Online Ad Operations: Properly Defined and How to Staff – Part 1

Ad Operations is the most widely used name for the department in a company that manages the advertising closed by account managers or sales reps.

Fundamentally, Ad Operations is a team of ad traffic managers, although the overall team description is (or should be) more than just managing ads. These are titles that migrated into the internet business from other advertising media such as print (especially periodicals), radio, and television. However, except for the general description, these variant forms of traffic management are nothing alike, and they should not be treated the same way. Online Ad Operations is arguably the most intense, technical, and difficult form of ad trafficking, and it would behoove any company with an internet venture to develop and manage its Ad Operations team as seriously as their IT, web production, editorial, sales, marketing, and other staffs.

Many ventures have no formal Ad Operations department, rather they have one or two ad traffic managers. While their sales force grows, as well as reliance on internet revenues (which can be significant if it is treated as a business and not given away as a bonus to print or other advertising), a formal Ad Operations department must be formed and managed by an experienced professional.

Commonly they have web producers or other technical or administrative employees manage online advertising for sales reps. While this might work temporarily, when a sales staff is a single person with less than a handful of campaigns, this is a structure that cannot hold up to scaling, quality assurance, yield visibility, stress management, and optimal workflow strategies. Employees who volunteer to wear the hat of “traffic manager” in addition to their normal workload often find themselves stuck with it forever, pressured to manage immediate tasks for sales reps, which may not even be related specifically to traffic management. Such employees burn out quickly, struggling with irreconcilable priorities and unable to meet quality expectations from internal and external customers and managers.

As succinctly stated by Doug Wintz, founder of DMW MediaWorks, “By far, the most over worked, under-appreciated, misunderstood resource in any online company is the ad trafficker. This is a job that can transform the most intelligent, rational, motivated and conscientious individual into a high-strung, irritable, error-prone employee. And THIS is the individual who is responsible for taking every bit of revenue your sales group generates and making sure it delivers as promised, on time, with accurate reporting.” 1

Concentrating on staff size, staff structure, professional leadership, job description focus, and clearly communicated staff services, will translate to stronger online revenues. 


Staff Size

The size of an Ad Operations staff depends on a number of factors, including how many simultaneous ad campaigns need to be managed per month, whether campaigns start and stop mid-month and how long they run, what buy type is used and how inventory is forecasted vs how much is sold (for many CPM and SOV revenue models), the quality of the ad server (especially with regard to rotation behavior and reporting intelligence), how many ads are rich media, interstitials, prestitials, or text ads vs who implements any non ad-server components of the ad (such as a web producer or e-newsletter producer), the quality of the ad agencies and other media buyers (e.g. do they have a habit of incorrectly implementing clickTAG code in Flash ActionScript, or sending materials late?), how much of the advertising are third party delivered (particularly CPM third party ads with vertical or demographic targeting criteria), how many sales reps are selling online ad campaigns, and how much of the above is expected to increase each month?

Here are some analogies to remember:

  • One sales rep with ten campaigns is easier for one trafficker to manage than two sales reps with five campaigns each. The reason is because sales reps can themselves contribute to workload above and beyond the technical aspects of setting up an ad flight in an ad server. Some reps may feel the need to micro-manage their campaigns, some may sell more difficult buy types than others or oversell their inventory which puts stress on forecasting accuracies (especially in an environment with impression spikes caused by marketing efforts). One personality may feel comfortable emailing a trafficker when they need to, another may feel they need to call almost daily, sometimes even for information or an assignment that isn’t in the traffic manager’s purview.
  • Twenty ads without impression guarantees are easier for one trafficker than five campaigns with impression guarantees, especially in a shallow inventory pool. Clearly selling on a CPM buy type, which usually has an impression goal, requires some forecast of available inventory so that this goal can be delivered by the campaign’s end date. This can be extremely difficult when multiple CPM ads are sharing a slice of inventory that has very little availability, and additionally when CPM deals overlap multiple demographic criteria or vertical targets.
  • Twenty ROS (run-of-site) ads are easier for one trafficker than 10 overlapping targeted ads. For example, if two ads are targeting Vertical 1 and Vertical 2, two ads are targeting Vertical 2 and Vertical 3 on a specific industry target, two ads are targeting Vertical 1 and Vertical 3 on a gender demographic, and four ads are ROS with the same gender demographic. In such an environment, demanding that an inexperienced (or even a seasoned) traffic manager figure out why one ad is on schedule while another is failing to meet its goals, or why one ad has twice the click-thru rate as another, might twist their brain into a pretzel.
  • Twenty GIF or JPG ads are easier for one trafficker than 10 third party delivered ads. Most ad agencies prefer to upload ads into their own ad server and hand a publisher an ad tag that calls the GIF or JPG, rather than pass along the raw materials. This way they can track their impressions and clicks in a single report for their client rather than collecting multiple, variant reports from all the publishers who are delivering the ad. Unfortunately third party ads are subject to discrepancies between the ad agency’s ad server and the publisher’s ad server, such that the publisher usually has to over-deliver the ad in order to meet the contracted goal. And there is no way of knowing for sure how far to over-deliver before the campaign starts, because the discrepancy can swing between 5% and 20% for unknown reasons. (It should normally stay below 8%, but if wishes were pennies…)

If a company needs to know what the true staffing requirements are for an Ad Operations department, especially a startup or a re-org, it is therefore advisable to hire an experienced Ad Operations manager or consultant to evaluate the environment and make staffing and/or outsourced recommendations.

As a rule of thumb, if there is more than one sales rep, there should be more than one traffic manager. Each time a new sales rep is added to the sales team, the potential workload for Ad Operations increases vastly. Clearly it is not wise to just “throw bodies” into Ad Operations to manage the workload. I have managed Ad Operations for over 20 sales reps with over 2000 concurrent active ad flights (many of them hugely targeted third-party CPM campaigns) using just two staff people, which would not have been possible without the automation, process enforcement and naming conventions that I established to facilitate the reporting process. Because we were scaling up, I had to hire an outsourced trafficking service to supplement our workload and later begin hiring two more employees.

Recognizing the demands on ad trafficking and being able to clearly report that workload to executive officers so that they can make informed decisions is one of the challenges for the head of Ad Operations.

–to be continued–

Editor’s note: Chris Haviland’s article will be in a five part series.

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5


1 Burn Out in Ad Operations, by Doug Wintz. iMedia Connection: 6 Jun 2005.