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.