Life and hard times in a Michigan advertising department
Part of an ongoing series about working conditions at Digital First Media newspapers
By DENNIS TAYLOR
Multiple desks sit unoccupied in the once-vibrant advertising department of the Macomb Daily in Mount Clemens, Mich., and its sister paper, The Daily Tribune — both in suburban Detroit. — where, over the past six years, personnel has been slashed, department tasks have been consolidated, workloads have mushroomed, and earnings have plummeted.
The steadily deteriorating morale at the newspaper hit rock-bottom in August when a respected account representative — a 16-year veteran with a spotless employee record — was fired two days before her vacation to the West Coast to visit family.
“When a 16-year veteran sales rep was dismissed last August, it was clear there was something fishy,” said Stevie Blanchard, Administrative Officer for the Newspaper Guild of Detroit.
Union employees donned stickers in support. The Guild filed a grievance over the termination, which was denied by the paper’s owner, Digital First Media (DFM), a Denver-based corporation controlled by multinational hedge fund Alden Global Capital.
Months later, before an arbitration hearing was scheduled, the Guild and the company reached a settlement over her termination.
“The advertising reps at the Macomb Daily are all facing increasing revenue goals, without support from the company,” Blanchard said. “These goals are unreasonable and led to the unjust firing of a sales rep.”
Management dispersed the woman’s clients to other ad representatives. A few of those clients were longtime advertisers who, in solidarity with the departed employee, refused to even meet with the new reps.
The base wage of ad reps at the Macomb Daily is less than it was more than 10 years ago.
Fellow employees at Macomb say the termination undoubtedly cost the company thousands of dollars in unrealized advertising revenue.
“It was the first time somebody like her — a person who had been there for so many years — had been let go, and it was a real shock to the entire newspaper staff,” said Mary Ellen Zander, a 10-year advertising account executive at Macomb who does double-duty as vice chair of the newspaper’s Guild unit. “It was also a shock to her accounts, which I am now responsible for. I lost $30,000 in November, December, and January because one of her advertisers refused to come back to us out of principle. They were loyal to her, and I tried everything.”
That $30,000 in lost income now counts against Zander’s sales goal.
Employees in Macomb’s advertising department say pressures have been building noticeably over the past six years, in part because of a systematic reduction of staff: As recently as 2010, the advertising department employed nine outside sales reps. Today, thanks to layoffs, buyouts, and terminations, there are three. Accounts that belonged to the six departed reps have been inherited by the three survivors, and each inherited account jacks up the sales goal of that representative.
“We have clients who are pretty pissed off, telling us, ‘I’m very concerned about your newspaper,'” Zander said. “They tell me, ‘I’ve had five or six different reps over the past four years … what’s going on over there?'”
The pressure cooker began to bubble about six years ago, according to employees, when management routinely began to set sales goals about 10 percent higher than they were during the same month during the previous year. The new goals were established without regard to the suffering economy and dismal market conditions in highly competitive metro Detroit.
“It almost has a feeling like they’re trying to kill the paper,” said David White, who’s been a sales representative at the paper for more than three years. “All of their resources are put toward digital. There’s absolutely no budget put toward print.”
Ad reps say they simultaneously have been saddled with ever-increasing, time-consuming demands and “busy work,” many of which have little to do with the actual selling of advertising.
Examples: After three employees from the accounting department were laid off in 2015, ad reps were tasked with collecting and processing ad payments. They also must follow up on work that had been outsourced to ensure that clients weren’t mistakenly “blacklined” — improperly blocked from placing more ads. And new rules were implemented requiring quotas of cold calls, and time-consuming logging of data.
Ad reps say reaching the upper tiers of the department’s commission percentages is difficult because sales goals have been set inexplicably high.
And reps who enjoy significant success in a given month become a victim of their own success the following year because their monthly goal is based upon their performance during the same month the previous year.
“You can only go up in sales for so many years, no matter how hard you try, and then you plateau,” Zander said. “I’m plateauing now, in part because I’ve been given accounts that belonged to (departed ad reps), and a lot of those are companies that are no longer advertising because they’re angry.”
A revolving door of ad directors in recent years — each bringing a different philosophy — has led to confusion and disorganization, reps say.
“The survivors are a veteran staff who care about the products as community institutions, and care about their clients.”
— Norb Franz, reporter
Employees who failed to reach their sales goals are routinely placed on Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs). Under threat of discipline — up to and including termination — reps are told they have to meet their goal. Some PIP periods — essentially, improve-or-else probation periods — are extended for months, ratcheting up the pressure.
At one point, when Macomb had its full staff of nine outside ad reps, five were on PIPs.
“What does that tell you? That tells us that there’s something wrong with the goal-setting process,” Zander said.
White said the majority of the sales force is still on a PIP. “The stress, when you’re on a PIP, is enormous,” he said.
During a recent round of PIPs, the sales improvement document for three Guild-represented reps included a written clause stating the employee could be fired for discussing the PIP with anyone.
The Guild took issue and prepared to file an Unfair Labor Practice charge against the company, after which the company’s human resources department withdrew the clause. But the company kept the clause in the PIP of at least one non-union sales rep.
“The heavy-handedness angered and stressed reps, many of whom have been dedicated, loyal employees for decades, sometimes volunteering their time after hours and on weekends representing the company in a variety of community activities like festivals, parades, spelling bees and civic organizations,” said Norb Franz, a veteran reporter at the Macomb Daily. “There seems to be little to no consideration for ad churn; for clients cutting back on their advertising budgets; for downturns in the economy, and other factors.”
In 2015, amid many complaints by ad reps and the Guild about the goals set by management, the company changed the goal process for each ad rep to account for more “trending” of actual monthly sales revenue. That has helped to some degree, Macomb employees say.
“But when employees complain to management about their individual goal, the message is usually ‘We have a budget,'” said Franz.
Meanwhile, the base wage of ad reps at the Macomb Daily is less than it was more than 10 years ago.
A handful of new account representatives have been hired at the Macomb Daily over the past three years, but most didn’t last, employees say, because the amount of stress within the retail ad department grows with each passing season. In recent weeks, two frustrated ad reps — one union and one non-union — have resigned.
“As in other departments like the newsroom, the number of empty desks is startling,” Franz said. “But the survivors are a veteran staff who care about the products as community institutions, and care about their clients, and do their best to serve them and the readers.”
“They try hard — with less support staff to assist them — and despite a base wage that’s less that in it was more than 10 years ago, remain committed to the customer and the community,” he said.
Dennis Taylor is a freelance journalist living near Monterey, Calif. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .