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.
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 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.
When I was first hired to be a traffic manager in 1998, founding the ad ops department for Mail.com, in the interview my hiring manager said, “We don’t want a ‘yes’ man.” What did she mean by that?
Ad Operations workers are generally analytical and technical people, and most of their internal customers are sales reps who are generally expressive and forceful. Each personality type is what it has to be. Sales people have to drive past the ‘no’ they get from prospective clientele in creative and sometimes aggressive ways. That trait makes them skilled at selling. Ad ops people, on the other hand, have to methodically attend to the technical aspects of ad serving while keeping a good attitude, and take great care to document their assignments because they will otherwise find themselves the target for blame when anything goes wrong.
If a traffic manager simply did what ever any sales rep asked them to do, the Ad Operations department and the whole sales initiative would become unraveled. One sales rep may call a traffic manager on the phone and say, “I keep refreshing my web browser and I don’t see my ad in rotation. Make my campaign run faster.” A ‘yes’ man might then make it happen at the expense of other campaigns, causing damage to other sales reps’ accounts. This not only targets the trafficker for blame when other campaigns fail, it damages the yield potential of the inventory as well as client expectations.
Rules, process, clear communication and enforcement (with civility) are critical in Ad Operations, in addition to constant improvement in order to help sales build a bigger and better initiative. The staff needs to be led by someone with experience in driving those strategies. He or she must have a history of managing traffic managers, establishing and enforcing guidelines, streamlining workflow, building regular reports to calculate yields and other metrics, and learning how to say ‘no’ to people who are engineered not to take ‘no’ for an answer, without losing his or her cool and souring interpersonal relationships. That person also must be motivated to figure out how to turn that ‘no’ into a future ‘yes’ by ramping up the mechanics and services of Ad Operations, drawing upon what ever resources are available, or drawing up a clear business case for more.
In the U.S. this role should be at the director-level or higher, or preferably with a rank at least equal to whomever is the head of sales (ideally such that both report to the same hiring manager). The Director of Ad Operations can report to a COO, CFO, CTO, or a similar executive or senior manager, depending on the size of the company. The role should not report to the head of sales.
The Ad Operations team leader and the sales team leader will be close partners in the online revenue-driving business, meeting regularly (at least once a month, if not once a week) about the status of inventory and campaign delivery, effective CPMs and online revenue trends such as key performance indicators (KPIs), third party discrepancies or other technical issues if any, communication about potential campaigns that are not currently deliverable and what to do about it, and other future improvements. It is important for the two roles to develop mutual respect for the other’s demands and pressures.
Sales is primarily motivated by commission, not yields, so there is a pattern wherein a sales rep will do anything they can to close a new campaign, even if it’s one that Ad Operations cannot yet deliver without improvements to the site’s ad tags, or to the database that would need to feed subscription demographics into the ad tags, or because there isn’t enough available inventory, or some other reason. A professional and experienced head of sales will not function this way, and will reign back her staff pending consultation with the head of Ad Operations, or else help to enforce Ad Operations workflow procedures if a rep is attempting to circumvent them in the interest of time.
The head of Ad Operations must build practical and intuitive procedures and strictly enforce them in order to minimize campaign failure and maximize impression yields. Cooperation with this agenda is mandatory, and if the head of sales is not cooperative, or unwilling to work with Ad Operations on realistic alternatives, the relationship between Ad Operations and the Sales team can be troublesome and stressful. This is why Ad Operations should not report to the head of sales, because it increases the risk of placing Ad Operations into a no-win scenario. Even if the head of sales is fair and level-headed, with a lot of respect for what Ad Operations can and cannot do and what their goals are, that person may someday leave the company or move into another position and be replaced with someone who isn’t on the same page.
But supposing there is no head of sales at all? Some organizations are built by acquiring smaller companies with their own sales structures. The pyramidal ranking model, wherein all sales reps ultimately report to a single head of sales, is the optimal structure, but some companies live with a more or less cooperative de-centralized model. In such an environment the Ad Operations director should report to an executive officer in the company who is as central as possible, and who understands and supports Ad Operations challenges. The Ad Operations team leader must then begin a line of communication with each senior sales rep for the different business units or publishers owned by the conglomerate. In such a scenario, a regular group meeting or conference call would be highly recommended.
Focus and Clarity
Employees perform better with focus. Mixing different job descriptions that might sound like they can co-exist, such as a web producer and a traffic manager in the same role, can create tremendous difficulties that will inevitably result in employee retention challenges and failing campaigns. I call this the “Swiss Army Knife” philosophy, where a company disguises the fact that they do not want to invest in enough staff to meet internal workload demands by stating that multitasking is a desirable trait capable of quality results.
The facts are quite the opposite. Doubling Ad Operations up with web producing, billing, or any other function will lead to a higher probability for error, miscommunication, time management conflicts, and irreconcilable priorities.
For example, if a web producer needs to finish building a microsite by end of day and suddenly a sales rep calls and says their targeted CPM campaign is failing and it needs to be rebooked by end of day, how does one person prioritize these two important assignments? Probably both cannot be done by the same person on the same day, and tomorrow may have other scheduled priorities.
Ad Operations workload comes in spikes. On many days there are a lot of requests and all of them are important, but they cannot be adequately managed if the same worker must multitask with other job descriptions that demand her attention.
I have also seen non-technical employees such as content editors field trafficking requests, but they aren’t equipped with the skills and experience to diagnose an ad that isn’t rotating evenly enough, or why a third party ad has an unsightly 30% discrepancy rate as of last week. This person might be inclined to simply blame the ad server(s) because there is nowhere else to turn, and over-use customer support which may drive up ad serving costs and even lead to an incorrect solution to the problem (if any at all).
Psychological research published in 2001 by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and in 2009 by Stanford University demonstrate that multitasking does not increase productivity. The 2001 study stated, “subjects lost time when they had to switch from one task to another. Because time costs increased with the complexity of the tasks, it took significantly longer to switch between more complex tasks. Time costs were also greater when subjects switched to tasks that were relatively unfamiliar.” 2
With regard to the results of the 2009 study, co-researcher Clifford I. Nass at Sanford University bluntly stated, “Multitaskers were just lousy at everything.” The study’s lead investigator Eyal Ophir stated, “We thought multitaskers were very much in control of information. It turns out, they were just getting it all confused.” 3
Ron Ashkenas, who cited the 2009 study in his blog for Harvard Business Review, wrote, “If dozens of people are reducing their effectiveness by multitasking, then the organization runs the risk of being tied up in knots.” 4
This is not to state the opposite extreme: that all multitasking should be avoided. That is not possible, nor is it practical. However the tasks assigned to an employee should have a strong relationship with one another. It is easier for a traffic manager to be interrupted from running an inventory forecast by a request to switch out a live ad, than to be interrupted from switching out a live ad by an urgent request to write new XML for a critical glitch-fix in the company’s proprietary content management system (CMS).
The strategy is to take advantage of an employee’s natural skill sets and interests with tasks that are as closely related to it, and each other, as possible.
Defining Traffic Managers, Client Services Managers, and Analysts
Ad Operations must be clearly defined and communicated to the company, especially to the departments who interact with it. That is: what this staff does in this organization, and what this staff does not do. Otherwise, it is not unusual for Ad Operations to become the go-to group for whatever another department or employee needs, even tasks or data unrelated to Ad Operations. For example, unless Ad Operations has a site traffic analyst on staff, it should not field requests for page view reports or analysis. Or, if the staff is not responsible for sending e-newsletters, it should field requests for email sends or opens, or subscription database inquiries.
That doesn’t mean Ad Operations cannot take on those roles, but it will need to be staffed appropriately and equipped with the required tools and access. A newsletter producer, a site traffic analyst and a traffic manager should not all be the same person. These should be three different employees working together, whether in the same department or separate ones.
There is a common list of tasks that are the responsibility of Ad Operations. Some of these tasks may take a few minutes, others may take many hours, or even days of attention. These tasks can be divided into three basic categories of focus: Technical, Administrative, and Analytical.
It makes sense to subdivide these tasks to increase focus. You can assign the technical work to a traffic manager, the administrative work to a client services manager, and the analytical work to an analyst. This reduces priority juggling and helps to reduce error, as it takes advantage of the technical skills of one employee, the people skills of second employee, and the analytical skills of a third.
The functions could be divided this way:
Traffic Manager (TM)
* Set up new ads in an ad server, or additional ads to existing campaign, or switch out old creatives for new ones
* Work with client on a third party tag that isn’t testing properly
* Work with client on proper implementation of the clickTAG call in Flash ActionScript
* Adjust or rebook campaign parameters
* Monitor daily campaign delivery
* Provide regular delivery reports (weekly, monthly, and/or upon completion of campaigns)
* Diagnose ad serving problems and work with the ad server’s customer support
Client Services Manager (CSM)
* Manage the dashboard or email inbox and either field inquiries or redirect communication as necessary
* Chase materials for new insertion orders, including new or missing materials such as click URL or a missing ad size
* Chase insertion orders for materials that come in early
* Make sure insertion orders are signed, complete, and clear
* Make sure the sales reps are well informed
* Respond to delivery report requests and provide regular delivery reports (weekly, monthly, and/or upon completion of campaigns)
* Make sure client is well informed and satisfied
* Answer client inquiries and fill out RFPs (“request for proposal” forms)
* Monitor daily campaign delivery
* Provide regular yield (effective CPM) reports for senior or corporate management
* Respond to inventory forecast requests (available inventory queries, or “avails”) and provide forecasts regularly
* Respond to delivery report requests and provide regular delivery reports (weekly, monthly, and/or upon completion of campaigns)
* Monitor daily campaign delivery
Some of the tasks overlap roles, or can be divided a little differently at the discretion of the department head, based on the specific needs of the company. Yield reporting, for example, is often 80% of the workload of an Ad Operations Director, and inventory availability forecasting might be shared among the traffic managers unless it is too intense.
This internal structuring has worked for me, and many online companies. Taking client services work away from the traffic manager is especially helpful, as some traffic managers don’t have the greatest people skills, and some client services managers don’t have the greatest technical skills. A good Client Services Manager (CSM) can be a powerful asset toward strengthening relationships with clients as well as between internal employees. As reported by Media Business Online in 2008: “Dan Hirsh, publisher of IDG’s Network World, said Network World’s eight-person client services group ‘has become a point of differentiation for us, and we have made a sizable investment in it.'” 5
In my experience, organizations with clearly defined CSMs have a stronger quality of Ad Operations service, whether they are publishers, ad agencies, or ad networks.
Differentiating your staff helps to sub-divide the demand. Earlier I said that one sales rep with ten campaigns is easier for one trafficker than two sales reps with five campaigns each. With the above workflow strategy, the traffic manager’s job may be nearly the same either way, but the client services manager’s work is harder with two sales reps than with one. This allows for different scaling opportunities and workflow management.
In general, Client Services sits in between the client, the sales rep, and the traffic manager, keeping work organized and data streaming smoothly and clearly. They make sure that the sales rep’s paperwork, facts, proposals, follow-ups and project requests are in order and don’t fall off the radar, they make sure the clients are happy and well informed, and they make sure Ad Operations has everything they need.
However you can also differentiate between two different types of Client Services Managers: one kind works for Ad Operations, the other kind works for the sales staff.
The Ad Operations CSM is mostly a post-IO administrator, managing work after the IO is signed and executing the requirements in the IO by redirecting it to Ad Operations, email and web producers, webinar producers, and so forth.
The Sales CSM is mostly a pre-IO administrator, serving as an attaché for sales reps. I have seen many account managers become frustrated because they don’t have enough information available to them when they need it, and will call anybody they can to get that data, often starting with Ad Operations. If the company does not yet have dashboards or other tools that easily place inventory, e-newsletter, and site traffic data in front of sales so that they are well informed during a call, then someone ought to consolidate that information and report it to them regularly. That would be the duty of a Sales CSM person.
There are companies who have many more specialized CSMs and may give them different titles but it’s the job descriptions that are important.
“At Thomas Publishing’s Managing Automation, Joanne Hogan, VP-e-media, oversees the advertising support function, which resides in multiple departments: one person in sales and marketing supports webinars, two people in client services support lead-gen programs, and a fourth handles impression-based online ad units as well as print advertising production.”6 (emphasis mine)
Although I would separate print and online client services, this is a solid example of how to organize job descriptions.
Staffing in this way solves a lot of excess communication workload and errors caused by incomplete or vague insertion orders, miscommunication, orphaned project requests or inquiries, and stress and confusion from lack of focus.
The following staffing models are rough suggestions, as every publisher’s culture and requirement is different. One organization might have many sites each with minimal inventory, another might have a single site with a lot of inventory. An organization may have more focus on e-newsletter advertising, or site advertising, or mobile device advertising. An ad network or ad agency might be structured a little differently.
But no matter how you design your Ad Operations staff, keep a sharp eye on internal demand. If you’re an online publisher, you should not permit your Sales department to invent new sites, new e-newsletters with display ads in them, new web sizes and ad positions, and new buy types or targeting schemes without consulting Ad Operations to see if it can manage the increase of work without staffing up or automating further. All innovative sales ideas for earning new revenues must be evaluated against implementation and operational costs and resources as determined by the head of the Ad Operations staff, and senior members of other affected staffs. This must be enforced at the executive level and clearly communicated with cooperation from the head of Sales.
The below models are normal Ad Operations staffs which do not manage e-newsletter or list-rental production, web production, site traffic (Omniture, Google Analytics, etc), Flash development or creative development. To introduce those tasks into this department, you need additional hires with the appropriate skills. In a large organization, the staff can belong to a Media Operations department managed by a vice president who also oversees video advertising, mobile advertising, automation and site development, email development, Flash and Creative Designers, and so forth.
And don’t forget: Traffic managers are permitted to have vacations too! Every employee in this staff should have a functional backup. Never bottleneck workload through a single person who is the only one who knows how to do it. It places your business at risk.
Model 1: Sales staff of 2-3 with 5-10 new or revised monthly campaigns each, all Flat Fee (no impressions goals, no managed share of voice), all ROS, about 50% third-party delivered creatives. About 0-6 expiring house ads per quarter.
Director of Ad Operations
* Traffic Manager
Model 2: Sales staff of 4-5 with 5-10 new or revised monthly campaigns each, over 90% Share of Voice (SOV), all ROS, about 80% third-party delivered creatives. About 0-12 expiring house ads per quarter.
Director of Ad Operations
* Traffic Manager
* Client Services Manager
Model 3: Sales staff of 5-6 with 5-10 new or revised monthly campaigns each, over 90% CPM advertising (impression goals), 50% or more on vertical targets, about 80% third-party delivered creatives. About 0-24 expiring house ads per quarter.
Director of Ad Operations
* Traffic Manager
* Client Services Manager
* Another Traffic Manager or Client Services Manager depending on balance of workload
Model 4: Sales staff of 20-30 with 5-20 new or revised monthly campaigns each, some sites over 90% CPM advertising (impression goals), 50% or more on vertical targets, 50% or more on demographic or geographic targets, about 5-10% potentially on contextual targets, about 80% third-party delivered creatives. About 0-24 expiring house ads per quarter.
Senior Director of Ad Operations
* Traffic Manager: Region 1 (or Site / Newsletter Group 1)
* Traffic Manager: Region 2 (or Site / Newsletter Group 2)
* Client Services Manager: pre-Sales
* Client Services Manager: post-Sales
* Delivery Analyst (availability forecasting, pacing reports, campaign completion reports)
* Yield Analyst (yields, effective revenues, key performance indicators, comparative analysis)
Model 5: Sales staff of 30-40 with 5-20 new or revised monthly campaigns each, some sites over 90% CPM advertising (impression goals), some sites all Share of Voice, some sites 50% or more on vertical targets, some sites 50% or more on demographic or geographic targets, some sites about 5-10% on contextual targets, about 80% third-party delivered creatives throughout, about 10% Flash creatives (including some travelling or expanding ads), several interstitials per month, one or two microsites a quarter, any number of sponsorships or roadblocks a month on different sites (including display ads in e-newsletters). Two dozen expiring house ads per quarter.
Vice President of Ad Operations and Yields
* Director of Ad Operations
** Senior Traffic Manager
*** Traffic Manager: Region 1 (or Site / Newsletter Group 1)
*** Traffic Manager: Region 2 (or Site / Newsletter Group 2)
*** Traffic Manager: Region 3 (if needed based on workload)
* Senior Analyst
** Delivery Analyst (availability forecasting, pacing reports, campaign completion reports, client reports)
** Yield Analyst (yields, effective revenues, key performance indicators, comparative analysis)
* Director of Client Services
** Client Services Manager 1: pre-Sales
** Client Services Manager 2: pre-Sales
** Client Services Manager 1: post-Sales
** Client Services Manager 2: post-Sales (if needed based on workload)
1Burn Out in Ad Operations, by Doug Wintz. iMedia Connection: 6 Jun 2005. http://www.imediaconnection.com/content/6058.imc
2Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching, by Joshua S. Rubinstein (Federal Aviation Administration) and David E. Meyer and Jeffrey E. Evans (University of Michigan). Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 2001, Vol 27, No 4, 763-797: 2001.
4Cognitive control in media multitaskers, by Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: 24 Aug 2009. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/08/21/0903620106.full.pdf+html
Also see The Mediocre Multitasker by Ruth Pennebaker. The New York Times: 29 Aug 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/30/weekinreview/30pennebaker.html
5To Multitask Effectively, Focus on Value, Not Volume, by Ron Ashkenas. Harvard Business Review: 10 Sep 2009. http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2009/09/to_multitask_effectively_focus.html
6Service starts with the sale: Selling online advertising requires a follow-up process not needed in print, by Marie Griffin. Media Business Online: Feb 2008.