Rethinking Ad Operations For the Future

From Cost Center to Profit Center

For any company that deals in digital advertising, ad operations is where the rubber meets the road. No matter how great the revenue opportunity, no matter how sweet the deal—no one profits until ops moves the ball over the goal line. And the faster, smarter, and more efficiently ops works, the more value is created for everyone. Or not. Sometimes it goes the other way. This was especially true five or more years ago: an era in operations that I affectionately refer to as the dark ages.


I remember one instance in 2002 where I was one of six people on a conference call to diagnose a single banner placement. Six. And these were all smart people—the problem was that the chain from advertiser to publisher was too complicated and too manual. There were dozens of places for things to go wrong.


‘Modern’ ad operations is a very different animal. Thanks mainly to automation and programmatic buying, what was once about trafficking banners is now an infinitely more strategic endeavor. What was once about collecting data is now about analyzing it and taking actions based on those insights. Essentially, the ad operations professional of today does everything but “close the deal.”


It’s All In The Data

For most digital publishers, ‘ad operations’ really means ‘revenue operations’ and that means a lot of data analysis. Data is the key to exceeding the expectations of clients, partners, and shareholders.  Data tells ops how much revenue is being generated from specific sales channels, ad agencies, advertisers, site sections, and even users. Data enables them to make smarter decisions, not only on behalf of their own company, but for the benefit of their clients: what to sell, who to sell it to, and under what conditions to maximize value for everyone.


As buyers move to audience-based buys, data analysis for publishers is increasingly about analyzing audiences based on a mix of first and third-party data. This information is especially powerful when it’s paired with Real Time Bidding (RTB) pricing data, which enables ops to see which audience segments are in highest demand by buyers. From there they can create custom audience packages that meet the needs of specific buyers and can be sold on a programmatic basis when specific rules are met. If that’s not ad product development, I don’t know what is.


Another angle on all this is data sales. As the market for quality data grows, operations will need to become the resident experts at using technologies to help manage, value, and package their data to meet the needs of buyers and other intermediaries. Not only is this an opportunity for ops to take a significant leadership role in organization, it can be a significant source of revenue as well.


The Lines Begin To Blur

It doesn’t take too much imagination to see where all this is going. If today ad operations is about everything but cutting the deal, tomorrow it will be about cutting the deal as well. It’s not that sales people will go away, it’s just that the lines between sales and operations will blur. In many organizations, this is already happening on the management level. 


In the past, the Chief Revenue Officer (CRO) was the salesperson with the biggest Rolodex.  Today’s CRO has a big Rolodex and copious amounts of data at their disposal to help them achieve a wide variety of marketing objectives on a consistent and repeatable basis. Don’t get me wrong, relationships and sales will always be paramount in advertising. They just won’t be enough on their own.


Looking Forward

Straight revenue isn’t the only reason why ad operations demands a seat at the executive table. As Mitch Weinstein of Universal McCann said in a recent column, today’s ops professional is better qualified than almost anyone to become a subject matter expert in the many forces affecting change in the industry. There’s so much to learn, and operations’ role in the organization lends itself well to synthesizing new knowledge and educating others. In my view, this educating and informing process is as important as any of ad ops’ new responsibilities.


Though technology has significantly changed the day-to-day ad operations experience, the role has always, and will always, be about the same thing: driving efficiency and value, and meeting advertisers’ expectations. It used to be simpler, but I doubt anyone will miss trafficking banners. I know I won’t.