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If there is something you want to know about Ad Ops, you’ll probably find it in this guide. We interviewed upwards of 8 different industry veterans to give you the lowdown on everything from Ad Ops team structure to detailed tactics for solving major Ad Ops challenges.
With a collective 60+ years of industry experience, the experts who provided content for this guide include:
Let’s go ahead and start right from the beginning:
Ad operations encompass all of the nuts and bolts of managing an advertising campaign for a client from start to finish. This includes:
To learn more about how Ad Ops functions, It’s important to understand team structure. Depending upon the size of your organization, you may find you can combine roles, but all of the functions in the graphic below are typically represented.
Ad operations leaders oversee the four teams listed in the graphic above (if they have all of those separate teams):
The creative team might operate more independently than the traffic, analyst and account management teams, but usually rolls up to the ad operations manager.
Ad Ops managers need to have a solid understanding of the AdTech their team is responsible for, but more importantly, they need to have incredible management skills.
Some of the most important tips to managing an Ad Ops team from industry veteran Kathy Knott include:
The analyst team, composed primarily of ad operations specialists or ad operations analysts, is the strategic engine behind campaign execution. It is this team’s job to know the ins and outs of the campaigns they manage in their client portfolio.
Typically, each analyst will be given a portfolio of clients for whom they will oversee campaign execution. They are the brains behind the day to day management of these campaigns, and it is their job to stay on top of:
The Ad Ops analyst team will have to work closely with the trafficking team and creative teams to execute campaigns. On the other side, Ad Ops specialists work closely with the sales and account management teams to make sure client goals are being met and clients are happy. And, when necessary, they’ll work directly with the supply team if they are struggling to deliver a campaign in full.
Essentially, Ad Ops analysts are the hub of digital advertising campaign execution.
The traffic or trafficking team is the group that takes the strategy handed to them by the Ad Ops analysts and actually sets up and launches the campaign. It’s their job to ensure the campaign is actually pushing forward and displaying ads appropriately.
Once the campaign is set live and confirmed to be working properly, it will be handed back over to the analyst team to maintain and manage.
Unlike the analyst team, traffic team members aren’t typically assigned to a portfolio of clients, but instead are handed campaign launch assignments as capacity allows. During the campaign launch, they may work closely with the supply team if they notice the campaign will have trouble delivering in full due to low supply.
Occasionally, the traffic team will be pulled back in by the analyst team when necessary to help fix technical issues that may pop up. Some of the most common issues they deal with are troubles with a measurement vendor or issues with fake ads getting through.
Not every Ad Ops team will have a full account team (this is highly dependent on overall operation size). This team, if it exists as a separate team, is responsible for managing client relationships over the long term. The individuals on this team would be assigned a portfolio of clients to manage and remain a constant point of contact for the client.
In addition, multiple different definitions can be applied to the account team dependending on the stage growth the organization is in. Regardless, the account team will take ownership of the client relationship and partner closely with all teams to ensure seamless execution.
At its foundation, the account team is responsible for the day to day management of a portfolio of customers. They are at the center of managing client expectations with practical execution of every campaign run for that client. In many cases they work cross functionally with the other Ad Ops teams to ensure we can deliver on all aspects of the customers needs - in some cases outside of pure campaign execution.
In some instances, the account team may be part of the sales team and live outside of the Ad Ops team entirely (but work closely with it). Either way, the account team is usually tightly knit with the analyst team. The account team will take ownership of the client relationship and happiness, while the analyst team takes ownership of the strategy behind delivering their campaign (and is typically not client-facing).
The creative team, sometimes referred to as the media team, is responsible for creating ad creative for direct sold campaigns and/or troubleshooting any issues with creative submitted through programmatic ad platforms.
The creative team is composed of designers and developers, and oftentimes the “unicorns” who can do both. The ads the creative team is responsible for building will vary in complexity from a simple image to full-blown functioning games, so the pool of skills available must be varied.
This team primarily interfaces with the analyst team to execute the creative needed for campaigns, and occasionally will work with the traffic team to troubleshoot any problems with delivery.
Having a portion of this team be dedicated to pre-sales support is important. Sales may have trouble speaking to exactly what is and isn’t possible from a creative perspective since they aren’t the actual team members building the creative, so incorporating the creative team into the sales process sets clients and campaigns up for better success in the long term.
In most cases, the creative team is a value add for direct sold client campaigns. This means that the client is paying for the campaign to be delivered, and the building of the creative is provided at no cost to create a better experience and generate the best results for the client.
It’s the role of the supply team to make sure there are appropriate ad units available to be able to execute client campaigns. This team is responsible for bringing the inventory for the Ad Ops team to execute with.
The sellers on the supply team will approach publishers or apps to find additional locations to push ad inventory to them. Essentially, the offer is to bring the excess demand to the publisher so the publisher can make more money.
This team is constantly working to find the best supply—publishers who show high clickthrough rates and viewability on ads—making it most attractive to the buyers who have advertisements to place.
Often, the supply team and ad operations team work closely on very niche campaigns. The more specific the targeting of a campaign, the smaller the audience that is generally available. For this reason, highly targeted campaigns often run into the roadblock of not having enough available inventory to fully deliver a designated campaign and exhaust its budget.
That’s when the Ad Ops analysts or traffic team will pull in the supply team and ask them to work to find additional inventory that meets the targeting requirements.
The sales team, sometimes combined with or even called the account team, is responsible for selling campaigns directly to clients. Their job encompasses pre-sales conversations, pricing the campaign, understanding client needs, and working with the analyst team to ensure that what they are promising is possible to deliver.
The product team is responsible for all of the products in the AdTech stack, ensuring they are working together properly, and that they are being used as intended. Ad Ops may work directly with the product team when they are seeing a campaign isn’t performing as expected to try and dive deeper into why and see if there is a way to correct the problem.
Ad Ops will also have to work incredibly closely with the product team in the event that new technology is being introduced or a migration between tools is happening.
If there is a problem that needs to be corrected in the inner workings of something within the AdTech stack itself, the engineering team will be brought in. This is the team responsible for maintaining the code or integrations between products, and they are critical when something is broken.
These are also the first people to get called in when malvertising rears its ugly head and someone highly technical needs to try and chase down malicious code or activity.
Programmatic advertising has drastically changed the way publisher ad operations works. Statistics show that in 2019 “83.5% of digital display ads in the United States were purchased programmatically, and that number is continuing to increase.” Additionally, nearly a third of programmatic ads are sold through automated actions.
This has changed the role of ad operations from one that focused on direct sold campaigns to one that primarily keeps an eye on and manages ads sold through automated methods. Huge ad platforms like Google and Verizon have made it easier for advertisers to manage their own campaigns, giving rise to the “do it yourself” model.
Programmatic advertising is a method for purchasing and executing digital advertising campaigns through the use of various technology platforms to automate the process of bidding on, buying, and placing advertisements.
Each publisher will have a different way in which they handle the balance between direct sold ads and programmatic ads. Some larger publishers will have a blend of both that they support, while others publishers may focus on just bringing in programmatic ads.
In those publishers where a blend of both is present, the Ad Ops team structures we discussed are usually split into two separate teams each, where one focuses on direct sold campaigns and the other focuses on programmatic.
Ad Ops team structures and roles have shifted as programmatic has become a larger piece of the puzzle.
Because many publishers do have a percentage of advertising that is still direct sold, that part remains somewhat consistent.
But for the Ad Ops team members that focus on programmatic, their job has shifted slightly. Before, they would have built campaigns, launched them and managed them themselves. Now, they are instead focused on making sure the ads submitted through programmatic methods are working properly, and looking for opportunities to improve campaigns or potentially reach out and help those who are submitting programmatically.
The focus has shifted to making sure the AdTech stack is operational and working as expected, because often the team is pulling in ads from multiple ad platforms. Because their tech stack now has so many third party platforms in place, there is a lot of troubleshooting (which has become much more complex) to keep things running smoothly.
In addition, this shift has brought about a couple of new roles like a Revenue Operations Manager. Because of the interplay between so many different ad platforms and the complexity of the technology stack, it has become a role of its own to figure out how to use the tools as effectively as possible and drive the most ad revenue.
Programmatic ads take the process of buying and selling advertising to a completely different level. Using layers of technologies and complex algorithms to determine placement and bids, an ad will flow through multiple ad exchange platforms and end up on a publisher site automatically.
To understand more deeply how this works, let’s do a quick review of how ad creative flows through platforms to ultimately reach users.
To start, a few quick definitions:
A demand-side platform (DSP) is the adtech platform that allows advertisers to submit ad creative and purchase impressions across a variety of publisher properties from a single place. Advertisers will submit all ad creative to the DSP and pay the DSP for any impressions.
The primary role of the DSP is to connect Advertisers to Publisher inventory; a single DSP will plug into multiple SSPs, giving advertisers the ability to place ads across a network of Publishers.
A supply-side platform (SSP) is the adtech platform meant to connect the marketplace of digital publishers with the ecosystem of ad buyers. SSPs programmatically bid on available inventory on publisher websites or apps, then the publisher will display the ad provided by the SSP. The SSP ensures the distribution of ad revenue to their publishers partners based each impression bought
The SSP enables the Publisher to put their inventory up for auction, where the DSP will fill that ad-slot with an appropriate creative at the highest bid. This allows the Publisher to monetize their inventory.
A single publisher often works with many SSPs in order to optimize revenue generation and to match appropriate buyers via DSP partners.
So the flow is ultimately:
Aside from the rigamarole of pulling ads in programmatically, there are usually quite a few other tools in the AdTech stack for most publishers. Let’s look at some categories of tools and what they usually do.
A demand-side platform (DSP) allows advertisers to submit ad creative and purchase impressions across a variety of publisher properties in a single place. Advertisers will submit all ad creative to the DSP and pay the DSP for any impressions.
A supply-side platform (SSP) connects the marketplace of digital publishers with available ad content. SSPs programmatically bid on available ad placements on publisher websites or apps, then the publisher will display the ad provided by the winning SSP. The SSP will then pass along the revenue from the initial ad purchaser to the publisher to pay for the impression.
An ad exchange is a digital marketplace in which advertisers and publishers can buy and sell advertising space via auctions. In essence, this is the interplay between DSPs and SSPs above.
Private marketplaces are typically offered through existing exchanges. They are specialized auctions where a specialized group of publishers (usually very high quality publishers that can command a premium) provides supply at a higher rate to only a select group of advertisers.
Ad Networks, while not used nearly as often as programmatic solutions, are essentially an all-in-one package. Buyers can directly purchase advertising, upload creative and run their ads across publishers in the network. It removes the DSP/SSP pathway and does not include an open auction. The networks that are still used regularly are often highly specialized, for specific types of advertising.
Header bidding is also referred to as advance bidding, pre-bidding or real-time bidding. Tools like this allow publishers to offer inventory to multiple ad exchanges simultaneously so they can all bid on the same inventory in real time. Header bidding tools simplify the integration of multiple demand sources to ultimately get the best return on each ad unit for publishers.
Ad quality solutions are usually pre-scanning tools meant to check ad creative at runtime to verify the acceptability of the creative for the publisher’s audience. This usually means restricting certain categories of ads or removing NSFW (not safe for work) ads.
There are many measurement tools on the market which help to keep track of viewability metrics. Most will count an ad as “viewable” if at least 50% of it was displayed on the screen for a minimum of one second for display ads (defined by IAB measurement standards) and two seconds for video ads. Tracking and reporting viewability numbers can help publishers drive higher prices for advertising slots, assuming they are good metrics.
This category of tools is basically the opposite of ad quality solutions which publishers use to control the ads on their site. Brand safety tools, by contrast, are used by advertisers to ensure that their ads aren’t showing up on publisher websites they wouldn’t like (ex. a consumer products brand that caters to families with young children wouldn’t want their ad to show up on a pornography site).
Native ads are meant to match the look and feel of the content they accompany, so they feel as though they are an extension of the site experience rather than an “interruptive” ad. Most native advertising tools also allow for the curation of content to ensure the right ads are being displayed with the right content on the site.
For publishers, ad monetization strategies are all about making the most of your available supply by optimizing performance. The goal is to make the supply as attractive to your supply partners as possible, which in turn makes it most profitable for you.
Let’s start with the KPIs you’ll use to determine how attractive your supply is:
The better your rates on these key metrics are, the more attractive your supply will be to exchange partners. Your job is to always be working to find a balance between making money from advertising and protecting the experience of your users.
In service of always looking to improve these metrics, you’ll want to understand (and test) some of the following to find your sweet spots:
The lower these key metrics, the more the demand side algorithms will divert supply away from your site, lowering your revenue and hurting your monetization strategy.
As a starting point, some key best practices for optimizing ad monetization include:
What kind of expertise is required to be in Ad Ops?
The answer varies by role, so we’ll break down the different roles and skills they require. In all roles, one of the most important success factors is the training you provide and how you prepare your team for success.
Those on the traffic team are usually filling more of an entry level role, but in truth, they are the crux of the operation. If they fail, so does everyone else.
The individuals on this team are typically fresh out of school and very hungry. The skills they need to do well include:
Usually, a traffic role is the jumping off point to a sales or analyst role in the future. Understanding the foundation is the best place to start, and it gives team members a chance to decide which of the two paths is ultimately best for them.
This role is one of the most crucial to get right, since turnover can be a real struggle. As the strategic engine behind campaign delivery, you want these individuals to stay for the long term.
Some of the most important skills or concerns to be on the lookout for in this role include:
As an Ad Ops team grows, there will be multiple levels of management between the top and the team members executing campaigns day-to-day. Managers, as a general rule, have to be comfortable with letting go.
The worst managers are those that micromanage, or try to manage “around” the managers beneath them. Usually, this looks like giving directives to individual employees on the team without involving that person’s direct manager.
Managers should be given a clear expectation of what they are responsible for, and higher level managers need to do whatever it takes to implicitly trust the managers below them to execute those duties.
The best way to look at it is this: it is the responsibility of leadership to build whatever checks and balances they need in order to trust their managers. It is not a manager’s responsibility to earn leadership’s trust.
One of the hardest things to do for managers, particularly as the level of management increases, is to spend time on mentorship. As the level of management goes up, individuals should expect to spend increasing amounts of time on mentorship.
In the highest levels of leadership roles, you will actually spend more time on mentorship and relationship-building than on anything else.
It’s that important.
Managers also need to be prepared to invest the time up front to train their team properly. New managers should be sent through a leadership program of some kind before they take on management duties.
Individuals on this team will be hired more on a hard skill than soft skill basis. In this case, testing their level of ability at either design or development, depending on the role you expect them to fill, will be the most important factor.
In both cases, making sure the individual is highly tech savvy (even if they are a designer) will be important. There are too many pieces in the AdTech stack, and lots of tech to sift through for team members to be uncomfortable with jumping into it.
If the individual is going to fill a pre-sales role and may be more client-facing, then communication skills will be equally important.
This shift has also begun to evolve the skills needed for Ad Ops roles, as mentioned above. Today, Ad Ops is more about identifying and hunting problems than being an expert on executing campaigns.
Building creative is another area where the balance has shifted, and not for the better. Those with no real Ad Ops expertise are now building the creative for advertising campaigns, and oftentimes they don’t really know how to do it.
And ultimately, bad creative is bad for everyone.
Advertisers, Ad Ops teams, publisher revenue and end users all suffer when bad creative enters the system. Advertisers won’t get the desired ROI out of their efforts. Ad Ops teams will have to spend more time identifying and then fixing the problems. Users may see slow load speeds, or even errors on the page, prompting them to leave or abandon their session. And ultimately, publisher revenue can take a hit when user experience is affected.
In some cases, publishers may choose to outsource Ad Ops expertise to an agency or third party. This decision comes with most of the same considerations you’d have when outsourcing anything.
If you are able to find the right outsourced Ad Ops team, you may have access to expertise you would have to pay a significant amount of money to get in-house. When you build an in-house team, you would potentially have to hire multiple people to round out all the expertise you’d need, whereas with an outsourced team you could have access to all those areas when and where you need it.
On the flip side, not having a team in-house definitely means less control, less responsiveness (because you will be one of multiple clients served), and the access to each individual area of expertise may be limited.
Deciding whether to outsource or insource ultimately is based on your unique situation, goals, and requirements. If you are considering it, starting with a review of some of the top programmatic agencies may be a good first step.
While there are quite a few challenges that face Ad Ops teams, there are some that stand out from the rest. Malvertising and page load speeds are constant thorns in the side of most Ad Ops teams, and consistently getting better at tackling both is usually one of the primary goals of those teams.
With the growing popularity of programmatic advertising, Ad Ops teams have seen continued increases in struggles with malvertising. Because the ecosystem has gotten so complex and there are so many layers of technologies through which ads must move to ultimately get served to users, there are many more opportunities for malicious ads to slip in.
Malvertising is a malicious attack that impacts legitimate websites when bad actors purchase and submit ads through advertising platforms that appear to be normal, but in fact execute malicious activity when displayed on the publisher site.
The ultimate goal of malicious ad campaigns is to either inject malware on end user devices or obtain personally identifiable information (PII) through phishing pages.
You can learn more about what malvertising is and the negative effects in our malvertising resource center.
Malvertising affects every part of the digital advertising supply chain differently. From platforms to publishers, and all the way down to the end user who may have been the victim of a malvertising attack, everyone is affected.
As a publisher, you are responsible for the experience users have on your website. Malveritising, while it may originate from the advertising platforms you use, still strongly affects your brand reputation. Protecting your users (and not to mention their engagement metrics) protects your brand and improves your revenue.
As a platform your publishers partners depend on you for both creative and ad quality. Stopping malvertising at the source, as fast as you can, helps you to protect your entire ecosystem of publisher partners and preserve both user experience and your reputation for quality.
For those in Ad Ops, this often means spending most of your time playing whack-a-mole, trying to identify and track down the bad ads that are sneaking into the ecosystem. Once you find one, another will pop up using a different method, and you might find that you spend your time constantly chasing after ghosts.
Read more about how Venatus Media struggled with this very problem, and what they did to solve it.
Usually the biggest concern with malvertising is the way it affects your user experience as a publisher.
Malvertising can force users off your site, slow down your page load speeds, or even infect users with malware. This results in unhappy users and can cause problems that show up in engagement metrics like total pageviews, pageviews per session and length of sessions.
There are various methods on the market for combatting malvertising. Understanding the differences between the options, and comparing how they work, can help you select the right approach for your needs.
There are three different categories of tools used to fight malvertising for publishers and platforms.
If you want to dive in deep, you can learn everything there is to know about malvertising from our complete guide.
Another common goal of most Ad Ops teams is to continually find ways to incrementally decrease page load time.
Page load speed is vitally important for nearly all user engagement metrics. Statistics show that for every second delay you can expect:
Yet another source shows that users will visit an average of 5.6 more pages when load time is 2 seconds vs. 8 seconds.
Drops in these user engagement statistics mean less impressions and less revenue.
In addition, page load speed has a big impact on your ability to generate organic traffic, the lifeblood of a publisher.
Page speed is a well-documented and important part of the algorithm used by Google to rank and display search results. The slower your load speed, the harder it will be for your content to rank. In fact, a reduction of just 0.4 seconds in page load time has been measured to increase traffic by as much as 9%.
As a general guideline, you should make sure your website loads in under 1 second on desktop devices and under 2 seconds on mobile devices. This means fully, 100% loaded, including all ads.
There are best practices that can be implemented to improve performance across any category of the website. These tips are provided directly by technical SEO expert Franco Valentino from NarrativeSEO.
If you’ve done a good job covering the basics, it’s time to take a look at how your AdTech stack may be affecting your overall page load times. In most cases, we see that AdTech is the second biggest drag on your load time following images.
Some tips on how you can start to look for opportunities in your AdTech stack include:
And finally, the ads themselves can slow page load speed as they render on page.
First and foremost, you should have a solution in place for recognizing and blocking heavy ads. Heavy ads were recognized and defined originally by Google as ads that take an inordinate amount of system resources and can significantly slow down your page load times.
According to Google Developers, a heavy ad is defined as an ad that hasn’t been interacted with by the user and does one of the following:
In total, Google estimates only 0.3% of ads meet or exceed the established criteria for heavy ads. That said, this small category of ads eats up 27% of network data requirements and 28% of total ad CPU usage.
There are some clear best practices on how to structure the requirements for the ad creative that comes to your website:
Luckily, there are a number of tools out there for helping to measure page load speed and make it easier to improve.
Tools to measure speed:
Tools that help you optimize speed:
Ultimately what’s important to know is that the goal of everything done in Ad Ops is to serve two purposes: (1) create a great user experience for visitors and (2) find a way to efficiently and effectively deliver ads to end users.
Everything else is just details.