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Awakening the Sleeping SABC giant

In November 2020, SABC 1 and SABC 2 achieved advertising sell-out status during prime time for the first time in over five years. GLENDA NEVILL caught up with the broadcaster’s new head of sales, Reginald Nxumalo, to find out how.

As anyone working in the media sector knows, the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation has suffered mightily under a series of boards beholden to whichever communications minister was in office at the time, and executive managers (Hlaudi, we see you) who were happy to facilitate such a state of affairs while continuing to spend and spend and spend as if the SABC’s advertising coffers were overflowing. It’s been a roller-coaster ride for the SABC since then, with a new board in place, new executives at the helms of key departments, a R3.2-billion bailout that came with a strictTreasury-approved turnaround plan, Special Investigative Unit investigations, sweeping retrenchments and then, of course, Covid-19.

Reginald Nxumalo was appointed head of sales at the SABC in May 2020, a tricky time to be tackling a new job and undertaking a massive restructuring of the public broadcaster’s commercial side. Six months later, the SABC reported an upswing in its advertising fortunes. Nxumalo had promised a new way of working, and it was starting to deliver.

At this point, it must be said that Nxumalo came into the job from the corporate world with his eyes wide open. “When they recruited me I said, ‘Guys, I’m not on the comrade path. If you want to run a business, then I’m in business.’ Because within the SABC stable, we’re dealing with customers and we’re dealing with money, and I’m not dealing with politicians.” Nxumalo says the board has been supportive to date. “From that point of view it has been great. One way of describing my experience so far is that SABC feels like a sleeping giant. I’m fascinated by the potential reach I can achieve with the number of account executives that I have.” Nxumalo says he has already introduced a lot more discipline into his division, which lost 10% of its sales staff in the recent Section 189 retrenchments.

Becoming a Sales Division As part of the turnaround plan, the SABC introduced a targeted operating model.This, Nxumalo says, turned the whole organisation on its head. “It has given us an opportunity to do the kind of stuff that will leave a sustainable legacy. The changes are more than cosmetic; they are structural.You can cut as much fat as you like, but if you don’t get the revenue right, you still won’t become profitable.” Nxumalo says the SABC has made changes in terms of technology, content and repositioning its channels. “But from from a sales perspective, firstly the division is no longer called ‘commercial enterprises’. It is now called a sales division.This puts things in fresher perspective, if you like.” In the past, agencies and brands found it frustrating working with the SABC’s siloed, product-centric approach. Sales people sold TV or radio and digital, sometimes. But asking them to come up with a cross-channel campaign was a nightmare. As a result, a number of commercial opportunities were lost in the confusion. “We had to become customer- centric,” says Nxumalo. “Our new model is built on customer-centricity, which means you call on a customer whether it’s Unilever, a shop or an agency.” Now sales executives sell across product sets, providing turnkey solutions to clients, which Nxumalo says is a “service to the marketplace”. After all, he stresses, if you’re not on SABC you run the risk of missing people in different target audiences – and there are millions of them.

New Segments, New Skills Of course, it goes without saying this required upskilling of existing sales staff, as well as those who’ve joined the SABC from other media owners. “We’ve committed the last few months to training. Research tells us that 70% of learning is done on the job. So you can have as much theory as you like, but you’re not going get up to speed until you actually try and sell.” As of 1 April 2021, SABC Sales moved to a new system, segmenting its markets into small, micro and medium enterprises (SMMEs), corporate and government business, for example. “We’ve used aggregate ad spend as a benchmark, or threshold, for different enterprises in corporates.The idea is that enterprise clients are based on size and the value that they invest in your business. “By default, you actually force your organisation to think about similarities in that particular segment, so that you can see if you’re serving the needs of your customers. SMMEs have specific needs: they need protection and a lot of help. In media planning, they’re too small to be significant within agencies, so we’ve got to come up with vanilla-type offerings to make things easy for them.”

Rebuilding Trust Despite its recent successes, the SABC is still dealing with a legacy of mistrust from agencies and brands. How are they overcoming that long-term reputational damage? Nxumalo says evidence is anecdotal and data driven. “Some people are saying it’s the first time in years that that they’ve seen so many proposals coming out of the SABC sales division. Take Tiger Brands or Unilever, for example: brand managers and chief marketing officers battle to find a home for all their brands.Therefore, when we provided different homes or different proposals for those brands, they were able to do a bit of portfolio management, avoiding clashes and conflicts.” And although the Covid-19 pandemic has played havoc with advertising, Nxumalo says the SABC hasn’t done too badly. He believes his sales teams’ agility and willingness to trade and engage has turned declines into gains. So what are Nxumalo’s three main priorities for the next year? “I’d like to see a very competitive, dynamic sales force. I want to see us hitting our numbers. I actually want to surprise the country, go beyond our projections and maybe deliver a break-even position based on the revenue. Finally, I’d really like to develop our capability and make sure that I’ve got a strong team in order to make it sustainable.”

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