An interview with Danny Lee, Sports Illustrated’s New York Executive Advertising Sales Director

As a class project, I was assigned to learn about the magazine industry and all its facets (editorial, advertising, creative) by profiling one national magazine. A subscriber since 2004, I picked SI. Here’s the second part of my three-part series from interviews with the people who create one the world’s best sports magazines — and why those same people want you stop thinking about it as just a magazine.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Here’s Danny Lee:

On his job as the New York executive advertising sales director…

I’ll start at the top. There are several different sides of a publishing, but the two main halves are editorial and advertising … My side of the business is headed up by the publisher of Sports Illustrated, Brendan Ripp. His job is to head all of sales and marketing from the business side of Sports Illustrated. All the dollars that come in from ad revenue and partnerships fall under his umbrella. Under Brendan, he has a VP of sales who’s responsible for national sales. Underneath the VP of sales, there are regional directors which handle different regions of the country. And Sports Illustrated is broken up into New York, which is me, Boston, we have a Chicago executive director, Atlanta, Detroit, San Francisco and LA. We’re all reporting to the heads of sales. I always equate it to different levels of officers in the army. My area is the New York area, which is where 40 percent of the ad revenue for all of Sports Illustrated comes in. The New York territory covers Richmond, Virginia through Hartford, Connecticut. The reason we’re such a big part of percentage of overall ad revenue is that New York City is the center for ad agencies in the United States. Well, the world, really. Madison Avenue is synonymous with advertising. Most of the major agencies have headquarters here in New York City.

On his day-to-day schedule…

I manage 10 sales people here in New York, each of the 10 sellers handle a specific territory and are responsible for selling print and digital advertising. The goal for me is: How do I maximize the ad revenue that SI’s getting from advertising? (It’s thinking about) print, digital and event sponsorships, experiential, day in, day out. ‘How do we lift more business from our competitors? How do we get a bigger share of what’s being spent and how do we go to market with the best ideas from Sports Illustrated to attract more partnerships with big companies?’ That’s what Sports Illustrated is from the business side.

On Sports Illustrated’s audience…

I sell an audience of men that are sports fans. These men consume lots. Whether it’s cans of beer they drink, number of potato chips they eat, the number of cars they buy. We do very well in the pharmaceutical space because sometimes we have, uh, a large audience of men that’re 45-plus that start to need certain types of pharmaceuticals. We do really well in anything guys want to buy or that guys make the purchasing decisions for. It’s really a good target for Sports Illustrated to go after.

On how some advertisers approach Sports Illustrated…

The job of the advertiser is to come up with the strategies. I’m looking for advertisers that want to reach men. Take Volkswagen cars. The ad agency is located here in New York City and the clients are located in Washington, D.C. They’re launching a new car in the springtime — I’m just making this up, but let’s say they’re launching a new car in the springtime — and they’re primary target is men 35 to 55 with children. Those guys will look at their product and design their product geared specifically toward a target consumer. So if you want to design Porsche 911 Turbo’s, you have to gear it toward men who make a lot of money, right? If you don’t make a lot of money, you can’t afford a Porsche 911 Turbo. So if you’re Porsche, you don’t want to run ads in magazines that aren’t run by the really rich. It’s basic ad targeting and that’s determined by the clients themselves and their ad agencies. They have stats that help them come up with strategies. And after they have that product and strategy, then they start to contact vendors like Sports Illustrated. They say, ‘Hey, we have a Volkswagen Passat Turbo. We think the style, the price-point, the sportiness of the car, because it’s the sports version of it, we think it’s going to appeal to men. It launches in February. Danny from Sports Illustrated, what ideas do you have, or what big platforms do you have that we could build around in February for this launch?

On how Sports Illustrated approaches advertisers…

I need to know that they make a product that men are interested in because then men would be an important target for them. It doesn’t make any sense for me to call Tampax Tampons because those tampon companies would never advertise in Sports Illustrated. … I’d never go to them, they’d never come to me because it’s just a miss. They’d laugh at me. But Johnnie Walker scotch, a male drink targeted at 45-plus scotch drinkers, especially affluent ones as well? That makes a lot of sense for me to reach out to them and say, ‘Hey, I was wondering what you guys are planning to do in 2016. Are sports going to be a part of that mix? If so, which sports? And how do we get involved in that mix?’ We’re always reaching out to anyone who has a valid product that could be targeting men.

On some recent examples of big advertisement deals Sports Illustrated has done…

DirecTV does a huge buy with us every football season. They do it in the NFL preview issue and they do a high-impact unit. They’ll do something really big and splashy early in the football season — use our football issue that comes out right before the season starts — they want to get men subscribing to DirecTV for the Sunday Ticket package, watch any game you want, wherever you want, right? That’s what DirecTV pays the NFL for the rights to. And they turn that around and try to get lots of male subscribers to buy in right before football season. They’ll also come to us and do a high-impact unit usually during swimsuit time too. This year, they did the largest cover execution ever (done in Time, Inc. history) with a 15-page folded up poster with mockup covers of the alter egos of Andrew Luck, Tony Romo, Peyton Manning and Eli Manning on a big Sports Illustrated cover. Total execution was 19 pages. (We) planned that with DirecTV for about four months. It came down to need, timing and our relationship with the clients. We know they like to use us for high-impact units a couple times per year; we collaborated on great ideas about four months before the issue was scheduled to come out. They helped us with the ideas for what we wanted to do. Our two teams collaborated together and said, ‘How do we pull this off?’

On the number of advertisements Sports Illustrated usually sells…

There’s no such thing as selling too many ads because that just means there’s more editorial pages. We like the book to be as thick as possible. There’s always a little variation (in the book), but you always want to be at a 1:1 (advertisement to editorial page) ratio. But the Managing Editor makes that decision on an issue-to-issue basis. There are a certain number of edit pieces we can write per issue. He’s got to think about what his readers really want to read. That’s what makes the best Sports Illustrated issue from the editorial perspective.

On how Sports Illustrated tracks the performance on advertisements…

We do research studies. In magazines, they’re called starch. They’ll get a group of panelists to do research and interview subscribers and find out which ads readers recall the best. There’s a bunch of different metrics, but “recall” is a really important one. An advertiser, going into the swimsuit issue, can say, ‘How did my ad perform? How did we starch?’ And starch is a comparison of how all the ads did to a standpoint ranked from one to last. If you’re advertising in high starch, you did a great job in creating an effective ad that was memorable. Each advertiser gets to see their own starch results and research studies vary in respondents from 500 and up, depending on how much people want to invest in their studies.

On part one of how an advertisement comes together…

The client that brings the agency what they want to accomplish, what the products are, what the selling points are, and what they want to do with the year. The strategy group comes up with the overall strategy. They send back the plan to the clients and say, ‘Here’s how we help X, Y, Z companies sell more.’ So how do you improve that plan and show that it’s improved? It goes through a lot of revisions. The clients have a lot input, like, ‘Do we like more TV, digital or print?’ What’re their priorities? After that, a strategy plan is finalized, the agency hands it over to the media group which consults a group of television buyers, digital buyers and print buyers.

On part two, the media group…

(The media group) take that plan and try to initiate a buying recommendation. Looking at (the client’s) media plan and going, ‘What’re we going to buy based on what you told us you were interested in? And how much do you want to spend? What’s your overall budget? Then they’ll consider that plan and send out proposals, alerting all vendors that there’s an opportunity to be involved with this plan. This is usually called a brief.

On part three, Sports Illustrated’s four steps to succeess…

We take this brief and say, ‘OK. Companies X, Y, Z are promoting their widgets which come out in February 2016.’ We’re interested in ideas that align with March Madness and that are mostly digital but can also be done in print. We’re also interested in family opportunities that can be done at events. Then we narrow and consider for which we’ll submit an idea. My job at Sports Illustrated, as a sales guy, is one, to have a great relationship with X, Y, Z companies and their widget clients and their buyers, so they always think about Sports Illustrated. Two, I want to make sure they’re up to speed with everything Sports Illustrated does, because if it’s something they can do, then they have us at the top of their mind. If I’m maintaining those relationships and doing my job, then they’re aware of what we have here and we can bring that up to them. Three, I want them to want to buy something from us more because that brings us closer as an allied resource and four I want to build an idea that makes sense for them.

On part four, the relationship…

And it goes back to the relationship. If I get their brief and I have any questions, and I have a good relationship with them, I can call them up and say, ‘Hey, here’s what we were thinking of doing. Does this fit into your bigger scheme?’ And I get a lot of positive feedback for how we build our idea. And the idea here is that they present us with this big, shiny, round hole and I want to take all of our Sports Illustrated assets, everything they told me they’re trying to accomplish, what the product is, when it’s coming out and I want to build a nice peg that fits that hole perfectly.

On what makes a great sales person and how to stay great…

Great sales people are great listeners. We want to have a great working relationship with people and develop a sense of trust that they’re going to get the best in customer service from Sports Illustrated. And me as a professional, as a Sports Illustrated operative, I want to make sure that the programs they invest in at Sports Illustrated perform at the best of our ability so there’s never any disappointment. I want them to think of the ideas they bought from Danny Lee at Sports Illustrated as absolute home runs. So it’s a lot of things from great customer service to investing in programs that are smart and well thought out and well-executed from our side. Satisfied customers means repeat business.

On the best lesson he’s learned working in advertising sales…

You always want to work for a great property with a great brand name. As much as you can create close business relationships, it’s easier to get meetings and be invited to the table if you work for a major player. You always want to try and represent the strongest properties.

On whether or not there’s been a moment where he’s felt ‘at the top’ of the representing strong properties…

No, not really because business is tough these days. If you work in the print media space then your percentage has declined and you’re looking to grow in the digital space. The percentage of the budget where advertisers are spending in print is declining a little bit every year. Working for Sports Illustrated 25 years ago, you were coming from a place of absolute powerhouse strength. You could literally wait for advertisers to come to you. Today you have to go out and get advertisers and be collaborative and proactive with great ideas.

On advertisement spending between print and digital…

Seventy-five percent of Sports Illustrated’s ad revenue comes from print and 25 percent from digital. I have no doubt that five years from now it’ll be a 50-50 split and it’ll be 75-25 split the other way down the road.

On how The Comeback, a Sports Illustrated series partnering with WebMD, came together…

It was an editorial-driven property first. The idea came from collaboration with WebMD and editorial to create the series and then we took it on the outside and Cialis ended up being the advertiser associated with the program.

On the first thing he’d write down if writing an article about the media industry…

With advancing technology comes great change. Beyond the magazine business — how people consume media in general and that advertising is based wholly on reach — is that advertisers just want to reach consumers. Whatever they sell, cars, potato chips, industrial supplies, whatever it is: Advertisers want people to buy their product.

On how advertising, and media in general, has changed and how it’s about to shift again…

Think about the timeline of media … think back to the ‘40s and ‘50s with radio and black-and-white TV was coming into the mix. (Think back to) magazine’s greatest strength, the printed word many years ago. Then you get to the introduction of cable television 40 years ago when ESPN and HBO and a lot of others started to come into fruition. I don’t think, when it was introduced, that American consumers would pay money for cable television. But then they did and people began consuming cable television as their main media. Then, 20 years ago, the Internet started gaining a lot of momentum and Americans consumed their media there with AOL and other portals. Without a doubt — with mobile devices making so many other businesses obsolete — the cable TV model is changing. It’ll give way to other consumers, like yourself, going over the top. I saw a stat last week that said only 10 percent of college graduates are subscribing to cable. Ninety percent are consuming content either mobile or over the top, meaning internet and WiFi. So what does that mean for cable TV five or 10 years down the road? … We’re about to see a dramatic shift. The kids coming out of school are becoming tomorrow’s younger consumer and the next day’s middle-aged guys. They’re not subscribing to cable TV. I think we’re going to be in a mobile world very, very quickly. Last weekend, the first football game was streamed on Yahoo! That was the beginning of what will be a landslide of the mobile delivery of live sports. There’s a lot there that comes with technology changing the world.

On the key to the future…

Video. I heard a major player at a university say, “For the last 100 years we’ve been telling our best stories through the printed word as the vehicle, but tomorrow video will be our vehicle. That will be the way people tell stories.

You can read part one with Chris Stone, SI’s Managing Editor, here.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com. 

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