On The Go: McGavren Guild Radio’s Lisa Sirotka-Sonnenklar Believes Success Requires Constant Motion (06/02/08)
By Editor-In-Chief Joe Howard
During a wide-ranging radio career that has spanned almost 20 years, Lisa Sirotka-Sonnenklar has been a woman on the go. Starting out in the rep business as a sales assistant, she quickly moved her way up through the ranks, rising from account executive to vice president of sales. Her track record of success earned her the leadership post at Allied Radio Partners, and led ultimately to her current role as president of McGavren Guild Radio, which merged with Allied in 2003.
Just as her career has been in constant motion, so too is the radio business. Sirotka-Sonnenklar recognizes the shift that is under way, and is steering her company and its staff toward the future. “It is not a secret that the traditional, transactional stream of business has been less robust than in years past,” she says. “For the last several years, even before the slowdown, I required every seller in our company to carry a significant list of new business targets, over and above their agency sales list. In order to change the mindset and perception of the traditional rep, everyone must be on board.”
Sirotka-Sonnenklar is also challenging herself as the rules for doing business evolve. “We strive to paint a positive picture of collaboration between station audiences rather than selling against any particular entity,” she says. “This leaves us open to the possibility of expansion in any market, and in terms of my professional development, our practices in this area have simply made me a much better seller. I need to be more open-minded and forward-looking than I have ever been.”
Sirotka-Sonnenklar acknowledges that just as new technology is shaping radio’s future, it has also shaped her daily life. “I do need to mention my omnipresent BlackBerry, for fear that if I don’t, my reps will skewer me,” she says. “Although it feels as if it has been around forever, this technology has only been available in the last few years. With as much travel as I do, it always seems that I am instantaneously available.”
RADIOINK: In these difficult economic times, what are you saying to your staff and sellers?
Lisa Sirotka-Sonnenklar: “Buckle down, keep your chin up, and fight like hell.” I try to instill an aggressiveness in my sellers that transcends the conditions around them. But, to deny today’s slowing economy would be foolish. I remind them to stick to the principles and practices that have helped them succeed in the past, that their track record has been very solid, and to keep an upbeat, client-focused approach. We all need to work harder to uncover new opportunities and to earn more of the ad budgets. If we maintain a positive work ethic, we will be in a good spot to win.
RI: What adjustments or tactics must sellers use to navigate this economic environment?
LS: Sellers need to be more nimble, both proactively and reactively. We have to create solutions and opportunities that advertisers might not even realize they need — until we present them. If our sellers continue to work diligently at uncovering the hidden challenges advertisers face, then we can work with our client radio stations to utilize all their assets — on-air content, personalities, websites, and strong ties to the local community — to solve these challenges. When we do this the rep and the client stations become real partners with the advertisers and their agencies, and are able to help buffer ourselves from the economic downturn.
Radio reps can no longer simply react to avails. It has always been a hallmark of McGavren Guild and all of Interep that our sellers maintain new business targets, not just transactional agency business. So, in that regard, I think we’re ahead of the curve.
RI: How is the weak economy affecting your client stations?
LS: Of course they feel the negative effect of account attrition in their markets on a national level. As it relates to national sales, we cannot simply walk down the street to visit an advertiser on a Friday and sell them an unsold weekend remote package. The machinery in national — the agencies with whom we interact, the layers within, and then the national scope of the advertisers we call on — simply does not normally allow for that. On the flipside, a local seller might be able to accomplish that sort of sale with a local advertiser. So, to the extent that our partner stations rely on national within their revenue stream, that portion is a bit more challenged in this economy.
I also believe some of the doom and gloom is a bit overstated. We represent radio stations that are still doing very well both locally and nationally, as evidenced by the fact that we have maintained strong demand and rate integrity. We believe in the “no surprises” approach; we strive to communicate accurately with our clients, whether good news or bad. In that regard, we will have prepared them for new business or a possible account loss or a slow month/quarter. We also do not surprise them with a big order or a huge billing month. The more we can communicate with our partners and collaborate with them in the strategic process, the more beneficial the relationship.
RI: What key objections about radio as a medium are you hearing from advertisers, and how do you overcome them?
LS: Unfortunately, we continue to hear about lack of accountability and lack of sexiness of radio. In actuality, we hear about these things more from ad agencies, which seem to use these objections to either drive down prices and/or try different mediums. I’m not knocking them — to some degree it’s what they are compensated to do. To combat these objections, we have open discussions to address the accountability issue with all of our constituents — stations, ownership groups, agencies, advertisers — in the hopes that we can collaboratively come up with the most broadly accepted metrics. Whether that is going to be posting or an improved system of electronic ratings or something totally different, we all agree that selling more of the advertiser’s product in a responsible manner is the most important goal.
We must also continue to position success as sexiness rather than just a flashy package that doesn’t deliver the goods. Remember how many people lost their shirts during the dot.com boom? While tech stocks seemed sexy, those who invested in them often ultimately took a bath; those who stayed with the blue chips made money consistently and over a longer period of time. Most good businesspeople would agree that “consistent and sustained” are sexier terms than “flash and burn” when it comes to their investments, so we need to remind them of this at the bargaining table. I am not negating the potential of other media. There is a place for all of us at the table — just don’t try to knock radio out of its rightful seat!
RI: What part of radio’s story isn’t making its way to advertisers?
LS: Again, consistency and sexiness within a very safe way to deliver customers over the long haul. Go tell a CEO or COO that he or she can make more money over a sustained period of time, and I guarantee that notion will be attractive, if not sexy. We just need to make sure that any obstacles that get in our way of telling that story, and whatever motives fuel those obstacles, are overcome immediately.
RI: What myth about radio is the most prevalent and pervasive?
LS: Maybe that it is tired and boring, which actually couldn’t be further from the truth. Think about it — and studies have borne this out — more teens and young adults have discovered new music on radio than any other medium. Some prominent radio stations have staged the most relevant and exciting concerts and events in the last decade. We’re not just on air, we’re in community. But, for some reason, radio does not get the credit.
It is very likely that radio suffers these perceptions for the same reason that it is successful: because it is a tried and trusted utility, a friend you can count on. In much the same way that humans tend to neglect those relationships closest to them, advertisers tend to neglect radio. They might not mean to do it, they just sort of assume it was included in the plan. As radio executives, our strengths should be our great relationships. Using those, we need to remind advertisers of how much they actually love us, make sure we’re included on the plan, and get the “kiss” to prove it!
What do you say to advertisers who want to transfer money out of radio and into digital platforms?
LS: I remind them of two things: 1. that radio is actually the best complement to digital. You can listen to radio and surf the web at the same time, something you can’t do while actively watching TV or reading a newspaper; and 2. that radio has its own vibrant digital component on station websites. Why rush to try something new and untested? If you want digital, why not use the trusted utility of a radio station and its leverage among listeners in steering them toward its own website? That way you get the best of both worlds, and maximize the potential of both.
How will electronic measurement affect radio’s perceived value to advertisers?
LS: We are confident and supportive of electronic measurement, assuming that the kinks are worked out. Given that data will be available much more frequently and more vibrantly than the old diary system, radio will be perceived as having addressed some of its accountability issues. However, we must be cautious about the process and the technology until it is totally reflective of the markets in which it serves. We cannot allow important vehicles — radio stations that serve the ethnic communities (African American and Hispanic) — to be underrepresented. Given the financial implications, it is very realistic that if not properly reflected, some of these stations will leave their formats — and then leave huge voids in service to their communities. So, it is crucial that we ensure that the technologies are spot on before we utilize them as the benchmark. At the end of the day, I believe advertisers would concur that accuracy is the most important measure of a marketplace.
How are clients reacting to Interep's recent financial restructuring? What are you saying to clients who are concerned about the health of your company?
LS: I tell them it’s business better than usual. We are thrilled with the recent financial restructuring. We would not have entered into the agreement with our major noteholders had we not had the confidence that this is a fantastic new financial foundation upon which Interep can and will grow. That said, all of our key independent clients have expressed similar support of our recent decisions. Blaise Howard of WBEB, Charles Warfield of Inner City, Marko Radlovic of SBS, Phil Zachary of Curtis Media, Gina Landau of Midwest Television, Jeff Warshaw of Connoisseur, to name a few, have applauded the move because they are confident we can continue to provide the service and results with which they have become accustomed, without having any financial cloud over our head. The future of our company is brighter than it has ever been.
RI: If you could say one thing to the radio industry's top leaders, what would it be?
LS: Well, it would be a few things actually. I would say: Stick to the basics, avoid the doom and gloom, and keep the faith. Most importantly, have your own unique story, and tell it to as many people as you can. Be compelling, and have some fun in the process. It will be infectious. Radio is, after all, theatre of the mind.
RI: What principles or beliefs did you follow through your career that helped you rise through the ranks?
LS: Hard work, integrity, and loyalty have all served me well. I also believe in people, and have trusted that the people in whom I have placed responsibility will deliver as needed. I believe that if I trust my people and treat them with care and respect, I will get back even more than I give.
RI: What important lessons or valuable advice did you collect along the way?
LS: To be loyal to people, and not to take shortcuts; sometimes more is learned and earned by taking the longer route. And never make someone do what you would not do yourself.
RI: What is your advice for young people entering the radio business?
LS: Much the same as I would say to veterans: Be positive and have fun in what you are doing. It will attract people to you, and they will likely become customers. Also, highlight your own uniqueness and stand out from the crowd. Most of all, don’t forget that hard work gets you noticed and helps you rise above. Nothing beats a hard worker.
RI: How has the environment for women in the business changed since you started out?
LS: The radio business has always been one of the better environments for women, in my opinion. Advertising as a whole seems to be that way. In my 20+ years in this business, I have not experienced much in the way of resentment due to being a woman. Although I may have lost one or two battles over the years (which I hate to admit), I can assure you that it was not because of my gender. Interep has always been gender-neutral in terms of promotions. The recent promotions here at Interep are testaments of how women are moving up the ladder in our industry, with Jana Cosgrove being named president of CBS Radio and Kay Olin president of Local Focus. Hard work and dedication are the simple ingredients to getting ahead. The industry on the whole has seen an upward movement of many exceptional women leaders.
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