2020 in review: Selling ads in a pandemic

STRONGER TOGETHER: 2020 brought a number of challenges for the Xpress advertising team. From left to right, David Furr, Tiffany Wagner, Sara Brecht and Susan Hutchinson leaned on each other throughout the good and the bad. Photo by Cindy Kunst

Their offices may overlook Wall Street and Battery Park Avenue, but the Xpress advertising team has a unique window into Asheville’s small-business community. As a platform founded to uplift local business, the publication provides a space to promote and highlight Asheville’s entrepreneurs, says Susan Hutchinson, advertising manager. At the same time, ad sales give Xpress financial support to continue publishing each week. 

Advertising representatives Sara Brecht, David Furr and Tiffany Wagner have their fingers on the pulse of the local economy. This year, they were some of the first to hear about pandemic-related closures, and they were the first to celebrate when business owners announced new opportunities to grow and adapt. 

After nine months of local economic turmoil, the team reflects on the year’s ups and downs: 

As the point of contact for so many different small businesses, what have you been hearing from business owners and employees? 

Tiffany: I hear a lot of people saying that they’re doing their best to support local business or their neighbors. And they feel like people are doing that for them, too. So it’s a really tough time, but I feel like it’s also bringing out the best in people, because they’re thinking outside the box of ways to support and love each other. So many businesses have closed temporarily or permanently, but I’m still hearing stories of growth. You get these little glimmers of hope. 

Sara: There are a lot of people that are just kind of stunned and can’t make a choice. And there are some people who are just like, “I’ll do my best. I’ll do what I can.”

David: I hear a lot of frustration from local business owners because the guidelines that have been set forth by the state haven’t made a ton of sense to many. For instance, why are breweries open but bars closed? What does “essential” actually mean? It’s just frustration with the mandates, because after reading the fine print, they at times make no sense and favor large corporations.

Has that shifted over time?  

Tiff: Early on, it was more shock. Nobody knew it was going to last this long. So it was, “All right, well, it’s just gonna be a rough couple of weeks, no big deal.” And now I think the gravity has fully sunk in where we are now.

How has your mix of businesses and clients changed? 

David: We switched gears and became creative with who we target as potential long-term advertising clients. Instead of only leaning on relationships Xpress has had for years with local businesses, we’ve gone out and forged new contacts with clients that aren’t as familiar with us and the process. 

Tiff: Clubs, bars, music venues: They just came to a screeching halt. And then that’s sort of when we realized we had to shift who we were pitching to. We started going after the larger corporations — the grocery stores, the hospitals, health care, places like that, that weren’t necessarily like paycheck-to-paycheck kind of places.

Sara: There are a number that are doing their best staying with it, but restaurants are having a hard time. 

What draws you to this work? Has this year shifted that sense of purpose?

 Sara: I’ve been in sales for a long time, and sales can be a cold, horrible world. It’s much warmer here. I’ve got the ability to work with the community, get to know it really well and connect with community members. These days I don’t get to see smiles like I used to, so that’s a downer. But overall, the mission is still there. Nothing has changed, other than how we navigate everybody’s budget.

David: I’ve always felt that building relationships and meeting new people is exciting. I worked for many large-scale publications in New York that sold to large corporations and huge ad agencies. The fact that we sell advertising to local businesses is what drew me to my position at Xpress — I’ve never felt like I was selling advertising to a client that didn’t make sense for their business. I just take it day by day and know that these kinds of things are a part of living.

What was the community reaction to some of your bigger projects, like Best Of WNC, Give!Local and Go Local? 

Tiff: When we kicked off Best Of, we did field some calls where people were upset: “How could you be pitching businesses against each other right now? Isn’t [now] the time that we should really be coming together and supporting each other?” Essentially, we kept that project on track because we wanted to bring something great to the community, something that you’ve heard of and can get excited about to keep that sense of community still intact. And I think once we explained why we were going to push forward with this, people understood. 

And donations to Give!Local have been record high this year, in the middle of all of this. It gives a glimmer of hope that we are going to get through this. We might get knocked down and kicked around, but we’ll be OK. 

How do you keep yourselves motivated and upbeat when clients are constantly saying no?  

Sara: We have thick skin. We’re OK with the nos.

Tiff: There’s a comfort in knowing that we’re in it together. If we get a call that’s really sad, or somebody is really angry, we’re able to share that with each other. The first few days were rough. Some of the calls that came in, I remember breaking down and just sobbing uncontrollably because it was so hard. 

David: We lean on each other as a team. If one of us is having a down week revenue-wise, we try to pick them up with our own numbers by making those extra calls. We have a lot of support in this community, which is such a blessing. 

PULL QUOTE:

We’ve been with our clients through weddings and deaths, divorces and children being born, people in their family dying and our clients dying. We’ve been through it all and we’re friends with these people now. And we celebrate them and mourn with them as friends. During COVID, it’s just been a little more.”

— Susan Hutchinson, advertising manager

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About Molly Horak
Molly is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writer for Mountain Xpress. Her work has appeared in the Citizen-Times, News and Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow me @molly_horak

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