FEATURE 

Ad ops to the fore

Ad ops are the unsung heroes of successful online ad campaigns. Yet, if online publishers are to grow ad revenue and market share, writes Tim Faircliff, then they are going to have to completely reassess their approach to ad ops and the people who work in it.

By Tim Faircliff

Last month, I was privileged to attend the annual AOP Awards ceremony in my capacity as Chair of the Judges. It was year ten of these awards (and yes, I have been to every one!) and a very impressive evening it was. They celebrate the success of digital publishing businesses and now include a specific award for best advertising operations team. This year, this category was won by the Mirror (pictured) and they received one of the loudest cheers of the night when they collected their award.

It is a good sign that the industry is now starting to recognise the contributions of such teams to the overall successes that digital publishing businesses continue to have. Ad operations have always been at the heart of a commercial digital publisher but have seldom gained the recognition I believe they deserve. After all, without an efficient and integrated operations function, the business of selling ads and ensuring they appear according to the correct schedule falls apart rapidly.

Ad ops as the engine room

I have often described the ad operations function as akin to those crew within an engine room of a ship without whom the ship would not even leave port! But in fact, they are more than that already. It is not just ensuring the boilers work and that there is enough fuel. Ad Ops also need to act as navigators for the ship, plotting a course, maintaining course and reporting back to the bridge on progress and problems. They are also expected to act as engineers and actually fix the problems they have reported too.

New challenges?

One of the challenges we face is staying up to speed on new technologies. There are such a vast number of new technologies and solutions available to publishers that the operations team have a full time job just staying on top of the new developments.

There are also now a greater number of creative executions being requested by clients and agencies and therefore an increased reliance on the operations teams to ensure they are all tested and set up correctly. This can be a very labour intensive process and often removes a key resource from a more productive revenue producing role. Often this could be outsourced at a lower cost and with a quicker turnaround time leaving in-house resource reassigned to more productive areas.

It is certain that this area will not remain static so I believe organisations need to reassess the options and challenge existing structures and process.

Retention

Much of the workload of the traditional ad operations teams is repetitive and, as a result, it makes retention of staff a key threat to businesses.

If we start to think of the ad ops functions as business critical and as strategy informers, then the business needs to fully endorse that expertise with good career plans, strong incentive programmes and focused retention activities.

Whilst some of the tools are standard across the industry, each company has different models and interpretations and, as such, the expertise of ad ops is a specialist role too.

It is, I believe, not all about the money but recognition, and a chance to share in the success of the business unit.

Nothing worse than seeing sales teams smiling at a big commission package earned on the back of the solid, efficient efforts of the ad ops teams who remain unrewarded relatively. And yet they are expected to maintain solid and good relationships between sales teams and other functions… even with such a misalignment over remuneration and bonus schemes.

Therefore, I believe that a missing component in this area is the need to establish recognition of the ad ops function as one of expertise in data collection and analysis that better informs the business strategy.

We are still playing catch up in determining the true measure of the value of ad ops and their contribution will require a review. The industry is demanding flexibility, accuracy and speed from publishers, and ad ops are such a crucial part of ensuring we can meet those demands.

Revenue seekers?

Ad ops are also in a good position to help drive a company into new areas and new technologies. They can lead the charge on finding new revenue opportunities in areas like rich media and video. We don't know what the next big thing Apple, or whomever, is going to come out with, however, we know we can sell it and the ops teams can provide a robust framework to exploit this and provide data and analysis to deliver the sale.

As a result, they are able to contribute to an increased yield and profitability and ensure they appear on a greater number of advertising schedules.

Where tasks are repetitive and standardised the option of outsourcing should be reviewed seriously. Keeping full time headcount focused on driving new areas of creative development and insight generation makes sense to me but some of the standard reporting and trafficking retained in house does not. It's a great model as a publisher can explore gently and not bet the farm on outsourcing. Try a few campaigns that are "standard" and add in some reporting requirements which are currently tying up the internal resource from driving growth opportunities.

This then can leave some headroom for developing sophistication and business insight without which, businesses will be at a competitive disadvantage.

Process

In order for the ad ops function to flourish, there needs to be a rigorous review and implementation of the related process.

Clearly we all need varying degrees of process in our business and indeed our own lives, and running a digital business is no different, yet at times, as it is still a relatively young industry, we are still figuring out processes that actually work and are efficient.

However, I think it useful to remember that all processes need constant scrutiny and review for efficiency. If it’s not working, then kill it quickly and replace with one that works. We are all guilty of designing a process and then leaving it, assuming it will work forever when all around, the times are a changing. Ad ops are no different and it needs structure, organisation and efficient integrated processes.

Communication and collaboration

Ad ops roles need to be filled by good communicators. Primarily their focus is internal with sales teams, finance and creative teams. It is also a client facing role though and as such, the skills of communication are vital. This has often been overlooked in recruitment and in job descriptions but for me, without this attribute, the ad ops function will struggle to be effective.

Communication is at the centre for these teams and the plan must be to execute quickly and make the processes as simple as possible. With a uniform reporting requirement of revenue and other business KPIs, it is vital that these teams collaborate and share as much as possible on a very regular basis.

This ability to collaborate is vitally important in this complex arena. It is worth rethinking how you communicate in this area to ensure success – it’s often just assumed and not really given a focus.

So, how should we structure ad operations in this new and changing world?

I’ve set out a list of what I see the key functions and responsibilities of ad ops. And as you will see, it is more than just trafficking! It’s not an exhaustive list, but it surely demonstrates the breadth these roles are now expected to cover.

How many of them are included on current job descriptions for ad operations?

* Sales support: partner with sales team and determine client objectives

* Ad execution: QA, implementation, and confirmation

* Campaign management: reporting, analysis, and insight

* Business operations

* Order and workflow management

* Revenue reporting

* Billing and reconciliation

* Technical operations

* Lead on custom executions

* Troubleshooting ad issues

* Streamline technical facets of ad implementation

* Yield optimisation and analysis

* Data mining and aggregation

* Statistical modelling, forecasting, and analysis

* Pricing and value attribution

The Future

The business climate is undergoing a tough transition and the digital business model remains a challenge. It is fast moving and fluid and seeking answers and executing strategy are as important as ever. There are many questions we need to be able to respond to and many answers yet to be found.

Do we work with networks? Or, should we not? And if so, what and who are our partners and who is stealing from us? And, who can offer us real benefit going forwards? These and other questions challenge me and the wider industry. Ad ops can surely help us resolve the responses to these questions as they are in the right place to do so, or at least should be. It has become an organisational challenge to ensure roles, structure and processes are aligned.

I would hope that most organisations are no longer debating the importance of ad operations. It’s not a question of whether this is important; it’s more a question of what you’re going to do about it.

Ad ops is therefore fundamental to our progression and development as businesses. Historically, this has not been widely recognised and the roles have been largely responsive and reactive. In the chase for increased share and revenue, we all need to ensure we can track performance and understand the vagaries of the basic business needs. Without this, we cannot hope to be successful and profitable. A vibrant, challenging ad ops engine can be a powerful partner in powering digital publishers’ success. Just ask the folk at the Mirror…