Syndication legend Dick Robertson will be roasted Jan. 17 at the Mandalay Bay during the NATPE convention. Mr. Robertson, the former president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, has been serving since August as a senior adviser to Warner Bros. Television Group. He shared his thoughts on NATPE and on his career in a talk with TelevisionWeek Editor Greg Baumann.
TelevisionWeek: One of the events at NATPE is going to be the roast, and a roast being what it is, who do you fear will have the sharpest knives out that night?
Dick Robertson: I think everybody, particularly my former clients. I think they will be the ones who will give me the hardest time.
TVWeek: You’re known for having colorful language. I’ve collected some of your quotes that people have attributed to you over the years, and I’m wondering if you can give me translations for them.
Mr. Robertson: OK.
TVWeek: The first one is “Scotty my boy, we’re walking in tall cotton.” This is a Robertsonism. What’s the translation?
Mr. Robertson: Well, tall cotton, you know-I’m a Southern boy, and when the cotton is high, life is good.
TVWeek: What’s the context for the question, “Do you hate money?”
Mr. Robertson: Well, you know, when you’re trying to convince somebody of something that you so obviously see as a benefit and they don’t, the only explanation that I can possibly have why they don’t agree with us is ‘cuz they must hate money. “What’s the problem here? Do you just hate money? Because that can be the only reason why you’re not buying this show. You must just hate money because this is a slam-dunk winner.”
TVWeek: What about the context for the quote, “When you hear a buyer say `might’ do it, that’s a no.”
Mr. Robertson: That’s exactly a no. There are nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine reasons why people don’t want to do something. I’ve heard them all. I’ve used many of them myself as a salesman in my career, but basically my theory of the human dynamic in a buy-sell kind of a thing is simply this: Most people want to not have to deal with confrontation. It’s uncomfortable. Confrontation generally is uncomfortable.
But the truth is that unless we face confrontation we never really resolve our issues in life. But when you specifically come to business in a buying and selling thing and somebody doesn’t want to buy something, there are nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine reasons they’ll give you: I want to check with my people, I want to run it by the research department, I want to think about it. I want to do this, I want to do that. Give me two days. All of those mean no.
So if you truly understand that and you really value your time and value your energy and value the fact that you’ve gotten on this airplane and you’ve flown all these miles and you rented a car and you stayed in a hotel and you’ve gotten to the station, are you going to just take that?
After you’ve heard those excuses so many times and a yes never comes out of it, you know, you pretty soon figure out that all those things mean no. OK. Most people won’t tell you why they say no. They’ll give you a different reason why: “Well, I’m not so sure blah, blah, blah.”
Until you confront them. You come out of your comfort zone and have this little semi-uncomfortable moment. You have to be willing to do that. And it’s a little uncomfortable, but you’ve got to bust them in a nice way. You don’t want to make them angry, but you have to bust them in a good way by saying, “What do you mean you want me to come back in two days? I’m here now.” What’s the `I want to think about it?’ What’s there to think about? I have explained. You know the answer is either yes or no. If you don’t want to do it …” and then once you start bumping people and pushing them like that, then they will tell you generally why they don’t want to do it.
They say, “Well I’ll tell you what Dick, if you really want to know,” [and] I say, “Yeah, thank God.” And then they’ll kind of get a little angry. I shouldn’t say angry, but get a little annoyed that you’re not taking the usual bait and going away, and they say, “Well I’ll tell you why: because we had a show like that and it never worked and we never had success with shows like that.”
And then now you’ve got something you can deal with. Now you have extracted from them the real reason. Before that, you would leave with this concept that well they didn’t turn me down, I still have a chance, I’m still in the game and you’ve just wasted a huge amount of your time, your company’s time.
If the answer is no man, let it end. So what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to push ’em and you’ve got to find out what is the real reason why they’re not wanting to do it. Now you’ve got something to work with. Now you can deal with what the real objection is. And you might not be able to resolve it. In which case close your briefcase and leave and accept the fact that you’re not ever going to make that sale at that place and go somewhere else where you’ve got a shot, instead of walking around with this false belief.
I’ve got to tell you, the great salespeople in the world are the salespeople who realize that no is just two letters. When somebody says no, your right arm doesn’t fall off, you don’t go blind, you’re not less of a person. It doesn’t affect your self-esteem. You know, you’re not stupid and it’s generally a no based on something. And you don’t know what the reason is until you kind of dig it out of somebody. And you’ve got to have that kind of what I call a semi-uncomfortable moment. If you’re a person that can’t deal with that, then you probably won’t ever really do well in sales.
So anyway, so my point is that you’ll never really do well in sales until you realize that you need to feel this. You need to be real. You need to be real, you need to have self-esteem. You need to say my time and my life has value. I’m not going to come here and let this person push me away without having a real moment.
Tell me why they really don’t want to do it. I can’t make them buy it. But I can sure do my best to make them tell me why they really don’t want to buy it and maybe I can persuade them. Maybe when I get the real answer what’s bugging them, I can do something. Oftentimes you can’t. But most people lose sales and don’t even know why because they’re afraid to have that semi-uncomfortable moment. If you’re not willing to have that semi-uncomfortable moment, chances are you’re not going to be very good in sales because trying it ain’t doing. The only thing that matters in sales is closing. All the great presentations in the world, all the great meetings in the world mean zippo.
TVWeek: Coffee is for closers.
Mr. Robertson: Coffee is for closers. Greatest movie ever made.
TVWeek: “Glengarry Glen Ross.” So, looking back, it’s been what, 40 years?
Mr. Robertson: Forty-one so far.
I started actually in college in Richmond, Virginia. I was in class at Virginia Commonwealth University taking an advertising class. The professor said there was a job open at Channel 12, which in those days was WRBA-TV, it’s now WWBT. I went out there, a bunch of us went out there and interviewed, then they picked me and I was putting up displays in supermarkets. And so I’m riding around in my beat-up old ’54 Plymouth, you know, doing these displays. … And so I was driving round and I started realizing that I’m going to class, taking a full class load and still working at a $25/$30 a week job at the station and doing these displays.
So I started looking around the station and realizing the people at the station who made the most money were the salesmen, you know, and not the cameraman and not the guys back in master editing, and the editors. It was the salesmen.
So, they all went home one night and Jen, I remember her, Jenny, the sales secretary, I was still working, I said, “Jenny, how do you type out a contract?” She says, well, here’s a rate card. (We would sell 20-second spots in those days.) And here’s how much for a :20 and a minute. There were no real :30s-they were :10s, :20s and minutes. And here’s how you charge during different times of the day,
more here, daytime, here’s how much for the news, here’s how much for the “Tonight” show, dah, dah, dah.
And I said, how do you fill out the contract? She said well here, I’ll show you one. She shows me a contract. I said hey, cool. So I had this idea. So I was driving around Richmond. I was going down Midlothian Turnpike, Route 60, and I saw this billboard called “Pocoshok Creek Golf Course,” a brand-new golf course being built. It was about one mile down this dirt road and I’d driven down there and I looked and they had all these bulldozers and trees and fairways.
So the next day the salesmen, they go home and I typed out a contract. I looked, [and at the radio station] we had four golf tournaments that year. I found how much it cost for a 20-second spot: Forty bucks. I typed out a contract to the Pocoshok Creek Golf Course for four 20-second spots for each one of our golf tournaments, $160.
I get it all typed out, put an “X” where the signature goes, I put my suit on-I didn’t say a suit, I said my suit-the one I owned while I’m in college. I get my beat-up old blue Plymouth, I drive down there, I park about 150 yards from the trailer- because I thought if he saw my piece of crap car, I have no chance of anybody taking me [seriously].
I had a little briefcase. And they had a trailer, a construction trailer-you know the clubhouse hadn’t even been built. I go in there and I said, “Is the manager here?” And the guy said, “Well I’m the owner.” I said, “Hey, I’m Dick Robertson with Channel 12.” and he goes oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I said, “Well let me tell you: I got a great idea for you. You know you’re starting this golf course – when are you guys gonna open?” Well, we’ll be open pretty soon. I said, “Well you can advertise in these golf tournaments and I can put you right in the golf tournament.
“This is all it costs. I’ll make the commercial for you and you know we’ll do a slide, I’ll take slides, I’ll do a voiceover, and here’s, it’s 160 bucks, here’s the contract.” The guy says, yeah, yeah. So he buys it from me on the spot. He signs the contract.
TVWeek: That was your first sale?
Mr. Robertson: Yeah, yeah. So now I get in the car, I drive back to the station, I walked into the local sales manager’s office, Bill Christian, used to be a salesman. I said, “Mr. Christian, I’ve decided that I want to be a salesman here.” He says well Dick I think that’s really good. I’m a sophomore in college, right? He says I think that’s a wonderful idea and you keep working hard, people here like you, you make good grades in school and you graduate and we’ll talk about, you know, a training program and working you in someday into the sales department. I said, “No Mr. Christian, I don’t think you understand. I want to be a salesman right now.” He said well what makes you think you could be a salesman right now? I said, “I was waiting for you to ask me that question.” I pull out the contract and I said, “Look what I did. This is Pocoshok Creek Golf Course. I saw the billboard down there and I just went and sold them four 20-second commercials.
“And you know how many stores there are in this city that I could go in and do the same thing to and generate new business from the newspapers and radio people? And I can do this and I could bring in a lot of business to this station that the regular salesmen probably don’t even call on because they’re too busy calling on the big clients.”
And he’s just sitting there looking at me like, what the hell? He gets up, he goes in the general sales manager’s office. They come back, they say OK, here’s the deal. You can start, we’ll pay you a $1.25 an hour, that’s what I made, $1.25 an hour in 1964, and 5 percent commission based on collections. …
So I was making like five, six, seven grand a year in my junior and senior year in college, selling ads in between classes for Channel 12. That’s how I got into the TV business.
TVWeek: You’ve obviously sat across the table from a lot of guys since then. Who is the best, toughest negotiator you’ve ever sat across the table from?
Mr. Robertson: Well, there have been a lot of really good ones, some tough ones. I would say Alan Bell was one of the more talented station people that I ever called on.
He was at the time the general manager at KTVU in San Francisco. He was a particularly smart guy and a really good guy. A lot of the times when we would come out with new programming and I’d put together with my team, you know, a whole new pitch, sales pitch. Before we would finalize it, I’d go up and pitch it for Alan. And I’d just make notes. Because a lot of times he’d see things. He’d be one.
I would say Dennis FitzSimons is one of the more insightful and clever and smart guys that did kind of see into the future and everything. He’d be one. I’d say Evan Thompson, who used to run the ChrisCraft Group, was particularly smart, particularly clever. I’d say one of the really smart ones was John Rohrbeck, who died. He was at NBC, very smart guy, very good guy. I don’t want to leave people out.
But I would say that Walter Liss and Arnie Kleiner at ABC were particularly smart guys. Oh, I know one: Andy Fisher at Cox, a tough negotiator, but fair. I’m talking about tough and fair. I mean there are a lot of jerks out there, there are a lot of tough guys that weren’t very smart. I’m talking about the real smart ones that were fair and good.
Andy would be one. Billy Frank; Kevin O’Brien was terrific. He was at Cox also, and at Metromedia. Al DeVaney was a very smart guy, a very clever guy. And Dennis Swanson at Fox probably is one of the smartest I’ve ever dealt with.
I know I’m leaving out some people, but that gives you enough. These are people that I remember as being truly unique and truly special and there are a lot of really good people out there.
TVWeek: Syndication has changed a lot, between regulations, consolidation, all those things. What is syndication’s best pitch to advertisers these days?
Mr. Robertson: It’s the fact that there is still a cost-per-thousand advantage. In other words, an eyeball is an eyeball. A person sitting at home sees a spot in “Oprah” or “Ellen” or “Extra” or “People’s Court.” So how do you get them? And plus they have very good ratings unlike, you know, some of the other offerings on cable, which is valuable. And so syndication has very comparable ratings in many areas to network TV, but with a big CPM advantage. And that is the basic value proposition. The best value proposition in television advertising is syndication and it’s one that’s the least understood, in my opinion.
TVWeek: Last year at NATPE we had a huge surprise: The CW. What deal is waiting to happen at this year’s NATPE? Is there anything out there that you see?
Mr. Robertson: I think as I look at the future of TV, I think 2007 is going to be a very interesting year in my area. I’m on the board of the Television Bureau of Advertising and have been for a number of years. I’ve been in the TV advertising business my whole life, starting back from Pocoshok Creek Golf Course to CBS network sales to helping start the barter syndication market.
What I see for a local television station, you know, what’s happening to their business plan, is that 50 years ago the owners back in those days were making in the mid-50s, sometimes almost 60 percent cash flow. In America today the top people are making in the low 40s maybe high 30s. What’s happened is the margins of these stations have almost been cut in half due to the fractionalization. …
On top of that, they’ve had to spend 3 million to 5 million dollars a station to convert to the digital transition in ’09 with no corresponding plan for any meaningful revenue so far. And they have one source of revenue, basically, selling ads. And so they’ve been really caught in a bind. And then in the 1990s, you look at all the pure-play broadcasters, and they were very challenged in the stock market.
Their stocks didn’t really go anywhere during the greatest equity pop in the history of our country. And they performed pretty flat. Wall Street looked at it and said you know this is a problem. This business plan is
a problem in terms of growth. And you may say, hey what’s wrong with a 30 to 40 percent profit margin? Well a lot is wrong with it if you paid a price and borrowed money for a 60 percent or a 55 percent profit business. So that’s the issue.
So what they are really trying to do is figure out how to create other models and I think the Internet is part of it. I hear all of this discussed at the TBV board meetings.
The problem is that they don’t get a lot of traffic on their Web pages because there’s not a lot of content on there to draw people to all these Web sites. These stations have pretty good Web sites-it’s just they lack compelling content.
So what I think you’re going to see in ’07 is companies, we’re certainly one of them, doing things and trying to bring compelling content to local TV stations’ Web sites. It can be streaming content. The cost of streaming is coming down and the number of people who signed up for high-speed Internet connections is already half the country. …
So you’re going to see streaming on the Internet promoted by the mother ships, unsold :30s as a great business model for these local TV stations. I’m not just talking about selling some little bits and pieces, I’m talking about the real business, because they have something nobody else has: A connection with the local community and unsold :30s. …
So we’re working on some great ideas to really help them get some big-time content on their local Web pages, that they can participate in, sell ads along with us and other companies and have a real business.
TVWeek: Look at the big change that’s coming and look at NATPE: How does the NATPE convention serve the business?
Mr. Robertson: Consolidation has really challenged NATPE’s relevance. That’s been the big issue because now you go out and make eight sales or six sales, you’ve got 60, 70, 80 percent of the country clear. … So do you really need to go to NATPE and have these big things? We still go to NATPE because some clients still come. In the past we’d have these big booths on the floor and spend all that because in those days it paid off. Now it’s more of a sharing of ideas.
It’s a conference to get with a lot of our key customers. When you have that many clients in one place we’re going to be there;, all the sellers are going to be there. We’re just there in a different way. But it’s a great way to be with them in person. …
TVWeek: Some people say that you really hurt NATPE when you came off the floor and into the suites. It sounds as though you’re saying it was a function of the reality.
Mr. Robertson: I don’t work for NATPE. I work for Warner Bros. and I work for the stockholders of Time Warner. And my fiduciary responsibility is to Warner Bros. and Time Warner, not to NATPE. And so our business motives were to do what was best for us. Spending $2 million a year with an 11,000-foot covered exhibition space when we were basically sold out when we got there-and not that many clients came, and they only stayed one day and went home. … After two years of that we went to each other and said why are we doing this? So what we said was we can go do the same thing for less than a fourth of the money, you know. So we moved next door to the Venetian Hotel, and quite frankly other distributors did too.
I know some people have come back to the floor in a much more modest way than before, you know; I don’t run the distribution company anymore, Ken Werner does. Ken may change his mind, it’s his prerogative. But we felt that being up in the nice suites, with a couple of screening rooms and nice food and comfortable sofas and chairs … it’s quiet, a very civilized way to have the kinds of meetings that we have at NATPE. In the old days it was a free-for-all-selling, craziness and everything. You wanted to be in the middle of it, like being on the floor in the stock exchange. But now that’s all changed. And it’s not NATPE’s fault. The government allowed everybody to consolidate.
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