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5 ad operations disasters


Running an efficient ad operations group is difficult at best. It gets much worse if you allow yourself to fall victim to one of several common disasters. Before we discuss how to steer clear of these storms, we'll do a quick recap of the current ad operations environment.

I always find it's important for publishers to distinguish between the problems that are unique to their ad operations group and those that are inherent throughout the entire industry. Every publisher has to deal with the following difficulties:

  • Taking an order all the way from "quote to cash" (RFP to invoice) is relatively inefficient and involves more steps than it should.

  • Ad operations are often run with a "patchwork" of applications, instead of a single, integrated solution.

  • Ad server envy. Most publishers look at theirs and worry that the one down the street must be better.

  • Internet ad inventory is difficult to predict, manage and report on, because each publisher has a unique traffic and targeting profile

  • Third-party ad serving is making a mess of reporting and invoicing for all publishers.

  • Late creative complicates the delivery of ad campaigns.

If this sounds like your company, congratulations! You are dealing with the same common problems as everyone else. Why? This is due to the relative immaturity of the applications and processes that run this part of the business. By applying improvisation, workarounds and custom solutions that are specific to their needs, most publishers manage to create solutions that allow them to conduct business with some semblance of order.

But this common environment is just the tip of the iceberg, and publishers have to take care to navigate carefully. Otherwise, they run the risk of experiencing disasters of titanic proportions.

Here are some of the top disasters in ad operations and what you can do to avoid them.  

Publishers often spend months, even years, contemplating the addition of a contract management solution, video player, behavioral targeting solution, yield optimization engine -- you name it. Finally, the day arrives. The contract with the vendor is signed. Everyone feels good about the decision.

The problems begin when the publisher fails to assign an "owner" to the new application, someone who can devote 100 percent of their time to its implementation and maintenance. The result is that contract management systems can't push contracts to the ad server, the ad server can't send delivery information to the billing module, and at the end of the month all hell breaks loose because there is no way to match contracts and budgeted revenue to what was actually delivered. This can go on for months, simply because adequate resources have not been allocated on the publisher side.

Don't throw away all the time, energy and money spent choosing and deploying the tools that run ad operations by failing to devote a project manager to implementation of the product. It is not a part-time job -- and the vendor most likely will not hold your hand in perpetuity. Publisher, take the responsibility of ownership or your ship will run aground. 

Picture this: You're the CEO of a company that is sailing along at a fast clip. Marketing is driving the brand. Sales is bringing in new business. What could possibly go wrong? As long as you can hand those contracts off to ad operations, they'll take care of it. What do those folks do all day long, anyway? Is it really important for you to know? It is, only if you want contracts and revenue to get fulfilled. I don't know, seems important to me.

Publishers get into trouble when ad operations are "out of sight, out of mind." This leaves crucial knowledge about how campaigns are trafficking, tested, measured, optimized and billed in the hands of a relatively few, extremely important individuals. This is particularly true when your ad operations crew is relatively small, or relatively new to the business. What happens if they decide to move on, get recruited by another company -- or even worse -- take most of the staff with them?

Now, you are in dire straits. Thousands of dollars of revenue ready to be trafficked, and virtually no-one in the company who knows how to navigate through the process.

Believe me, it happens.

Document the workflow and process associated with ad operations. This means "document" as in Visio flow charts and Word documents -- not a water cooler conversation. Give yourself and your company a fighting chance in a tough environment where supply of qualified ad operations individuals are scarce and demand is sky high. Better yet, if you're captain of the ship, don't you want to know how the crew is running it?

In the best of all possible worlds, ad operations and sales work together in a spirit of mutual collaboration. They agree on basic business guidelines such as CPM floors, bonusing of impressions, and agreed-upon ad products. When disputes arise there is a clear escalation path for rapid resolution.

However, because companies go through several cycles of management during the course of their existence, most have experienced the dark side of this equation at least once in their history. When sales simply dictates to ad operations what must be done, without adhering to business rules, chaos ensues. Inventory is overbooked because campaigns are sold without asking if inventory is available. Ad products are sold that don't exist on the site. CPA campaigns eat up millions of impressions and yield sub -- $0.10 CPM.

Make sure your organization sets up a collaborative organizational structure that joins sales and ad operations together as partners, not rivals. Agree upon a budget that has at its foundation a rational forecast of ad impressions, expected sales fill rates and CPM floors. Enlist both sales and ad operations to adopt business rules insuring they have the best chance possible of achieving the budget goals.

Ad operations is a high-stress environment. It is the lightening rod for every ad management crisis. Ad operations is wrong, even when they are right. When ad agencies submit creative that doesn't work, or clickthrough URLS that go to a "page not found," ad operations is responsible for fixing it. They labor without benefit of sunshine and are frequently sequestered in a physical location of your office that is as far away as possible from sales and marketing. I can almost hear the strains of "Song of the Volga Boatman" while ad operations labors at the oars.

What makes this problem worse is the tendency to want to keep excellent workers tied to the same job for longer than they can stand it. For instance, a great ad trafficker is smart, technically adept, self-motivated and has great attention to detail. Keep them in that job and you have the foundations of a reliable operations group. Keep them in that job for too long, and they become bored, frustrated and lose motivation. They reach a dead end and burn out.

It is this environment that can create disastrous levels of turnover in an organization.

Recognize the achievements of ad operations personnel regularly. Cross train them in other functions such as inventory management, ad product development or integration projects with other tools and applications. Engage them in projects that give them exposure to senior management, educating the rest of the companies on content areas that monetize most effectively, creative units that perform the best and ad campaigns that consistently deliver quality results for clients.

Now, we'll come full circle -- back to the common challenges facing publishers and their ad operations groups. Even though they are common, when they become ignored in the extreme, disasters can ensue.

Many ad operations groups become slaves to their applications. They believe they must work with the cards they are dealt. They are fatalistic. If there is any organization that would identify with the Stockholm Syndrome -- identifying with the ideologies of their captors (which would be ad servers, inventory management apps, etc.) -- then ad operations would be that group.

Complacency and stagnation in a company are disasters in and of themselves. When companies are in the doldrums for an extended period of time, hopelessness is the emotion of the day. Operations become increasingly inefficient, and that has a negative effect on sales, marketing their clients. When that happens, beware of mutiny on board.

The best practice here is to assign a project manager whose specific role is to own the applications that run your business, and make them better. It is far easier than you think to leverage the API (application program interface) of your ad server to access all contract and delivery data, creating custom inventory and revenue reports. Keep abreast of new technologies -- don't be the last on your block to know that automated solutions exist to manage and optimize dozens of remnant networks on a turnkey basis. Don't settle for a video player that can't dynamically rotate ads or schedule on an impression basis. In short, don't be held hostage to the limitations of out of the box applications.

The warning signs of impending disasters are most often hiding in plain sight. A few strolls around the office and personal conversations with the people that run your business are frequently more productive than a 60-page PowerPoint deck. Lead your staff so they can navigate around the hazards and -- pardon the repeated metaphors -- you will have much smoother sailing.

Doug Wintz is principal and founder of DMW MediaWorks.

  Doug Wintz is Founder and Principal of DMW MediaWorks, a consultancy specializing in digital ad operations and technology.  Since 2004, DMW MediaWorks has helped emerging companies set up their ad operations departments and...

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Commenter: Jeff Weitzman

2008, September 03

Excellent article Doug! I've managed several ad operations groups and I think you've captured the critical elements of success. Ad operations personnel are often the primary "face of the company" for clients. Any company that underestimates the value of that relationship is in for trouble.