Online Ad Operations: Properly Defined and How to Staff - Part 2

July 27, 2010 Chris Haviland

Online Ad Operations: Properly Defined and How to StaffStrong Leadership

When I was first hired to be a traffic manager in 1998, founding the ad ops department for Mail.com, in the interview my hiring manager said, "We don't want a 'yes' man." What did she mean by that?

Ad Operations workers are generally analytical and technical people, and most of their internal customers are sales reps who are generally expressive and forceful. Each personality type is what it has to be. Sales people have to drive past the 'no' they get from prospective clientele in creative and sometimes aggressive ways. That trait makes them skilled at selling. Ad ops people, on the other hand, have to methodically attend to the technical aspects of ad serving while keeping a good attitude, and take great care to document their assignments because they will otherwise find themselves the target for blame when anything goes wrong.

If a traffic manager simply did what ever any sales rep asked them to do, the Ad Operations department and the whole sales initiative would become unraveled. One sales rep may call a traffic manager on the phone and say, "I keep refreshing my web browser and I don't see my ad in rotation. Make my campaign run faster." A 'yes' man might then make it happen at the expense of other campaigns, causing damage to other sales reps' accounts. This not only targets the trafficker for blame when other campaigns fail, it damages the yield potential of the inventory as well as client expectations.

Rules, process, clear communication and enforcement (with civility) are critical in Ad Operations, in addition to constant improvement in order to help sales build a bigger and better initiative. The staff needs to be led by someone with experience in driving those strategies. He or she must have a history of managing traffic managers, establishing and enforcing guidelines, streamlining workflow, building regular reports to calculate yields and other metrics, and learning how to say 'no' to people who are engineered not to take 'no' for an answer, without losing his or her cool and souring interpersonal relationships. That person also must be motivated to figure out how to turn that 'no' into a future 'yes' by ramping up the mechanics and services of Ad Operations, drawing upon what ever resources are available, or drawing up a clear business case for more.

In the U.S. this role should be at the director-level or higher, or preferably with a rank at least equal to whomever is the head of sales (ideally such that both report to the same hiring manager). The Director of Ad Operations can report to a COO, CFO, CTO, or a similar executive or senior manager, depending on the size of the company. The role should not report to the head of sales.

The Ad Operations team leader and the sales team leader will be close partners in the online revenue-driving business, meeting regularly (at least once a month, if not once a week) about the status of inventory and campaign delivery, effective CPMs and online revenue trends such as key performance indicators (KPIs), third party discrepancies or other technical issues if any, communication about potential campaigns that are not currently deliverable and what to do about it, and other future improvements. It is important for the two roles to develop mutual respect for the other's demands and pressures.

Sales is primarily motivated by commission, not yields, so there is a pattern wherein a sales rep will do anything they can to close a new campaign, even if it's one that Ad Operations cannot yet deliver without improvements to the site's ad tags, or to the database that would need to feed subscription demographics into the ad tags, or because there isn't enough available inventory, or some other reason. A professional and experienced head of sales will not function this way, and will reign back his / her staff pending consultation with the head of Ad Operations, or else help to enforce Ad Operations workflow procedures if a rep is attempting to circumvent them in the interest of time.

The head of Ad Operations must build practical and intuitive procedures and strictly enforce them in order to minimize campaign failure and maximize impression yields. Cooperation with this agenda is mandatory, and if the head of sales is not cooperative, or unwilling to work with Ad Operations on realistic alternatives, the relationship between Ad Operations and the Sales team can be troublesome and stressful. This is why Ad Operations should not report to the head of sales, because it increases the risk of placing Ad Operations into a no-win scenario. Even if the head of sales is fair and level-headed, with a lot of respect for what Ad Operations can and cannot do and what their goals are, that person may someday leave the company or move into another position and be replaced with someone who isn't on the same page.

But supposing there is no head of sales at all? Some organizations are built by acquiring smaller companies with their own sales structures. The pyramidal ranking model, wherein all sales reps ultimately report to a single head of sales, is the optimal structure, but some companies live with a more or less cooperative de-centralized model. In such an environment the Ad Operations director should report to an executive officer in the company who is as central as possible, and who understands and supports Ad Operations challenges. The Ad Operations team leader must then begin a line of communication with each senior sales rep for the different business units or publishers owned by the conglomerate. In such a scenario, a regular group meeting or conference call would be highly recommended.

--to be continued--

Editor's note: This article is #2 in a 5 part series.

Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5



Mr. Haviland is the Director of Ad Operations at LiftDNA by OpenX. He is a 14-year veteran in online ad operations, having founded the ad ops network for Mail.com in 1998 and scaling an average increase of 62 million impressions per month across webmail portals for AltaVista, Lycos, Email.com, USA.com, CNN, CNNSI, Martindale-Hubbell, Rolling Stone Network, Sportsline, Universal Studios, and many others. He has commanded inventory in more than one hundred major web sites and e-newsletters since then, ranging from Travel Agent Central, Cadalyst, GPS World and Hotel World Network to Institutional Investor Magazine, Absolute Return Alpha and Euromoney Magazine. He’s founded four new departments (large and small) across three companies, and has been contracted to restructure or centralize ad ops initiatives on multiple occasions. Considered an expert in online startups with scant resources, he’s managed over $13 million in yearly web and e-newsletter revenue with a staff of three, over 2000 monthly display ads with a staff of two, and designed a fully functioning ad ops and yield reporting dashboard with a staff of one. He is a highly creative and strategic thinker with expertise in balancing workflow optimization, micro-automation, and yield and KPI reporting to reduce manual labor, maximize quality of service, and increase visibility on ROI. He was also among the founding staff of About.com in 1996 and is an experienced movie producer and fiction author.

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