What does world class look like

I’ve written previously on this blog about building world-class ad operations teams. However, just because you’ve hired the best doesn’t necessarily mean they will automatically rise to the occasion. In this post I am going to talk about what excellence in ad ops looks like. Here are a few tenants of world class teams.

Tidiness. The different systems ad ops and account management teams use to do their jobs are like a kitchen is to a team of line cooks and their head chef. Think about the kitchen at a restaurant with three Michelin stars versus a fast food kitchen run by employees who would rather be anywhere else. The former is likely to be clean, organized and efficient. The latter messy, chaotic and unsanitary in the worst case. Media professionals who take pride in their work have a natural degree of obsessive compulsiveness and are willing to spend the time to keep their systems, software and processes tidy and up to date.

Thoroughness. The media business is fast-paced and comes with a good deal of stress. Rare is the environment where there are ample or even enough team members to handle the workload. Advertisers and agencies could not care less about this fact and want things turned around with lightening speed. Cutting corners and skipping steps is a natural reaction in these situations. Proper QA, consistent naming conventions, regularly comparing discrepancies: these are all things that tend to go by the wayside when things get busy. The best of the best rise up and go the extra mile, despite the additional time and effort required.

Ownership. So many times, organizations lack clearly defined responsibilities for each team, which leads to finger pointing, shirking of responsibilities and ineffective execution. Great leaders are clear about the responsibilities for their team and challenge their peers to do the same. Great employees establish their own responsibilities and take ownership for everything in their purview.

Innovation. There are few things easier than maintaining the status quo. This is especially true in fast-paced environments with a lot of moving parts, overworked teams and looming deadlines. Focusing on the day-to-day tasks in front of us rather than major long term projects is understandable. Great teams, however, schedule time for thinking and planning and treat this as sacred. Trying new things and being unafraid to fail is a hallmark of businesses that find success in the long run.

Relentlessness. The best adops campaign managers, directors and VPs tend to have several traits in common. They often display more than a little obsessive compulsiveness. They are highly organized. They develop a process that works for them and stick to it. They hate making mistakes more than anything. They are relentless in their follow-ups, especially when it comes to colleagues and teams they rely on to get their work done.

While the traits of the best ad operations and media sales teams cannot be contained in a single list, I’ve attempted to capture some of the most important. Hiring the best people or best outsourcing vendors you can find is only one piece of the puzzle. Managers and leaders must also ensure they are working well with others, hitting KPIs and developing a reputation as one of the most reliable departments within the company.

6 questions to ask when considering outsourcing your ad operations

Outsourcing your ad operations is a major decision that should not be taken lightly. Finding the right partner for any type of project, from the basic nuts and bolts of ad ops to strategic consulting projects like adserver migrations, header implementations, custom dashboard creation is key to building long-term productive relationships. With that in mind, here are some questions to ask as you begin your search.

- What are their areas of expertise?

You want to find an ad ops firm that is focused on what you actually need. If your major challenge is monetizing display inventory via programmatic, you want a team with deep experience with technologies and vendors. If you are launching an OTT app and need help pricing out a video strategy, you would be best served by a firm that has launched, sold or managed OTT apps themselves. If you direct-sell large custom programs, you need a partner with an understanding of what it really takes to execute at a high level. You can gather this information from their website, by asking pointed questions and via references.

- Where are they based?

Today’s media world is largely distributed with many world-class teams working entirely remotely. However, you want to find a partner that is able to support the various time zones that your business operates in and is able to attend any required in-person meetings. In a remote environment, it is important to choose a partner with experience doing so, having access to all requisite technologies that facilitate such configurations.

- What is the experience of their team?

Not the salesperson trying to sign you as a client, but the actual people who will be doing the work. What is their experience? Does it align with your needs? Is the company bring run by someone with appropriate experience managing large projects and teams of employees? One of the most important things is to find people who have seen it all, so you spend less time having to manage them. If they are not able to respond with authority about the subjects most important to you, you may want to continue your search.

- Who are their current and past clients?

Have they worked with companies similar to yours before? While there is consistency across the publisher landscape, there are enough differences to be meaningful. If you are a high-end content business with a big sales team that sells most of your inventory as branded content and sponsorships, working with a company that works with mostly long tail publishers doesn’t make a lot of sense. Ask for referrals and speak with them. You’ll often be surprised about how helpful and candid people in similar positions can be.

- Do they focus on one thing or try to do it all?

You must try to strike a balance between companies that can expand their scope to meet your needs versus those that only do one thing. They need to be focused enough to excel at what they do but broad enough to address a wide range of publisher needs. It is a good idea to take the time to outline all of your requirements prior to engaging potential partners. A formal ad ops outsourcing RFP can be a great idea but even internal notes on pain points, key tasks, etc can go a long way.

- Is there cultural alignment?

If your company is a highly formal, structured, process-driven organization, you are more likely to find success with a partner that operates in a similar fashion. If you are a startup or a more fluid company, working with a firm that is willing to adapt to your process and style might make more sense. Day-to-day communication is the most important aspect of any outsourcing relationship so taking the time to optimize and align on this prior to any relationship is absolutely critical.

Making sense of your data

As someone who has spent an entire career working for advertising-supported digital media companies, I have spent more hours than I care to think about creating spreadsheets to answer questions. Why did our CPM go down this month? Did that campaign actually perform worse after we layered on an audience segment? What is our currently discrepancy rate on the Geico campaign? If we don’t increase traffic for the rest of the month, how much revenue is at risk of under-delivery? Typically, these questions would arise and I or someone on my team would go hunt down the answer. We would pull together the relevant data, get our answer, take action and move on. Eventually, we would get sick enough of answering the same question over and over that we would create a template or regularly updated report from which to view the data. More often than not these reports were created in Excel or more recently in Google Sheets.

This is a scenario that plays out across nearly every publisher, regardless of size. Many small to mid sized publishers will employ a full time individual who’s only job is to manually export and import data each day/week/month. Some large publishers invest in BI tools that purport to make all of their data available at their fingertips. I have seen organizations employ a full time individual just to manage the chosen BI tool, their responsibilities ranging from initial configuration to internal advocacy and troubleshooting. Unfortunately, these tools can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per year and were not built specifically for digital publishers. Inherent to this is a lack of understanding about how complex gathering and visualizing data for these companies truly is.

For direct-sell publishers, key KPIs include pacing, discrepancy comparisons, performance (CTR, viewability, interactions), fraud rates and more. This requires an association between their own adserver and any number of 3rd party adservers and systems. The fact that Google has a monopoly position for adservers for both publishers and advertisers doesn’t actually make this process any simpler. The most important thing for these companies is knowing that their campaigns are going to deliver in full by the contracted end date and that they are performing well throughout the flight.

For programmatic publishers, many of which also sell direct campaigns, the situation can be even more complex. There may be upwards of several dozen different systems from which data must be exported. Each of these data sources has a different label for the same parameter. Some will have APIs or allow for scheduling of automated reports. Others require that you log in and export the data directly from their system. There is typically at least one partner that doesn’t even have a UI from which to export data, their only solution being to manually send regular reports via email.

For years I have dreamed about building a publisher-specific dashboarding tool. Finally, that solution is here and we are calling it inSITE. This platform was built specifically for digital media companies based on decades of experience. Most critically, we understand that a one-size-fits-all solution, which is a requirement for most BI platforms in order to allow for scale, simply does not work. There are always going to be new data sources. The process of ingesting data is going to break when APIs change or automated reports expire. Different companies focus on different KPIs. This is why each dashboard is custom built from the ground up based on customer inputs and maintained directly by our team. Our legacy as an outsourcing and consulting business provides a logical foundation for delivering a world class product to each of our clients. We are able to address issues quickly. We can create new views easily. No more “feature requests” and long development cycles.

If this is a problem you or someone on your team faces, you are not alone. We would love to help. Click here to get in touch and schedule a demo.

How to build healthy partnerships

One of the challenges facing media companies today is the difficulty of building and maintaining a sustainable business while working with clients who are continuously looking for lower rates and increased performance at the same time. In many cases for direct-sold campaigns, while the senior level kickoff meeting is full of smiles and back slaps, the relationship between the front-line managers and executors on both sides turns into a combative environment devoid of ownership or accountability.

There are many reasons that this happens. Ad agencies are full of understaffed and overworked teams, which naturally leads them to offload as much work as possible to the companies they are paying for the placement of their client’s assets. With a spate of recent layoffs at major digital-only publishers, the same situation is often true at these companies. After all, its not as if the revenue goals are adjusted downward (at least not proportionally) despite the reduction in workforce. Everyone is simply expected to pick up the slack. Another reason is a lack of clear understanding on what was actually sold and/or an inability to translate this into terms that the executors can actually execute. Perhaps a conversation over beers leads to a big idea which is then turned into a media plan that doesn’t necessarily reflect something that is sellable, measurable, or scalable. In this case, internal marketing, account management and ad ops teams are left to invent solutions on the fly, begging colleagues to help them deliver the bare minimum of what was promised. Yet another possibility for why these relationships can disintegrate is a cultural lack of accountability throughout the organizations involved. When one individual or team feels like they are doing all of the hard work with no reciprocal effort, they are bound to become frustrated at minimum. When the people around them simply pass work (and responsibility) on to someone else as quickly as possible, their motivation to do their best work work evaporates.

My attitude has always been that I will not get frustrated about that which I cannot control. Additionally, I acknowledge that others may not put in the effort or quality of work that I do and that I will not slip to their level. This has served me well in these situations and I’d like to think that this thinking contributes to a culture where everyone does their best and takes ownership for everything within their domain. When companies instill this attitude in their employees, they are more likely to go the extra mile and do the right things when it counts.  

We run ad operations for publishers (and some agencies and advertisers) of all shapes and sizes, which gives us a wide view of how buyers and sellers of media work together. Regardless of the type of the relationship or deal, from long-term sponsorships to media-only direct campaigns to hybrid programmatic deals and full blown open market, the healthy partnerships are always built on a foundation of mutual respect. This must be established early on and carried through the life of the deal. The buyer should feel as if they are getting a fair return for their money and a team that will work hard on their behalf. They should believe that they are buying something of value that will drive results for their client. The seller should feel like they are working with counterparts that are not out to take advantage of them. Aligning on expectations early on is the single most critical step publishers can take to build these healthy relationships going into any campaign.

The rest is blocking and tackling, things that any high functioning organization should be able to handle with relative ease. This includes being responsive, available, thorough and transparent. Clarity in communication and eliminating middlemen is key. We often see multiple layers in place where the outcome is effectively a game of phone tag where the day-to-day contact, often an Account Manager, is simply a translator for other people within the organization who actually have answers and the context behind them. As difficult as it is, eliminating these additional layers by putting the appropriate people in touch directly typically results in a greater understanding and level of empathy on both sides. The argument against this, that the buyer needs a single point of contact for simplicity, is based on a lack of understanding of the nuances of what happens in the weeds. If the trafficker or ad ops manager has the relevant information, let them speak to the client. They must be able to develop this skillset and the client will appreciate the expertise. If the creative person needs to advise the client on an important change to a program, facilitate a direct conversation. The client will understand what is going on and the creative lead will be able to do something with the feedback that is provided.

Of course campaigns need to launch quickly, pace appropriately and deliver in full. These are tablestakes. Making proactive optimization suggestions based on agreed upon KPIs and building a compelling wrap presentation should be as well. Anyone with a desire to excel at their job will prioritize these tasks accordingly. I used to tell employees on my team that the best gauge of their professional performance in a sales-driven media organization is the level of desire (or lack thereof) that their colleagues have to work with them. Because teams are often structured into cross-functional “pods,” these feelings become very apparent when shifts in alignments happen. If someone is moved onto another team and there is major backlash, that is a good indication that that person is doing an exemplary job. On the other hand, if there is silence or even a sense of relief, it typically means that the person getting re-aligned is falling short. If organizations can develop employees that everyone is fighting over, they will be set up for long-term success.

Relying on external forces and chasing shiny objects

As I’ve written about before, we’re living in uncertain times for media companies with business models that rely on traffic to their website. If you are to read the mainstream news, you understandably might think the entire online publishing industry is doomed. Recent headlines include the fire sale of Mic to the suggestion that the VC-backed cohort of companies including Buzzfeed, VOX and Refinery29 should merge in order to have a better chance of competing with Google and Facebook. Long-overdue charges for criminals exploiting technological gaps erode consumer confidence and make advertisers, who foot the bill for much of the professionally-created content on the internet, wary of the value they are getting for their investment. Under this backdrop, it has probably never been more difficult to build a scaled digital publishing business. I have been fortunate (or unfortunate depending on how you look at it) to have worked for or with publishers large and small, across various categories, some of which have succeeded and some of which have failed. A common theme for those that have struggled is an over-reliance on outside forces for traffic, revenue or both.

Over the past several years, many publishers have ridden a social-media fueled roller coaster in which they sought (and many still are) to reverse-engineer the algorithms that reward winners with a high volume of clicks. Similar to an obsession with search engine optimization in the early days of the web, these publishers pour over engagement data and double down on what works, pouring resources into creating more of that content. More often than not this results in a degradation of the quality and standards that the brand has become known for and users start to notice. Traditionally, more clicks equals more page views which equals more ad impressions which equals more revenue. Once you become accustomed to these sources of traffic and build goals around them, it is all but impossible change course.

Other publishers may find that their revenue mix is dominated by a single platform. As the incumbent adserver for display and video advertising, Google is the most common of these given their demand is built into the system. That Google yields the lions share of a publishers revenue is understandable as it is incredibly easy simply to turn on Adsense or Adexchange and let the dollars roll in. There are two risks in allowing this to happen to an extreme degree. First, the publisher is undoubtedly leaving money on the table by not including a greater diversity of demand. In the absence of sufficient competition, Google will simply deliver the lowest CPMs required to “win" the impressions. Second, Google is notorious for changing policies and algorithms without warning, leaving the publisher stranded without other options. For example, they may require the publishers to remove Google ads from an entire section of their site (user generated content perhaps) that has historically been a reliable moneymaker. A better approach is to diversify the revenue mix by adding unique demand. When the pie chart displaying different programmatic revenue sources becomes more colorful, external changes within individual platforms will have much less impact on the business.

Despite the aforementioned headlines, I continue to work with digital publishers every day that are thriving in the current environment. Among this cohort, there are some common threads. They have often chosen to remain lean and are extremely judicious about hiring. They evaluate new vendors and partners carefully and only add ones that will truly create value. They set realistic goals and clearly articulate the necessary steps for achieving them. They control their own destiny wherever possible. Most importantly, they create good content in their brand voice that resonates with their audience. By following this playbook, success is not guaranteed but the odds become much more favorable.

Full service or service based? The importance of retaining control

I was speaking to a publisher the other day who was considering a transition from their current outsourced adops vendor and as I dug deeper into their business with qualifying questions, it became apparent how painful such a decision would be. Years ago, they selected a vendor that essentially owns the entire ad stack technology and every relationship with their programmatic demand sources. Because of this, changing vendors (or building an in-house team) would basically require them to start over from scratch. They are at the mercy of this vendor for adserving, programmatic revenue and historical data on direct-sold campaigns. Over time, this compounds to make the thought of any significant change to resources or workflow - which is often required for continued growth - so overwhelming that it becomes abandoned before it even grows legs.

Despite the attractiveness of reselling software and establishing preferred (paid) relationships with demand sources and other platforms, we have chosen to remain independent of these for one simple reason: we put the needs of our customers ahead of our own (see our principles). In many ways, this decision puts us at a disadvantage, especially when it comes to publishers looking for “full service” solutions. They want a firm that will implement and manage everything end-to-end, from adserver selection to ad tag implementation to choosing demand partners to collecting payments. All these publishers want to see is ad revenue hit their bank account on a monthly basis. At least this is what they think they want. But what happens two, three, or five years later, when they have grown to the point where they are investing in their future and place a greater emphasis on controlling their own destiny? If they own the relationships, they have a much greater selection of options in front of them, regardless of where they choose to go.

With software, you can charge the customer while you are sleeping. What a great model! SaaS companies have the multiples they do for a reason. With a service business, you have to hustle, plain and simple. Its hard work. If you can’t deliver what you say you’re going to deliver, you won’t have a business for very long. On the other hand, this allows us to recommend whatever software, services, platforms and partners are most appropriate for our clients’ businesses. We have no incentive to recommend one solution over another unless they are best in class and best-suited for the situation. This also allows us to focus all of our energy and attention on the needs of our clients and not spend time supporting software and platforms that we ultimately did not build ourselves.

This decision has also allowed us to remain small. Modern business culture has indoctrinated us to revere growth and scale and almost scoff at businesses that are smaller, either by necessity or by choice. As I’ve written about before, remaining lean has its advantages. It allows us to live our values without compromise. We move quickly and adjust to rapid fluctuations in our business and the industry. Over time, I have learned to filter out the noise and focusing on what is really important: adding value for our clients. If we can do that, everything else will take care of itself. They will retain us over long periods of time, refer us to other publishers and allow us to innovate as the market evolves. These things will result in more business, and more business means the opportunity to be selective about the projects and clients we work with. If we do that, just like our clients, we will be able to control our own destiny.

Managing internal tension

The conflict between editorial and revenue has long been a challenge for any content creation company, digital or otherwise. It is common enough to have earned the nickname “church and state,” which can be overheard in conversation among the snack rooms and meeting pods. The best companies - those with the strongest leadership teams - actively manage this challenge on an ongoing basis. Failure to do so can be a fatal mistake. Less discussed in mainstream media is the inevitable tension that exists between sales, ad ops, account management, marketing and other teams involved in the commercial side of the business. This is almost universally present for digital publishers, the world we at 360ops find ourselves living in every day. The causes of these tensions are too many to list, but they include an overall lack of accountability, undefined processes, sales teams that “do whatever it takes” to close deals, a feeling that individuals are single handedly “protecting the brand” and shoddy technology infrastructure which becomes a scapegoat for ad operations errors (not to mention just plain errors).

In many cases, organizational structure exacerbates a powder keg environment, such as having certain support teams report into a CRO or revenue-driven executive and others report into a COO or operational-focused leader. This type of org is destined for failure unlessthose executives work well together and are in lock step at all times. Another organizational pitfall is having lopsided resources on one team versus another. This can be due to budget constraints, high turnover or decision makers simply not understanding the effort takes to get work done. For managers and leaders, awareness is key: make 1 on 1 time with your direct reports sacred and frequent. Conduct regular skip level 1 on 1s with the most junior level individual contributors. Spend time on the front lines: in brainstorms, kickoff calls and pacing meetings. Know enough about the process to speak intelligently on it and facilitate improvements. Take what you hear with a healthy skepticism and validate it yourself. Managing people is hard and managing people in one of these environments in harder. Doing these things will greatly improve the chance of success in addressing the most difficult situations.

If you ask the typical ad operations team, the primary cause of nearly every problem plaguing their team is sales (often enabled by account management). The sales team is seen as spineless, responding to every client request with an immediate yes and not bothering to understand even the basic mechanics of how campaign execution works. In some cases, perhaps this may be true. Most of the time, however, the reality is more complex. Humans are driven by incentives and the reason most of us work is to have the funds to do the things we actually enjoy. Salespeople in the digital media world, with few exceptions, are compensated on the gross revenue they bring into the business. Certainly without this function, no one else in the building would have a paying job. This fact is often ignored by other teams and frequently pointed out by the salespeople themselves. Culture is a frustratingly nebulous, yet incredibly important thing in revenue-driven organizations. Culture tends to evolve over time and while the tone may be set by founders and C-level executives, more often than not the true heart of a sales team’s culture comes from the VPs and Directors who manage individual salespeople. If these people are frantic, reactive and weak, chances are that these traitspermeate throughout the rest of the team. When this happens, the environment can become a cesspool of misery, black holes of people gasping for air and dreading every single Monday morning.

The way out is through empathy (and of course removing the cancerous managers as soon as possible). As a trafficker or campaign manager, I must be able to put myself in the sales person’s shoes and develop the ability to approach every situation with a commercial mindset: “how can I create value for the client AND our business?” When this becomes the default mindset, it is harder to point fingers and easier to remember that everyone ultimately shares the same end goal. The salesperson must think beyond the dollar signs that light up their eyes when the client asks a qualifying question. Is this a reasonable request in general? What will this mean for my team? Am I confident it will actually drive results for the customer? Can I buy extra time for my counterparts to respond with confidence? This approach is present across all world-class teams. It is why the best salespeople, both in terms of ability to bring in revenue and who are beloved by their colleagues, often come up the ranks through account management or media planning. They are able to discern reality from fantasy and come up with creative and impactful solutions on the fly because they have a strong foundational knowledge.

The last thing I want to mention as it relates to internal tensions is the most important, and it can be summed up with a single word: ownership. In teams where every single member is held accountable for their actions, high-performance is much more likely. My favorite book on the topic, Extreme Ownershipby Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, discusses the concept of extreme ownership from a military point of view, where many decisions have life or death consequences. It’s important to remember that most of us do not have jobs where someone is going to die because of an error in judgement, however we should hold ourselves (and our colleagues) accountable for everything in our world. This means that if a salesperson provides the wrong specs to a client, the immediate reaction from their ad ops / account management counterparts should be “how can I give them what they need to respond to similar requests appropriately in a way they will understand” and not “they have been given access to the shared drive with that information multiple times, they should know it by now.” Of course, the flip side to this is the salesperson thinking “how can I educate myself and gain access to the information I need to do my job successfully” and not “how can I be expected to remember all these files and folders, I need someone to just give me the info when I need it.” Can you see how making the former way of thinking part of employees' DNA results in a healthy, efficient and high-output environment?

We work with companies of all shapes and sizes, from two person sites that simply want to publish good content to major media companies with ambitions of being the go-to content source for everything their audience may want. The larger and more complex the business, the greater the likelihood that internal friction will become a major roadblock to achieving goals. We often find ourselves guiding businesses through these growing pains, especially as it relates to organizational structure and best practices for cross-departmental collaboration. In many cases, the best approach is straightforward and simple. In others, some trial and error is involved. Sometimes the environment has become so toxic that internal teams feel as if there is no way out.  These companies are on the precipice of failure. Creating a healthy culture built on respect and shared goals is going to be extremely difficult and may take years. It will most likely require difficult personnel decisions. They will need to establish a level of transparency that may make senior leadership uncomfortable. The alternative, however, is far worse. Accepting things as they are means they can expect to watch as their culture and financial results deteriorate to the point of no return.

How to know if your team is bullshitting you

Throughout my 15 years working with digital publishers, there have been consistent themes when it comes to advertising sales, monetization and ad operations. They all struggle with reporting and data: highly manual to update, inconsistent nomenclature across many disparate sources, lack of real-time insights. They are all navigating an ever-evolving landscape: from changing user behavior to new ad units to regulatory challenges. Most critically, the people on the ground doing the real work - digital account managers, ad operations leads, campaign managers - are wearing multiple hats, juggling many projects and spread way too thin. At least, thats how it appears on first glance.

Quite often, teams that are stressed and overworked simply suffer from an overwhelming lack of structure and process. This commonly results from sales teams that allow clients to dictate all expectations, rather than  establishing a common ground that’s required for a healthy business relationship. When we engage new digital publishers, we quickly identify where the gaps are and work with internal ad ops, client service and sales teams to streamline wherever possible. Sometimes this means creating simple documentation that ensures all parties are aligned and understand responsibilities. Other times it is overhauling an entire workflow and installing new software that allows for better protection of inventory and faster execution of campaigns. In most cases, we’ve been able to make a substantial impact by addressing very real challenges based on past experiences.

In other cases, those who claim to be so busy that their work continuously suffers simply should not be. Obviously, we don’t know what their entire day looks like. They may have myriad responsibilities, from maintaining a website in the absence of an in-house development team to interfacing with vendors and clients despite being in a primarily internal or technical role. However, after weeks or months of working with such individuals, it often becomes clear that they are not managing their time wisely. This may not be their fault at all. They might be required to attend too many meetings, many of them a complete waste of time. They may fail to appropriately prioritize the deluge work in front of them. They might become distracted by unimportant goings on within their office. As far as their boss is concerned, these people are doing their very best given the situation they've been presented with. Despite their best efforts, mistakes are made, deadlines are missed and internal/external parties are frustrated with the lack of responsiveness.

The consistent feedback to managers in these situations is that there is simply too much work and not enough resources to address the needs of the business. Rare is the digital publisher with lavish budgets for ad operations and sales operations, however this is almost never the entire story. More often, there is a perfect storm of conflicting issues: lack of experience or expertise, high turnover resulting in continually short staffed teams, insufficient process (especially documented and adhered-to process) and myriad other challenges. Managers and site owners almost never have relevant enough experience to challenge these employees with any credibility. They simply have to take what what they are told at face value and address it as best they can.

So, what to do in this situation? One option is to make a very senior hire, someone who has been there, done that and can appropriately call BS or institute impactful processes. Challenge: these people are expensive and difficult to retain unless they experience consistent growth and development. Another is for the manager/publisher to get in the weeds themselves and learn the specifics of each situation. Challenge: by far the most time-intensive option and likely to result in lack of focus at best and total burnout at worst. Hiring a more junior person to handle the day-to-day minutiae which must get done is also an option. Challenge: they are typically only capable of following existing processes rather than coming up with efficiencies and improvements to help the business. These people are also difficult to retain and rightly always looking for the next step in their career. Lastly, publishers might consider bringing in outside help in the form of consultants or category experts. Challenge: these people are not full time employees and thus may potentially not be as invested in your success. However, if you choose the right partner, not only will they be able to advise you on situations where inefficiencies exist, but they will care as much if not more about your success than the typical employee. At 360ops, we pride ourselves on building long term (often many years) relationships with our clients and believe deeply in adding value at multiples of what our fees are. If you think your team may be suffering from any of these far too common common ailments and that they can actually be addressed, we would love to hear from you.

On staying lean

Anyone with a passing interest in the digital media world has likely noticed a recent spate of layoffs, from niche publishersto large platforms. It seems that within the context of ad budgets being under pressure on numerous fronts, no one is immune. For many months, the drumbeat was (and to some extent still is) all about Facebook and Google eating up every last incremental dollar flowing online. Then Facebook was faced with an avalanche of bad news and the tide seemed to turn against them. However, I don’t believe the recent negative sentiments will hold - at least from advertisers and agencies - and that until there is a true revolt on behalf of users who flock elsewhere, the platforms with the largest and most targetable audiences will inevitably capture the greatest share of the ad revenue pie. That said, as I have written about before, those publishers with the right mix of context, audience and technology will be positioned to do battle with these platforms over the long run. When faced with the kind of pressure this landscape presents, the companies with the healthiest margins and least overhead are most likely to survive while those that have been aggressively hiring or investing in technology or systems will be faced with extremely difficult choices.

Having witnessed several startup evolutions from early stage to semi-mature, I can confidently say that one of the most difficult things to do is to correctly gauge the amount of investment required for anticipated growth. Companies in acceleration phases tend to want to throw fuel on the fire in order to hit that next level as soon as possible. In many cases - especially hyper-competitive industries - this appears to be not only the prudent, but the only option. In the digital publishing world, this tends to mean increased staffing in order to produce more content or sell and support more ad campaigns. The problem is ramping up too quickly and/or not hitting key goals that were assumed possible only if that ramp were to take place. Facing steep losses, this is when companies are forced to enact layoffs and terminate contracts with key vendors that may have led to major internal efficiencies.

I am a proponent of slower, methodical, more organic growth. This is all but impossible once a firm has raised venture capital funding, but there are many more options for firms that choose to add headcount or vendor costs only when absolutely necessary. For any consulting business like ours, it is difficult if not impossible to scale without adding staff, but I have resisted doing so quickly both because of the inherent headaches and because finding talent that is also a good fit is critical. Because we are completely distributed and our clients exist across multiple time zones, finding individuals who not only have the right skillset and background but the discipline to remain productive on a flexible schedule is quite difficult. There is also value in remaining small enough that we can offer a highly personalized level of service.

Last year I read the book Small Giants by Bo Burlingham, which is about companies that have chosen to remain small (this of course being a relative term to the type of business and industry) despite achieving what would widely be considered financial success. From breweries to construction companies to storage businesses, the owners of those profiled often placed a higher value on personal and employee happiness rather than growth for growth’s sake. They were not opposed to growing, and nearly all of them did over time, but they did so methodically and intentionally, frequently pausing deliberately before making key hires our investments. Our business culture lionizes companies with meteoric rises (whether perceived or actual) to the point where nearly every aspiring entrepreneur (even me) yearns to start the next unicorn, but its important to realize that there is no singular right way. Not just for the sake of greater personal satisfaction for owners and employees alike, but because many times it is the least risky and most logical way to march toward an endgame, whatever that may be.

Staying lean doesn’t mean suffering. You may need to be pickier about the type of customers you take on. You may need to be more ruthless about prioritization and say no to things that might have promise but will distract you from your core mission. Practically, there are many options available today for business owners who choose not to build the largest team their financial position will allow for. You can outsource or hire consultants. You can partner with low-cost platforms on which to scale. For several extreme examples, look no further than Elaine Pofeldt’s The Million Dollar, One-Person Business, which is another profile of entrepreneurs and companies that have chosen to remain small, even down to a single individual. The ways in which these entrepreneurs leverage the modern-day tools at their disposal in order to scale is inspirational. 

I think every business owner or leader can benefit from spending even a few minutes per month thinking this way. At the very least, if you can establish a cultural philosophy of staying as lean as possible for as long as possible, you will be better prepared when macroeconomic winters do inevitably arrive.

How much process is too much?

We spend most of our time working with startups and companies experiencing a growth phase in one way or another. In some cases we are running their ad operations end-to-end. In others we are providing strategic guidance on what to focus on and what to avoid. In every situation we have been retained to either make things easier for the publisher or make them more money. Occasionally, we will step into a fairly well defined process. More often, however, part of our scope includes defining or improving processes. There is a delicate balance between the Wild West of the earliest days and becoming mired in a bureaucracy of processes that were originally implemented for very good reasons.

One of the biggest assets startups and small businesses have is the ability to move quickly. Maintaining that speed and agility as companies grow beyond the proverbial garage where they were founded becomes more and more difficult over time. For digital publishers especially, the complexity of doing business requires that processes are implemented in order to create internal alignment and deliver an exceptional experience for customers. Examples of this include:

- Pre and post-sale checklists designed to transfer knowledge from the client to the initial point of contact (often a salesperson) to the internal teams responsible for execution, from project management to ad operations. 

- Calendars for scheduling certain products such as takeovers, roadblocks or newsletters.

- Business rules around budgeting for the promotion of branded content and/or traffic buying in order to satisfy impression-based media obligations.

There are countless others, but these illustrate some of the most common first steps publishers take to create order out of chaos. The risk is that processes like these begin to replace basic common sense, or that teams use them as a shield (or a weapon) against others within the organization. When employees struggle to even keep track of all the documentation for internal processes, you know there is a problem. Also, its possible to develop a culture of creating processes where none are particularly necessary. In our experience, the best companies have written frameworks in place with enough flexibility for individual contributors and managers to make the right decisions when it matters. Focusing on the most critical aspects of the business, or those that tend to cause the most problems, is a good way to prioritize. 

Don’t try to boil the ocean. Create processes, document them in easy to understand language, and keep them updated. Instill a sense of teamwork and encourage people to use common sense. Its far more important that people are able to work together collaboratively than follow a rigid set of rules.