Derek Gatts Is Flexing Ad Product’s Creative Muscle at CNN

“The shift from context to audience and, arguably, back to context has been a huge story arc that I have been a part of for the last ten-to-15 years,” said Derek Gatts, CNN’s new Advertising Product, Innovation, Technology & Operations Leader and Publisher Forum Keynote alumni, speaking about the business of advertising products.

Though he was speaking of the industry as a whole, Gatts is building a character arc that has taken him on a path from actor to advertising executive named one of Folio’s 100 honorees for innovation in media in 2018.

After three years pursuing his talents and passions for singing and dancing professionally, the demanding schedule that left him traveling across the US for most of the year while starting to grow a family made him rethink his course. While doing some soul searching over the decision, Gatts also realized that of all the things he loved about performing, he gravitated toward the things that most actors hated—how a production comes to life and how a director thinks through all the moving parts that make it all happen. “It was then that I realized, maybe I’m in the wrong field,” recalled Gatts.

Raising a Hand for Opportunity

Soon after making the decision to leave performing behind, Gatts landed an administrative position supporting People Magazine’s head of print production. Though the print production business was booming, he also started to see signs that the industry was making a shift to digital. He jumped on board with Time Inc. as they were starting their digital journey, affording him the opportunity to grow his career (and a team) there as the business expanded.

“I just kept raising my hand to be the guy to solve a new problem,” said Gatts.

The evolution from print to digital was not without its challenges though. “The biggest challenges were often in creating opportunities for digital that didn’t stand in the way of maintaining growth for the print product,” Gatts said. “We had to be very scrappy about how we thought about building functions that weren’t necessarily a thing.”

For Gatts, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, because it allowed him to work on products that fell outside of his own job description and outside of the typical ad trafficker role. “Challenge was my personal opportunity,” he said.

Building a Team for Consumer-centric Utility

Gatts sees that same opportunity in his new role at CNN.

“CNN is doing really important work journalistically and it’s a brand that’s incredibly big. Plus, from a product development standpoint, the AT&T acquisition was, for me, like being a kid in a candy store. The size, scale and technology were the real lures for me,” he said.

“Once we understand [the audience], it is about refining what we’re already doing and inventing new suites of products that tap into the power of CNN content, AT&T and Xandr’s data offerings, and how all those things work together to drive the ultimate success for these brands.”

Gatts further cites the organization’s “foundational and fundamental transformational state” as one of the things that resonates with him at CNN. “It’s exciting because everyone you work with here—no matter how long they’ve been with CNN—is completely bought into that transformation.”

In his first 90 days at CNN, Gatts has already embraced some of the key differences in his new organization. “There are differences in how you have to collaborate,” said Gatts. “A lot of the change was the transition from overseeing several different functions that could all work together under one mandate to a massive organization where you really need to do your due diligence to find pockets across the organization that could benefit from an idea and help it flourish with their own ideas.”

He stresses, though, that while scale is powerful, it must be handled delicately because, “It’s not about reaching a mass of people, but the right people.”

Gatts says that the deep tie-in with AT&T and Xandr are the tools he needs to get a solid understanding of who the “right people” are and will be the foundation that they build on. “Once we understand [the audience], it is about refining what we’re already doing and inventing new suites of products that tap into the power of CNN content, AT&T and Xandr’s data offerings, and how all those things work together to drive the ultimate success for these brands,” he said.

He knows from experience that it’s not a one-person job and has just finished building a team he describes as having “consumer-centric utility.”

“My job running an ad product team is not to dictate what we’re going to build, but to give a conduit to build marketplace ideas,” said Gatts. “We need to cut through priorities, identify the right people to lean in to get the work done and find creative problem solvers to identify something we can send out as a product idea.”

According to Gatts, while he’s assembled a team of people with diverse backgrounds, the team’s primary skillset needs to be the ability to get things done. He added, “Ad product is not just going to be ‘Derek’s team.’ Everyone is going to be involved in some way to help identify and feed potential ideas into the pipeline.”

Recognizing the Creative Side of Ad Product

Having experienced all sides of the ad product industry throughout his career, Gatts has long recognized the different skillsets that reside within ad operations teams—and that they’re often underutilized. “Ad ops is often pushed into a corner to handle tasks that are technical in nature, but they don’t spend enough time flexing their creative muscles to build custom solutions,” he said.

Though not all organizational leaders embrace this mindset, many do.

“Ad product was a passion for me. Part of the job I had when I went to Bloomberg is now my full-time job. If someone is working for the right organization that empowers them and wants them to think outside the box, there are all sorts of jobs out there that they can ladder up to down the road,” said Gatts.

For more insights on ad product industry trends (and team-building) follow Derek Gatts on Twitter: @derekgatts.