DeWitt on selling syndication

As an advertising medium, national syndication has been under-marketed to would-be clients and the people who plan their media buys. Anyway, that's what Gene DeWitt, the new president of the Syndicated Network Television Association (SNTA), believes, and now it's his business to change that.

"These guys are salespeople," DeWitt says of the syndication-advertising executives who constitute the SNTA membership. "But there are other kinds of marketing communications beyond selling. There's branding and awareness and just generating positive interest. You have to reach the purchase influencers."

Syndication, says DeWitt, is not "high-profile enough" among key people who influence whether syndication gets into the media mix, including client brand managers, account executives and media planners.

In many instances, he notes, syndicators have been pitching and negotiating with media buyers. Not that there's anything wrong with that, except "syndication is usually in the budget or not by the time the buyers get it. The buyers can decide what program to buy, but they can't necessarily decide how much of the budget to put into syndication."

"There's an awful lot of influence on that decision that comes from the media planners, account executives and clients," DeWitt says, "and they haven't been covered in the past, I don't believe."

He should know. He has been on the agency side of the business for more than 30 years, most recently as head of Optimedia, media-buying arm of Publicis. His recruitment as president of SNTA (for a reported $500,000 a year) comes at a critical time for the syndication business.

While all segments of the ad business have suffered for the past year to 18 months, syndication probably took the biggest hit in 2001 among the TV segments. Syndication buyers and sellers estimate business was off between 25% and 30%, taking it from $2.4 billion in 2000 to between $1.68 billion and $1.8 billion in 2001.

DeWitt says there's some confusion in the marketplace as to what syndication stands for as a brand. "If you see syndication as a brand of national TV, it's an invisible brand that's been sold as a collection of programs. But what does syndication itself stand for? Somehow cable stands for something: It's automatically associated with upscale, targeted, efficient and added value. But if you say syndication, I'm not sure what people think."

He intends to find out. He's planning to do market research on perceptions and attitudes about syndication after he moves full-time to the SNTA post. That could be in two months, because Publicis has asked him to plot the transition at Optimedia.

DeWitt strongly denies that syndication is in the midst of a crisis. "These guys are selling units, and they're making money. I think what we have for all media coming out of 2001 is a share battle. You got a shrinking pie. That means everybody has to sell harder and sell at every level they can. There's a need for branding and attitude adjustments. That's why they need the association."