In speaking with publishers large and small on a daily basis, one common theme I’ve found is that they all strive to punch above their weight class when it comes to their ad stack and operational workflow. They want to use the latest technologies. They want to have access to the best demand sources while ignoring the worst. They want a world class team that is up to speed on the latest macro forces driving the market. They want to package their inventory and assets in the most advantageous way possible, following best practices across the industry.
Having seen the full spectrum of publisher businesses, from one man shops to 500+ person organizations, I can tell you that there is no such thing as growing up too early when it comes to processes and procedures. Certainly, a small, very focused team would have less need for an intranet or wiki than a distributed global workforce of thousands, but there are things every publisher can do to ensure they are in the best position to scale. Below are some ideas to inspire your own thinking.
Adserver architecture and ad tagging. In almost every situation we have walked into, the ad tagging structure of the publisher’s site is not what they would choose if they were to start from scratch today. Typically, ad unit naming conventions and overall adserver architecture was set up in the past with little thought given to the future evolution of the business. Perhaps it was set up by a developer or product manager as there was no in-house ad ops expertise available. Perhaps the site has been redesigned multiple times since the inception of their ad-supported business and the sections or content types no longer align with what is being sold. Making this a critical aspect of any project to update or redesign the site is important to maintaining a modern, adaptable framework. In the absence of any major projects or upgrades, publishers should perform a regular system audit to eliminate items that are no longer relevant and implement improvements where possible. Publishers without a direct sales team may not see the benefit of architecting a system that allows for micro-targeting, but those with ambitions beyond passive monetization should anticipate the demands of their future advertisers. This includes contextual, keyword, behavioral and data targeting capabilities among others.
Process and procedures. Often, when there is one person running ad ops, especially if they do not have a traditional ad ops background, a complete lack of process evolves because they feel like it solidifies their value within the organization. Ultimately, however, this does more harm than good in the long run. It may be overkill to pay $10,000 per month for a sophisticated order-entry system that “automates” the initial trafficking of campaigns for a publisher that doesn’t bring in much more than that in total monthly revenue, but that doesn't mean they can't benefit from some standard procedures. Without a written understanding of how things get done, the individual or individuals responsible will never be able to take vacation and they leave a massive knowledge gap in their wake if they leave the company. Make the creation of written process documentation a part of their job description and reassure them that capturing their knowledge and expertise will allow them to accelerate their own growth rather than make them less valuable.
Communication systems. In high-pressure, real-time businesses like media and publishing, communication becomes one of the most important (yet elusive) disciplines to master. Between email, instant-message, social media, internal meetings and conference calls, we quickly become overwhelmed simply with managing the deluge, let alone actually taking control and being productive. Make this an area of excellence at your company and you will not regret it. Take the time to implement platforms like Slack and ensure every employee knows how to get the most out of them. Mandate regular one on ones between employees and managers and hold company-wide and department-specific meetings on a regular basis. Greater alignment across your company can only lead to increased efficiency and productivity.
Hiring process and expectations. When a company is smaller (think less than 10 or 20), candidates often meet with everyone within the organization, or on the other extreme with the founders only, who will make a unilateral decision. There is a balance to this where the ultimate decision maker is clearly identified yet other key stakeholders weigh in with veto power. I suggest establishing a transparent step by step process and timeline for your team and the candidates: initial screenings, phone/video interviews, in-person interviews, internal panel for final decisions. It is very important not to rush hiring decisions as their impact - both positive and negative - will be felt long after they’ve come and gone. I’ve said this before, but any time you have to convince yourself that a candidate is worth hiring, they are probably not the right person. Before pulling the trigger on any hire, make sure you get that “hell yes” feeling that comes with any obvious decision.
Industry visibility and trendsetting. I’ve noticed that very few small publishers attend industry events and conferences, either because they are simply too busy to spend a day outside the office or find them cost prohibitive. Sometimes these events are a waste of time, but rarely do I find myself leaving without at least one piece of actionable inspiration. Even if it is an offhand comment from the person sitting next to you at breakfast, the ability to get ahead of trends and technologies before they are forced on you allows you to control the conversation and set them up the right way from the onset. I recommend talking to trusted colleagues and asking them which conferences are their favorites and picking one or two per year to attend. This can also be an effective retention and motivation tool, as learning and growth are often cited as important factors in how long employees stay with an employer. By covering the cost of travel and attendance, you are investing in them as employees and rewarding excellent work.
Obviously this is not a complete list, but this list of tactics that small and medium sized publishers can use to compete with the incumbents should get you thinking about what you can do today to position your company for its next phase of growth.