tech company but many of them have. They’ve moved out of their old buildings and are in more modern digs where they’re able to have more fun and it’s not just fun, but to feel like that they are modern. They’re not embarrassed to bring a client in who’s looking at the old press in the foyer.

George: And I knew when I was in the newspaper business, that was an exciting thing was to take the client and show them the printing press. But if they haven’t subscribed to the newspaper in three years, it’s not really something that gets them excited. So I get that. Let’s talk about the thing that you undertook three years ago. There was a decision made at the time to bring in an organization called the Alexander Group. You and I have got to know. You even know them very well. I’ve got to know them here in the past year, AGI as they’re called. Let’s talk about what role they played in the sales reinvention.

John: So we did bring…McClatchy did bring consultants in early on to look at everything from comp plans to sales organization, to roles inside of the group and really to segment the clients as well. And probably for the first 18…two years of the sales evolution of the ad departments, AGI, our outside consultants were involved. At this point, the organization is moving forward on our own. But I think what is important there is you really need to look at the entire sales organization from top to bottom and from left to right because the reality is there’s a lot of legacy in there. And really, what we’re talking about is changing the way that we operate in all aspects and the single, hardest nut to crack is changing the culture.

George: Right. And you have a famous line and I wanna make sure that we get that out there because we have listeners to the podcast that are part of organizations, large and small organizations. We’ve got people that are just running their own agency and they’re trying to become a better salesperson. Maybe they had a product focus but they really want to get out there and talk to the clients and relate to the clients. You have this saying that I’d like you to repeat for everybody on the podcast about what you need to have to make sure that you are not displaced in this industry.

John: Yeah. So I don’t know if it’s really a saying. I think the key is though that one has to be agile today. You have to be able to maneuver. If you’re a sales leader or a sales rep anywhere today, unless you’re going to be able to change with the marketplace, you’re going to be obsolete.

George: Right. You know, there’s a very famous Al Pacino line that I’d like to quote now from the award-winning movie “Any Given Sunday.” And Al Pacino’s… It’s probably one of the best speeches to motivate of all time, the inches, you claw for those inches. But there’s this other line where he’s yelling at the defense and he says, “You guys gotta do some…” They’re down. They’re down two touchdowns and he says the defense… “I don’t know. You got to do something. And man, you gotta get your head on a swivel. You gotta be looking around. You gotta be looking to see what’s coming next.” And that’s really what you’re talking about is you have to be looking for the next opportunity. You’ve got to be making that change. You gotta have your head on a swivel if you’re gonna be a salesperson.

John: Yeah. That’s exactly right. And it’s not just the salesperson, but it’s also the sales leadership. And I think that especially mid-level management is an area that always needs a focus because without the coaching, without the support of sales reps… We talk a lot about holding sales reps accountable and it’s true. We should hold sales reps accountable, but it’s not just about holding sales reps accountable. It’s also about helping them move into the future that we’re all moving toward. And that means that sales leadership has to understand that. Unfortunately, they’re often the more tenured people and that’s not where the changes are being made. And I’ll tell you that anybody who embarks on sales transformation, unless you are willing to take on the culture and unless you are willing to go after the sacred cows, which also means some of the people who may be standing in the way, you shouldn’t even try.

George: Yeah. You know, there’s a very…you know, I heard this a couple… You actually were at this convention in late November with a bunch of sales executives and I was attending a session. It was the Chief Revenue Officer of Lenovo Software, Sal is his name, and he made a very interesting statement. He said that the leaders of revenue organizations have very strong opinions loosely held, meaning they’ve got a strong opinion, they’re gonna push their agenda but if they find some sort of data or they find some sort of a compelling argument why they need to look elsewhere or change that view, they need to do it. So it comes back to your agility comment again. Let’s talk about the mistakes. So if we can watch out for the potential mistakes, during the sales transformation and the things that you were doing to move the organization, what are some things you wished you could have done differently?

John: I think as you said, the process…we embarked on the process roughly three years ago, three and a half maybe, I think the organization might have been a little slow to accept, and I’m rehashing something I just said, to accept some of the pain and the disruption that we were going to incur inside the organization. And being able to move faster on that, especially in a time of need right now, both for our clients but also for the business, I think would have made a huge difference.

George: I had somebody send me a message the other day on LinkedIn and they said, “Where did you come up with this sales process that you’re professing inside this podcast? Where did this thing come from?” Well, John and I beat this thing up over the last five years over and over and over again where we were talking about needs-based selling, yeah, but you also have to come up with really good strategies. And then we talked about tactics and then we talked about how you deliver proof of performance. And in this message, the person said, “Why should I listen to you? What’s the proof behind this?” Well, the proof behind it is the double-digit growth that you had by following a process that follows that insights into the strategy, and you know, maybe not yours. Maybe you didn’t invent it but you were one of the people that have kind of perfected it to get it to the point that it’s at today where it’s delivering results.

John: Yeah. And I don’t know if it was as much as perfecting that as helping be one of those, just one of many inside the company, that really profess the idea that we needed to move away from selling widgets. And we need to move towards selling results for our clients, which then would turn to monthly reoccurring revenue, which moves to growth. I mean, it’s really a pretty easy formula. The less churn you have, the more likely you’re able to grow in the business. One of the things that we’ve really focused on or we focused on in the last 18 months, and it’s a very simple concept and it’s almost embarrassing to bring it up and we use very interesting language, we called it “harvest to growth.” And really what that means is if you look across your organization, you’re going to find all types of clients that buy from you the way that they always purchased from. If you’re a newspaper company, then they’re going to be buying that print from you like they always did. Most likely though, every year, they’re buying a little bit less print.

What you want to do is turn that client that you’re really harvesting into a growth client. And what that means is you have to change the conversation. There’s a great story, “Miami Herald” is where some of the largest wins for McClatchy with Accelerate, the digital agency out of McClatchy, has had a lot of success finding those harvest clients and having an entirely different conversation with them to help them understand that we’re not about selling you something. We’re about helping you succeed as a business. And what that means is the conversation from day one is, “What do you need to be successful?” And we’re going to deliver it to you. If you are really successful in having that conversation, you have a contract with the client that doesn’t even talk to selling media, doesn’t talk to the digital advertiser you’re selling, it’s all built around results.

George: Right. And surfacing those results early in that sales conversation and setting the stage for the results, it’s also…ties into setting expectations. And you found that that was one of the big things that you changed if you really properly set expectations that churn number went way down because the client found satisfaction.

John: Yeah. I’m gonna respond to that maybe a little indirectly. What’s interesting about that, and you know this, George, you work with the organizations all the time. You come in and do training. They’re able to sell your product and you’ll get a bump, but then it will either plateau or maybe even drop. And the reason that that’s happening is because we’re not really focusing on the result, we’re focusing on selling something. And it’s not just Vendasta products, it’s any product that we’re out there selling. And what we did is we had to really look at the way that we were training our sales teams and that training had to move away from product focus and really focus more on digital marketing and the consumer journey. The way the consumers are purchasing today and how that impacts our clients, the businesses that we’re working with. And that way, you’re really talking from a business standpoint and you’re not in there talking about selling advertising. That’s difficult for traditional media companies from the newspaper business where they sold rectangles on paper, which moved to rectangles on digital. Frankly, in the end, everything is about selling a widget. That’s the paradigm that we have to break, whichever legacy business you’re in that’s moving beyond that.

George: And you always like to remind me that you don’t want to get caught up in the advertising trap. Can we talk a little bit about that ads trap? And other guests have mentioned it as well. We’re not just… When we talk about digital, and sometimes when people talk about digital, they just think about advertising, but there’s all this digital marketing out there that actually is stickier and there’s more budget for it and there’s more need for it.

John: Yeah. And I think that’s one of the things that we have to continue to work on inside of our own organizations because there’s a tendency, again, to sell media. And really when we’re looking at digital revenue in the marketplace, it’s oven divided between what is advertising and what are services. And does it really make sense the two should be separate because you really have to look at them together? But in the end, where the revenue growth is, it’s the services. It’s building the websites, it’s consulting with the clients to help them get it. And then the media and the products that are on the backside are just levers you pull to help drive that.

George: A real pleasure to have you on the podcast today and an even bigger pleasure to have you a part of the team at Vendasta. I’m looking forward to some big things over the next few years. I’m sure there’ll be some violent agreement between you and I as the days go by. We have you on another edition here before too long. Thanks for joining us, John.

John: Thanks, George.

Well, truly a pleasure to have John in studio to speak to you, our listeners. I’ve spoke to him for tens of hundreds of hours over the last five years where we’ve beat this thing up, down, sideways, reinvented it, thought about it, went back and forth. I’m very privileged to be able to continue to have those conversations, but what we wanna touch on is just a few of the takeaways. The first is that you really need to make sure your entire organization is aligned around selling digital and the fact that you need to be selling the results and not selling the widgets. So that’s a really important piece of this puzzle. And John has the scars, the battle scars from learning that firsthand over the last five and a half years.

The other thing is, is you don’t want to get in a trap of any one product and selling what the sales manager wants you to sell or selling what’s easy. You need to be focused, again, on that holistic solution for the client. That is this week’s edition of the Conquer Local podcast. Make sure that you get online and leave us a rating. We’d love to get some feedback from you on the podcast and we’re looking forward to future episodes as we continue to help you conquer local. I’m George Leith. I’ll see you when I see you.