The Evolving Role of Ad Operations in a Programmatic World

To borrow a concept from the sports world, the best teams always have a reliable utility player. That's the person a coach counts on for many different roles, seamlessly transitioning between positions without a drop-off in performance. In the digital advertising industry, your advertising operations team is that ever-important utility player, fighting bad ads as a shortstop in the first inning, later moving to centerfield as an ad trafficker. And that's not an easy task.

So to extend our previous discussion on making life easier for your ad ops professionals, we now want to take a closer look at the many different roles they play and how their significance has increased over the years. As you'll see, it's a position that has evolved quickly and drastically in a short amount of time, making it an industry-wide best practice to try to keep a big, genuine smile on an ad ops' face. The consequences of a grimace don't bode well for anyone – except the fraudsters, of course.

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Ad Ops Step Into the Spotlight

Publisher ad ops haven’t always been in the spotlight as they are today. Not so long ago, they were almost entirely transactional, the ones always getting stuck trying to traffic tags, implement trackers, and scramble for assets that were often either late or not delivering properly. It’s not that they operated under the radar, necessarily, but usually didn’t get the attention or help they deserved as they hurried around trying to get campaigns live.

But a funny thing happened to the industry that took ad ops out of the shadows and into the spotlight – programmatic. Put another way, it's not a coincidence that the evolution of the ad ops role aligns almost perfectly with the explosion in programmatic spend. From a single-digit fraction of total ad spend in 2010 to an estimated 88% in 2021, programmatic has fundamentally changed the online advertising ecosystem, and won't slow down anytime soon.

However, programmatic advertising obviously isn't a perfect system. Far from it. It's complex, in some ways convoluted, and cloaks the entire supply chain under a veil of diverging motivations that often wreak havoc. Today's digital marketing landscape is an alphabet soup of acronyms that even industry insiders sometimes have trouble keeping straight. DSP, SSP, RTB, CPM, DFP – and there's plenty more where those came from. OMG.

Now you can see why the digital ad operations position evolved so quickly over the last decade. It almost didn't have a choice. The industry, both sell-side and buy-side, needed people to keep all of those moving parts a well-oiled machine. Suddenly, once underappreciated ad ops teams were an integral component of nearly every facet of operations, being asked to wear many different hats over the course of a day, including:

  • Testing new technologies
  • Monitoring revenue
  • Optimizing delivery
  • Evaluating partners
  • Communicating with SSPs
  • Dealing with viewability issues
  • Managing fill rates

That’s quite a lengthy list, huh? And honestly, the typical ad ops would probably tell you that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a demanding, dynamic, and stressful position that isn’t for the faint of heart.

Hard Skills, Soft Skills, and a Sheriff's Badge

We've only told one half of the story so far, though. While it's true that ad ops' responsibilities have grown virtually in lock-step with programmatic's meteoric rise in the last decade, they weren't the only two invited to the party. Fraudsters and ad fraud have assumed the same trajectory, where bad actors have taken advantage of the complexities and faultlines in the system, today costing the industry over $1B every year.

And guess who publishers and platforms have tasked as unofficial sheriffs against fraudsters and bad ads? You guessed it. Ad ops. But therein lies the problem. It would be one thing if ad ops were solely focused on bad actors but, as we discussed, that’s not even close to reality. Being the last line of defense against bad ads is just a portion of their responsibilities. Every day, they’re operating at light speed, juggling competing priorities that include, amongst others, adopting the latest and greatest technologies, troubleshooting a never-ending parade of issues, and maximizing revenue for the publisher.

As you might expect, juggling so many things in the air at once leaves many ad operations teams in a constant state of flux from turnover, burnout, and stress. Ad ops now need soft skills to effectively communicate with customers, hard skills to navigate the technical side of the position, and a vigilant eye to defend the perimeter against the many different forms of bad ads – all while maintaining page viewability and a satisfying user experience. And the last time we looked, there are still only 24 hours in a day.

The Future of Ad Ops

So what does all of this mean for the future of the ad ops role? Well, for starters, it’s going to take a very particular type of person with specialized skills and knowledge to flourish in the position. Once again, that person will possess a unique combination of hard and soft skills, being able to seamlessly move between different environments and responsibilities with ease. To paint a broad picture, a gifted ad ops person will require:

  • A strategic mindset
  • Technical skills rivaling those of a devops team
  • Familiarity and insight on sales and revenue
  • Flexibility to keep pace with constantly changing standards

Putting everything in context, an ad ops might strategize with the C-suite in the morning, handle a variety of technical issues around lunch, and then close the day with a sales meeting on expanding revenue streams. And that’s just a typical day.

From an industry standpoint, aside from finding people capable of thriving in such a dynamic and demanding position, a handful of trends will continue to take root and spread in a reaction to the evolution within the ad ops ranks.

  • Outsourcing – Just like any highly specialized role, companies will continue to outsource large portions of their ad ops tasks rather than constantly battle to find the right talent.
  • Lean, skilled in-house teams – In conjunction with the outsourcing, companies will retain small but extremely talented in-house ad ops people, hanging on to them for dear life.
  • Trendsetting – Ad ops will continue to be a trendsetter, not just in the digital ad space but across most industries. For example, in many companies, ad ops is already a remote position, expertly staying connected to address changing standards without losing an ounce of efficiency or impact. This will be a critical component of the new corporate normal going forward.

Download: The 2020 Guide to Blocking Bad Ads & Ensuring Ad Quality

Obviously, ad ops have come a long way in just a decade. And as much as the role has changed in the last ten years or so, that constant and rapid evolution will only continue in the future. For those publishers lucky enough to have an ad ops team capable of wearing the many different hats we discussed, hold on to them with everything you have, and give them the tools they need to flourish. Because, trust us when we say, the alternative isn’t very appealing.