Workflow Overhaul: Break It Down, Rebuild It Better
Workflow can be the bane of ops' existence. The order’s journey from sales to ops to inventory and other stops can be a perilous one full of treacherous platform crossings and other hazards – it can make Frodo Baggins’ excursion to Mount Doom look like a walk in the park. Teams are stuck entering the same data into multiple systems that simply don’t communicate with each other. And the smallest breakdown can set off a massive inquiry through the complexity – some of the search teams may not return.
Hyperbole aside, ops longs to relieve the aches of workflow through streamlining, though for many this seems like merely a dream. Are digital media professional cursed to tedious labor for eternity? No – but workflow overhaul is an intensive process that requires months of planning and building before you can even dream about executing. In addition, you likely will have to lean heavily on a tech partner while pushing the limits of your own team.
Jeff Book, Senior Director of Local Ad Operations for Gannett, recently was the ad operations subject matter expert in the media giant’s workflow overhaul, codename OrderHub. His team, which supports all display and video advertising on owned and operated properly plus audience extension for all local Gannett business units, was one of several key stakeholders in this intensive process, and he worked closely with enterprise software developer Mediaspectrum on building the tools that would connect so many disparate systems. Considering the mammoth scale of Gannett’s local operations, it seems a miracle he’s lived to tell the tale...
Surely the need for a workflow overhaul had been brewing for a while, but was there a catalyst that threw the gears in motion?
Yes, the need existed for quite some time. Operationally, there were goals we wished to achieve before we tackled workflow, which included centralizing our ad operations and completing an ad server migration of owned and operated business to DFP. In addition, it took multiple divisions within Gannett coming to an agreement that the timing was right to tackle workflow on a company scale.
Can you give us an idea of the many platforms you were trying to pull together?
In the initial 90-day proof of concept, we were only concerned about building an integration to our billing system and ad server for the owned and operated digital display business. Ultimately, there were intentions for the workflow to expand to multiple ad serving platforms, multiple fulfillment groups, and print advertising.
What was the most onerous aspect of your old workflow?
Our previous workflow had no integration points, so data was transposed multiple times from sales to account management to billing to creative design to ad operations. Of course, in that type of workflow there is plenty of opportunity for error.
In mapping how you wanted the work to flow, what specific challenges and conflicts did you run into?
I think the biggest challenge was identifying the key stakeholders that gave full representation to the areas that would be impacted by launching a new workflow: local sales, local ops, plus corporate IT, ad ops and finance. You want to make sure you have good representation, but from a project perspective you don’t want too large of a group where decisions points can’t reach a consensus.
About how much time did it take to draw up a proof of concept? What aspects were particularly strenuous?
Gannett selected the Mediaspectrum Sales Platform as the core for our OrderHub solution. Defining proof of concept started with a three-day discovery session with a number of Gannett teams and folks from Mediaspectrum. This led to a 20-page "statement of work," which became the blueprint for a 90-day pilot. The scope of the pilot was well defined with a main goal of proving four to five system integrations while streamlining the existing sales operations workflow.
For us, the process wasn't particularly strenuous, but it did require careful review and involvement from our key project sponsors. Time, attention to detail and developing realistic expectations were really the only challenges we faced during this time. The pilot was a success – we went live on time and had made the decision to move to our phase 2 a few weeks before we were even done with phase 1. I can say confidently that this was due to good people on both sides of the project.
What did making the workflow system “enterprise-ready” mean for Gannett, and how did you achieve this goal?
We chose an initial pilot market which was Florida Today in Brevard County, Florida. The pilot launch occurred after our initial 90-day proof of concept was met. In addition, we spent the next 90 days learning and tweaking the workflow process and technology, which lead us to a second round of pilot markets.
The second round of pilots included five other business units. One of those business units was a regional site representing 10 markets that cross-sell advertising. During the second round of pilots, we incorporated feedback and made additional configuration and development changes. Once the second pilot group was satisfied, we then started a general deployment to all publishing markets.
How do you judge the performance of your streamlined system?
From strictly an ad operations perspective we judged the performance by how we could more quickly book business in our ad serving platforms, reduce turnaround times, and ultimately shift focus to other priorities outside of fulfillment. I can’t really say there were hard metrics for us to achieve vs. real life feedback from those using the workflow.
At a higher level, the project objective is to provide a streamlined workflow that seamlessly integrates forecasting and proposals, ordering and creative production, trafficking, optimization, invoice and reporting.
How does your workflow system help inform you of rate yield as well as optimizing price floors?
The workflow manages our rate card and price floors and appropriate approvals around each. We have other internal reporting capabilities that inform us around rate yield where decisions can be made to modify the rate card, discounts and price floors within the workflow.
Were you able to incorporate products like native that aren’t necessarily tracked through an ad server?
It would be nice if native advertising flowed through one system, but at Gannett it is a combination of publishing native content in our CMS, and associated display advertising through our workflow.
With all the efficiencies you’ve created through the workflow overhaul, where is your team refocusing its efforts?
As the general deployment of the workflow occurred, there were numerous areas we were able to identify as opportunities for improvement. We improved official turnaround times because we were able to book business at a faster pace. We were able to perfect our delivery management practices and ensure 99%+ of impression based business delivers in full. We developed programs to grow our teams knowledge in their ability to troubleshoot issues. In addition, we sought to improve our already solid working relationships with our markets through improved focus on general customer service.
So it’s all down now, right? No problems whatsoever… What improvements are you still working on?
Our workflow is in every market, and we are in a much better place than we were before, but I am not sure we will ever consider ourselves completely done. I believe there is always room for improvement in both workflow as well as the underlying technology. I see us continuing to work with Mediaspectrum to improve in both of those areas. As of today, we have 84 publishing units on our workflow, moving all digital business through to billing and multiple fulfillment groups. In addition, our Indiana markets are putting all of their print orders through the same workflow, in preparation for general deployment of our print business.
What advice would you give other publishers out there about to undergo such an intensive workflow overhaul?
Develop a clear list of your organizational workflow issues, and make sure you include key stakeholders that would be affected by the rollout of a new workflow.
What about publishers with less resources than Gannett?
You’ll likely need to rely more heavily on the vendor for project management resources, workflow guidance, configuration and development time. Make sure to review vendors with this in mind. We've been working on the OrderHub project with Mediaspectrum for over two years using a phased approach. In most cases the partner you choose is just as important as the technology itself.
In addition, the greatest key to your success will be in identifying the key internal stakeholders impacted by such a project, so they can assist in developing the best solution possible with your chosen vendor.
Is there such thing as an out-of-the-box workflow solution?
I doubt it. While the core of any workflow technology may be out of the box, it will always have to be configurable to the needs of the organization using the workflow. In addition, dedicated development time and product flexibility will likely be needed for some customizations. If a vendor tells you otherwise, I would keep looking.
Gavin Dunaway is Editorial Director of AdMonsters, heading up all website and print content as well as planning agendas for conferences like the Publisher Forum and Ops. Previously he served as Senior Editor for interactive advertising trade news depot Adotas.com, and before that he held reporting and editing roles for numerous industry-related publications. When not diligently producing news and feature articles related to ad ops, he enjoys playing guitar so loud that the walls shake. Follow him, if you dare, on Twitter at @AdMonsterGavin.