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Why You don't want to Ignore Science of Ad Operations

By Luke Hager
Managing Editor

Ad operations (’ad ops’ for short) are generally understood as the complicated set of tasks that happen between online display advertising sales and billing. It’s the technical/admin/back-office details that need to happen to make campaigns go live, run smoothly and deliver as promised. It’s the foundation of an effective online ad sales business. 
But most publishers don’t get this.  Everyone understands how editorial and sales impact revenue, but few publishers understand the massive risks and costs associated with bad ad ops. This article will start by discussing some of the reasons behind the neglect of this area, as well as discuss some of the major risks to look out for, before concluding with a suggested approach for fixing things.
Why is ad ops so undervalued?
Ad ops often comes with a very low value attached for many publishing organizations, and therefore, is often put on the back burner. It is usually seen as something juniors do before they go into sales or editorial, as the nature of the work is administrative and therefore viewed as boring. It is technical and therefore obscure, as well as unrewarding, messy and highly pressurized.
In many publishing organizations the ad ops team is very small, which means there is no specialization of roles, no mentorship and no chance of career progression within this area.
The net result of these negatives is that ad ops is not a very popular role to undertake at most organizations. Staff are often only in ad ops roles for only a few months, so staff churn and recruitment costs are high and no one ever becomes a true expert. This interrupts operations frequently. 
But fundamentally, few publisher executives have a thorough understanding of what ad ops entails and why is it important. Very few see ad ops as more than entering Insertion Orders and creatives in an ad server. Even fewer have a clear understanding of ad ops best practices and strategic considerations such as yield management and campaign performance optimization. Because of this lack of understanding, publishers cannot properly evaluate their ad ops staff and are unable to provide them with the direction they need.    
What is the impact?
The most visible way in which bad ad ops impact publishers is by creating operational noise and chaos. Missing paperwork, late creative input, bad communication, and doing everything last minute creates a lot of internal stress, but also negatively impacts the customer satisfaction of advertisers.
Operational chaos is often the tip of the iceberg. What lies beneath – under-delivery, discrepancies and non-compliance – is what causes the real commercial impact.
The under-delivery of a campaign cannot always be prevented by a competent ad ops team, but it can certainly be significantly mitigated. By clearly communicating technical specifications to agency contacts, chasing creative before the launch date, and monitoring (as well as where appropriate, adjusting) delivery throughout the campaign - it is possible to significantly reduce under-delivery and under-billing of campaigns.
Discrepancies with third party ad servers are still incredibly common for most online publishers and are seen by many as an accepted occupational hazard. In fact, most publishers simply over-deliver as a matter of course to prevent having the conversation with their advertisers. But while pragmatic, this is hardly a satisfactory solution. Good ad ops aim to prevent discrepancies before they occur, investigate them properly and resolve them if they do occur. Many discrepancies are created by ad ops teams that do not follow best practice guidelines correctly, or simply fail to investigate easily avoidable discrepancies. The commercial impact of this can be easily calculated:          % campaigns with discrepancies x average discrepancy rate x monthly ad sales.
For publishers selling millions of dollars of ads in a month, with average discrepancy rates in the teens, this number can be very high and should therefore not be viewed as an accepted occupational hazard.
Non-compliance with editorial guidelines for creative is harder to quantify than the two risks above. This does not mean the risk is not real however, especially if the publisher is a major brand with strict policies. The negative brand impact of running an ad from a restricted category (e.g. gambling, porn, political/religious extremism, violence) on a brand name site is massive. 
Good ad ops not only ensure that all creatives fall in line with publisher’s editorial guidelines, but has efficient methods for managing the complexity introduced by third party tags, geo-targeting and ad rotation.
How can ad ops be fixed?
The best way to fix ad ops is to give it the focus and attention it requires, and to prioritize it as a key business function within the publishing organization. 
Start off by setting and measuring a series of KPIs for your ad ops team. For example, the ratio of billed versus booked revenue, percentage of campaigns that launch on time, and factor in discrepancy rates with 3rd party ad servers. These metrics will quickly show up problems you may encounter, and can become a good measure of future performance improvement.
Then ensure that your ad ops team is staffed with qualified, motivated ad ops professionals and that you create specialist roles within your team. This may include rich media production, inventory management, and campaign performance optimization.   If you cannot justify a team of at least 3-4 staff for the size of your business, consider outsourcing some of your ad ops functions. Without some critical mass, it is very hard to achieve the level of technical skill and operational slickness required to run an effective ad ops team.
Lastly, ensure (through training or experience) that your executive managers understand the importance of good ad ops to your success as a publisher. This means covering off how good ad ops (and everything it entails) can support and facilitate a sales strategy, and how bad ad ops can undermine a business with every campaign that is mismanaged.
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