Sherry Phillips On Paper!
By Wendy McHale
Before I became an entrepreneur, I sold print advertising for over... well, let's just say for a long time! Over the years I've worked along side and befriended some very talented women. I was thinking about some of my collegues recently when it hit me that most of the people I'd had a conversation with in this Journal were men. I was inadvertently neglecting the chance to tap into the insight and experience of my female colleagues.
So over the past few months I've taken the opportunity to meet with many female executives in magazines, newspapers, radio and interactive in order to to get their views on how the media landscape is changing.
I'm thrilled to begin this series with a conversation I had recently with Sherry Phillips, Vice President, National Sales, for The Philadelphia Inquirer, the flagship newspaper of Philadelphia Media Holdings, LLC (PMH).
Sherry is part of the executive team at PMH and has helped make an enormous difference in revitalizing the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com. As compared to the shrinkage we see with every other US newspaper, PMH's properties are expanding in circulation, advertising, new products, services, columnists, editions and even laboratories; all with a fair amount of buzz in the 4th largest city in America.
As you might expect this was just one of the reasons I was delighted we could chat!
Wendy: How are you?
Sherry: I'm doing very well, thanks!
Wendy: Before we get into talking about the industry, tell us about your background and what you were doing before you joined the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Sherry: Well, I'm from the Philadelphia area. I went to the University of Michigan as an English major and then my last my last semester I went to NYU for their journalism program. That's where I fell in love with publishing. At first I wanted to get into the editorial side of a magazine. I had a friend who owned a small publishing business in Philadelphia that published medical journals. I was asked to come aboard to help them launch a new trade title in the dermatology area. However, it was on the ad sales side.
Sherry: So I did it and realized I really enjoyed the sales aspect of it. I was there for 2 years and then decided it was time for me to head to New York. Much to my delight I landed a job at Travel and Leisure Magazine. The switch going from a small controlled publication in Philadelphia to a national consumer publication was quite a change, but I found it even more exciting. From there the pace picked up dramatically!
Wendy: How so?
Sherry: Well, I was only at T&L for a little more than a year when Forbes Magazine contacted me to discuss taking on the ad director role for Forbes FYI, (Now known as Forbes Life) their consumer and lifestyle magazine.
Sherry: Yes. It was a great opportunity; I never thought I would work at a business magazine. I remember walking into the door the first day thinking, "God, I'm hooked!" I was with Forbes for over ten years! It was a wonderful experience.
Wendy: So you were in ad sales for a national publication a little over a year and then became ad director for FYI, that's really something!
Sherry: Yes. I was very lucky. The stars lined up perfectly. In addition to my taking on the ad director position, on the Forbes Magazine side of things, Bill Flatley, who hired me wanted me to focus on a specific list of key accounts as well. I worked very closely with Bob Forbes who managed Forbes FYI directly. He really mentored me. His goal was to focus on the European side of the business. We did that and worked a lot overseas, cultivating those relationships and it worked out very well.
Wendy: That must have been fun.
Sherry: It was! I was able to get involved with almost every aspect of the publication; from laying out the magazine and working closely with many of our clients, to making sure costs were managed in order to help the magazine generate a profit.
Wendy: You had a lot on your hands.
Sherry: I did and I loved every minute of it. We really broke a lot of ground there. Forbes Life is a wonderful magazine. It's one of those products that really delivers well for its advertisers. There aren't many men's lifestyle magazines that are truly sophisticated. So many of them try to copy Forbes Life but can't, because Forbes Life's DNA is in the Forbes organization itself.
Wendy: That's a great way of saying it.
Sherry: Forbes Life is now over 15 years old. Back then we were packaged as a supplement to Forbes Magazine. It was also that way for Forbes ASAP, for the technology sector. By then, tech was really on the upswing. Forbes ASAP was introduced just at the right time, since tech was by then exploding. The competition got very hot, very fast.
Wendy: Let's talk about how you were lured away from Forbes to move over to the Philadelphia Inquirer. What's the story there?
Sherry: Well, I was on the train one day going up to New York from Philadelphia and bumped into Brian Tierney who had just purchased the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com back in 2006 under the Philadelphia Media Holdings (PMH) umbrella. Brian was well-known in Philadelphia based on his success with his ad agency, which was the largest in the city. When we bumped into each other, he had just closed the deal that very week! It was all over the New York Times and all the trades. As you can imagine it was big news in Philadelphia as well. Hometown hero buys the local paper!
Wendy: Very cool!
Sherry: So we sat and talked about media strategies with print and online and how it had changed the landscape of advertising sales. I remember that discussion. I think it had a big effect on both of us. When we departed the train he said he would give me a shout in about six months once he got settled in. He called me almost six months to the day.
Wendy: What did he say?
Sherry: He said, "I want to hire you!"
Wendy: LOL! That's a great story.
Sherry: He hit me with the offer at a time when I began to feel I needed to spend more time with my family. The idea of working closer to home in Philadelphia sounded pretty enticing. It was still a pretty difficult move since I was leaving my business family.
Wendy: That must not have been easy.
Sherry: It wasn't. But I am still very much in touch with all my friends there. I came over to the Philadelphia Inquirer this past January and hit the ground running! It was actually a smoother transition than I had expected. The people at this organization are first-rate and it's been fun working with the PMH executive team.
Wendy: Let's talk about the Philadelphia market. I grew up in Southern Jersey so I know the city pretty well, but I think a lot of people especially New Yorkers can't really put Philadelphia in a place in their minds except of course for the legendary Philly cheese steaks and sports teams! You've worked in both cities. Tell me what you think makes the Philadelphia market different from other parts of the country especially New York?
Sherry: Well first and foremost, Philadelphia is the fourth largest DMA in the country so its size is something to be reckoned with. There are differences between New York and Philadelphia of course but there are tremendous similarities because they both are major metropolitan cities. If there's a lack of understanding or sense of the personality of Philadelphia it's largely only among people who've never been to it. They just think it's sandwiched between NY and DC
Wendy: But the differences go beyond geographic proximity, don't they?
Sherry: Absolutely. While Philadelphia is a city, to Philadelphians it feels more like a home town.
Sherry: What comes out of that is a fierce loyalty to the city and all that's in it. I think what makes Philadelphia different is the same reason why the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News are so different than all other newspapers. Almost every other newspaper company around the country is decreasing. We're expanding. It's a very passionate and lively market.
Wendy: Why is that?
Sherry: It's really a special place. People in Philadelphia really like people and companies that are in Philadelphia. If there's a reason that most people outside Philly don't understand it, that's because they are not insiders. It's like an unspoken code between people here.
Wendy: Give me an example.
Sherry: I'll give you a perfect example! The new owners of this media company are made up entirely of local business owners, headed by Brian Tierney. That shows a great deal of pride by its residents for this city. I'm not aware of another city that would have had the same reaction of being so excited when it was announced that their local business leaders were buying the metropolitan newspapers. That's truly unique. It's almost unheard of. When is there excitement in the street because somebody bought a media company? Media companies are bought and sold everyday. The only people you hear celebrating are the ones who made off with millions; not the people who are involved with the media every day and are being served by it. It was really quite a thrill. It was another vote in the confidence and pride that people at all levels have about the city.
Wendy: That sounds impressive.
Sherry: For quite some time, there was a feeling that the former owners did not have a commitment or passion for Philadelphia or to the Inquirer, the Daily News or Philly.com. PMH made a commitment to the city that it would make these products the best they could be. I think a lot of people would agree that so far PMH has really come through on keeping that promise.
Wendy: The numbers certainly indicate that. Let's talk about the advertiser side of things. When you were with Forbes, you were selling ads in the Philadelphia area. Were they regional ads?
Sherry: They were national accounts based in Philadelphia tri-state area. Plus, I called on their advertising agencies in New York. Here at the Inquirer I still see some of the same people, but with an entirely different media product. It's great that I've been able to maintain those relationships.
Wendy: What is it like to go from a national magazine to a newspaper? Can you give me some of the differences from a sales perspective?
Sherry: There is something really unique about PMH which makes the sales proposition quite strategic, especially for a local media property. Brian created a new division called Media Lab. There's nothing out there like it in the newspaper business.
Wendy: What is it?
Click on photo for more info.
Sherry: You might call it an in-house brainstorming operation at the Inquirer. It's a Media Lab where our great creative team, our clients and ad agencies can work together to utilize PMH properties to maximize clients needs.
Sherry: Media Lab gives clients creative ways for them to utilize the papers through print executions and new technologies at Philly.com. Some of the programs they've developed have really blown me away. Media Lab really equips the sales teams with the tools they need to speak to advertisers so that the advertiser can see the "art of the possible." Too often people don't think of newspapers as the creative medium that they can be.
Wendy: Give me an example.
Sherry: Media Lab will develop options for the advertiser to consider, mock up the ads so they can see the ad execution before it runs, whether it's on Page One or if it's an integrated marketing program. It has a galvanizing effect, particularly for advertisers who have relied on newspapers before but have not seen how they can be used creatively. Media Lab makes it easy for clients. It's important because from an advertiser's perspective, the frustration with newspapers is that it's too hard mechanically and physically to do creative things.
Wendy: What are you planning to do with Media Lab as it grows?
Sherry: Even though we've already accomplished so much, Media Lab is really just getting started. We say it's still in beta. We're planning to continue testing and learning with it here. Then the plan in the next cycle is to roll it out for our advertisers who are also advertising in other markets, as well as investigate if other newspapers would be interested in having us contemporize their model based on its demonstrated success.
Wendy: That's an interesting approach.
Sherry: This is just one of the examples of creativity that PMH management has brought to the organization. The Inquirer is one of the few newspapers to show an increase in circulation. This was groundbreaking for us. The Inquirer posted its first gain in 5 years and the Daily News had its first gain in nine years.
Wendy: What do you attribute to the continued growth?
Sherry: There were several factors. The first was to focus on the editorial product. Brian brought back Bill Marimow as editor. Bill had been here years ago before being wooed away to the Baltimore Sun and then at NPR. He has reengineered the editorial product and added some great contributors like Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, Michael Smerconish and Lisa Scottolini. He's also added some interesting elements to the paper and that had to be communicated to readers and advertisers. Those were some of the bigger things. There was also lots of attention to detail, like positioning the Philly.com logo directly under the Philadelphia Inquirer masthead to bring the site to the attention of readers which no other papers were doing at the time.
Wendy: What else?
Sherry: After those changes were in place, Brian's background was ideal to create a new effort to promote our products. Knight-Ridder had not done much to advertise the benefits of these media properties either to readers or advertisers. The commitment to reestablishing PMH properties in the market went from virtually nothing to spending well over $10 million in the first year! Needless to say, people not only heard about the changes, they could see and feel them in the paper and on the site everyday.
Wendy: How are advertisers reacting?
Sherry: We've already had some wonderful successes with big integrated programs. Several major financial institutions and national media companies headquartered in the market have become some of our largest advertisers. We are also offering Page One placements similar to the Financial Times and the WSJ for prestige advertisers. As you know we also have more than a handful of world class academic institutions in Philadelphia. We just signed one of them to run every weekend. Those are just two examples.
Wendy: That's great.
Sherry: The sales efforts are going well but just like all traditional media these days it's brick by brick, sale by sale, listening to the customers and really figuring out ways for them to help penetrate the local market.
Sherry: You can't just focus on the large accounts and ignore the smaller accounts. Local advertiser support is, and always be the lifeblood of a newspaper. Philly.com has been very effective as an integrated effort with our recruitment and auto sections of the paper.
Wendy: Okay, we've covered some of the changes made to the company. What's the culture of the company now and how do you see it evolving?
Sherry: PMH's Executive team consists of 20 people. It's really quite impressive. It's diverse. Some of us have years of experience in the newspaper industry as well as a few of us who come out of the magazine business. It's a very exciting feeling, like you're part of a change and that's really rewarding. Brian's energy is infectious it really trickles down to the rest of the staff and makes us feel empowered. We want the advertising and marketing community to know that we are a sophisticated media organization and we want to really shake things up in the industry. That's why programs like Media Lab are garnering a lot of attention. At the same time we want to assure the local business owners that we are here and we're not going away. Our goal for every account is to develop a strategy using our properties in creative ways to help drive business.
Sherry: Hiring the right staff is really important to PMH. The executive team understands each person's responsibility and does what they can support each other in every possible way.
Wendy: What are some of the major challenges you have faced since arriving?
Sherry: Well of course everyone here would like the changes we are implementing to have an immediate impact. The management team, me included, would like to move at warp speed but that's not productive if it causes too much disruption. Each situation is different. We have to listen and be patient but still move the ball forward. Eric Grilly came aboard to manage Philly.com. He has an amazing background Eric is very dynamic and pushes the envelope. In mid-September the site underwent a face-lift and will have a total relaunch in January. Brian is committed to excellent journalism and that will permeate throughout The Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com. I'm excited to see what the next wave of information looks like. PMH is completely open to finding the next big content idea if it falls in line with our products.
Wendy: Even though I've spent the bulk of my career in New York, since I'm from this area I've been following the progress at PMH the company changed hands. It looks like it's all coming together.
Sherry: Well we're getting there! Brian took charge of the paper under a year and a half ago, so when you look back at the amount of changes in that short period of time, it's enormous. The speed at which he is able to make decisions is great and he's not afraid of taking risks. If something turns out not to be the best decision, he learns from it and moves forward. I don't think anyone is looking back and regretting anything that we've done.
Wendy: Ok let's change gears. You've been incredibly successful in your career. What advice would you give someone coming out of college who would like to pursue a career in ad sales?
Sherry: I came through the ranks of print and then had to learn about the Internet. Now I'm working for a newspaper. I think it's important to try different parts of the media landscape to see what you love. My first job was launching a magazine, I was only 21 and didn't really know what I was talking about but I worked with some very talented people and followed them around.
Wendy: I still can't believe that!
Sherry: You know; if you love magazines, start there. Maybe your interest lies in promoting events or wanting to rep Internet sites. Most media companies today have multiple divisions like Conde Nast, Hearst and Forbes. Some have internships for college students that are really advantageous in terms of learning what entry level positions are available, as well as being a resume builder. So at the end of the day although it's a bit of cliche you really have to find what you love. Once you find that part of the sales process that you really connect with, where it's natural for you and you're passionate about it, then you can't really go wrong. Know your product and be passionate about it but be willing to listen to the client and know when to not sell.
Wendy: Yes, the art of listening! I think that's something every salesperson has to learn to ultimately be successful.
Sherry: And also the nuances of how to build a relationship, which you can only learn by going through the process. You have to know when people don't want to be sold and 9 times out of 10 they don't want to be sold. But if you develop a relationship of trust, you will get the opportunity to sell. You have to be patient. Salespeople tend to be in it for the quick fix. We all want to come up with a great idea, go out and sell it, sign the contract and be done but it, rarely works that way. A lot of times it's about staying in it for the long haul and when you can fulfill their needs, then comes the perfect sale.
Wendy: You're right.
Sherry: I mean there is pressure of course to make your quota. We're all up against budgets and trying to grow revenue over the year. It's a brutal market to get share of advertising. But if you can just take a step back and do what's right for the customer in the long run, it makes for a more pleasurable experience day-to-day, out on the street.
Wendy: This was great. Thanks, Sherry!
Sherry: My pleasure, Wendy!