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Ad Ops All Stars: Andrew Fowler, Assembly

by Kathleen Booth, on Oct 6, 2021 9:00:00 AM

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With software increasingly moving more in the direction of open source, what does that mean for the future of ad ops?

This week on Ad Ops All Stars, Assembly Director of Advertising Operations Andrew Fowler explains why he believes software engineers are uniquely positioned to thrive in the world of advertising operations, and why publishers have an opportunity to develop new revenue streams by commercializing their homegrown software.

Listen to or watch the full episode, or read the transcript below, to hear everything that Andrew had to say.

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Transcript:

Kathleen: Welcome back to the Ad Ops All Stars podcast. I'm your host, Kathleen Booth. And today my guest is Andrew Fowler, who is the head of advertising operations for Assembly. Welcome to the podcast, Andrew.

Andrew: Hi, Kathleen, thank you so much for having me.

Kathleen: Yeah. I'm excited to have you here. We have lots of really interesting stuff to talk about because you have kind of a different background than some of the other folks I've interviewed, but before we get into it, as folks know, I always like to start with an icebreaker question. And that question is, if you had to describe what you do to a five-year-old, how would you do that?

Andrew: Well, actually I have a three-year-old daughter and what I tell her is, daddy is a computer programmer, but maybe when she's a little bit older, let's say five, I'll be able to say something like, "Do you know those fast-talking auctioneer's that you see on TV? Well, that's what daddy does, but I do it with computer code and I'm selling advertisements online."

Kathleen: Nice. Yeah. And I love your kind of engineering background. It's different honestly than what a lot of the people that I've interviewed have come to the podcast with a lot of them. I mean, Hackett's all over the place. Some of them have been, poli sci majors, hairdressers, commercial truck drivers, but a lot of them have talked about how once they've gotten into ad ops learning code and learning kind of the technical aspects of things has become more important. And they've had to then do that once they got into it, you have kind of taken the opposite path and you have a software engineering background and then went into ad ops. So can you actually start by talking about how you got into ad ops in the first place?

Andrew: Yeah, absolutely. So I had a computer science degree. That's what I went to school for, in university. And then while I was in university, a personal friend who was starting a new publishing company and they came to me and they needed a software developer. And so I was the first software developer hire at a publishing company, the same publishing company I work at today. And at that time as the only software developer, I did all of the site development, as well as all of the ad ops. So really I did it out of necessity at first and then it didn't become a serious interest until much, much later where I'm now leading the ad ops team.

Kathleen: And what aspects of software development would you say have really helped you in your ad ops career?

Andrew: Dealing with large amounts of data, I think it is the most helpful thing. Being able to isolate dependent variables and make conclusions about very large data sets, I think is very, very helpful today.

Kathleen: And I guess the corollary to that is with a background as a software engineer, what have you found to be particularly challenging or maybe didn't feel as natural when you went in ad ops?

Andrew: Yeah, I think the ad ops space is predominantly dominated by business people and deal-makers and salesmen, at least from the publisher side, that's who I'm interfacing with a lot. If I'm evaluating, adding a different SSP into our programmatic ad stack, I'm always talking with salespeople and coming from a software development background, I'm used to talking with software developers and it's a very different conversation from one developer to another, as opposed to developer talking to a salesperson. And so I think that's the most challenging part is everybody is kind of trying to sell me on something and as a developer, I find that challenging.

Kathleen: And have you found ways of overcoming that challenge? Have you adapted to that?

Andrew: Well, now I take everything with a grain of salt, and at Assembly, we're really big on split testing. And so our ad ops team is comprised of six people that includes myself and every single one of them writes code in some capacity. So we're all software developers. And so every time we're evaluating a new opportunity, we heavily split test it, and analyze those statistics. And so I can come back to these conversations with salespeople and say, definitively, if they really are providing value. And I think that's really beneficial and I like to think that people have my best interests at heart, but I used to just take everybody's word for it at first, but now, I definitely have the test everything

Kathleen: That makes sense. And so the data kind of speaks for itself. So you talked about how your ad ops team is six people. I guess one of the questions that I wanted to start with, that has to do with your team is first of all, are you direct? Are you programmatic? Are you some combination of those two things?

Andrew: Yeah. We are heavily programmatic. Pretty much all of our display ad revenue comes from programmatic advertising.

Kathleen: And was that the case when you joined the company?

Andrew: In the case when I joined the company, we were just hard-coded ads since placements, very, very basic. And I think that's how a lot of publishers start out. From then, we moved to a header bidding wrapper. So in different companies that provide service for integrated Prebid and then from there, and I think this is when my interest really peaked in ad ops is we did our own implementation of Prebid. And I think that's why a lot of software developers aren't involved in ad ops because historically, it has just been gluing different pieces of proprietary software together. Whereas software developers really like to build things and without open source software, without owning some part of the code, that's not possible. But I think since the advent of Prebid and it'd be an open-source and the ability to jump in there and make it your own, it's become a lot more interesting and appealing to software developers. And yeah. So we moved on to doing our own implementation of Prebid and then continually optimizing on that.

Kathleen: So you touched on this a little bit when you and I first met and I wanted to talk a little bit more about it, which is that there is this fundamental shift happening in the world of ad ops and it really reflects the shift that's happening in the world at large, in the sense that we are moving more and more in the direction of open-source tools and environments. And that you just mentioned one way that that introduces new possibilities, you being able to build things that are bespoke for your needs. I would love to hear your perspective a little bit more on what you see happening and how you think it's going to affect the future of ad ops.

Andrew: Yeah, absolutely. So, yeah. I think in the tech world, there's this preference for open information and access to information, and then the thought that that promotes innovation and by sharing our learning and code, we all win. And that's never really been the case in ad ops. I mean, if you look at Google very closed source and proprietary, they're not sharing their code with anybody, but with Prebid and I think it's really the first open-source hit in the ad ops world, now we are getting people from all sorts of diverse backgrounds and use cases often into the Prebid code base and contributing, and I really hope that it's going to accelerate progress in that space. And actually, just recently Assembly has joined the Prebid organization as a contributor and we'll be getting in there and contributing to the Prebid code base. And so I think...

Andrew: Sorry, go ahead.

Kathleen: No, you go ahead.

Andrew: I was going to say, I think that it will accelerate the pace of progress in terms of programmatic ad code. And I think, also a shift ad ops jobs to be more software knowledge dependent. We will see more software developers getting involved in ad ops and we'll also see operations people becoming more technical and learning more software skills.

Kathleen: The part about more software developers getting involved in the industry is interesting to me because we obviously live at a time when software developers are... that's a desirable skillset. And I mean, I've worked in B2B tech for a long time. And I know, finding and keeping developers, engineers, et cetera, is really difficult because there are a lot of opportunities. And especially now where there's more remote jobs than ever, there are a lot of options. So while there are more opportunities for people with software development backgrounds in ad ops, what do you think the ad ops world needs to do to be able to attract and retain those people? Because I see that as a challenge and maybe you don't. So I would like to hear what you think about that.

Andrew: Yeah. A lot of software people are interested in learning and increasing their skillset and taking on hard technical challenge. And there's more than enough bad to go around in the online advertising world. I think when it comes to attracting and retaining staff, there's kind of two key pieces to that. And in fact, there's actually a company in Australia called Culture Amp. It studies attrition in the workplace. And so according to them, the top two reasons for attrition in employee turnover, we'll start with number two, number two is compensation, which is relatively easy, I mean, pay your employees market rates. And there's lots of money in the online advertising space. And two is people leave for a lack of belief in leadership, and this isn't necessarily specific to ad ops. I think it's a very more general question, but I think having a company that has a solid vision where your employees can take ownership of their work and contribute to that vision, I think is a key piece there.

Kathleen: Yeah. I definitely think leadership and culture are more important than ever. You hear people talk about that a lot. I've heard crazy stats about the number of people across all industries who are currently looking for other jobs because they're not getting what they need at their current job. And so it really strikes at the heart of what makes businesses competitive. Going back to software development and the opportunity for publishers to participate more in something like Prebid, and I'm just coming up with this now. And so I could be completely off base, but it makes me wonder if given that the media business is challenged in so many ways these days by regulatory restrictions and privacy changes, and the business model itself is really changing and margins are shrinking in some respects. I wonder if this presents an opportunity for other revenue streams for publishers that are taking a more innovative and forward-thinking approach towards developing bespoke tools, is there an opportunity to commercialize those and have a separate revenue stream outside of the traditional media business model?

Andrew: I mean, yeah. Absolutely. When you bring all your technology in-house, you can build it, bespoke to what's fits best for your business. I mean, off-the-shelf software is often very homogenized and they're trying to capture the largest market possible and it might not be the best thing for your business specifically. I like to say Assembly as a publisher, we're really just a tech company masquerading as a digital publisher.

Kathleen: Yeah. That makes sense. And it reminds me of another interview I did with Keith Candiotti, who was with Optimera. He was with the New York Daily News and had a need and they developed, they have an in-house incubator and he developed a software product to serve that need. And now he is the head of the software company selling to other publishers. And so I do feel we're going to see more of that going forward.

Andrew: I think so, too. And even rebuilt our own internal analytics. I see a lot of digital publishers that use Google Analytics or something off the shelf like that. And it really doesn't capture all the nuance involved in digital publishing. And so we've built our own internal analytics is incredibly robust. It also includes all other ad operation analytics, as well as built-in split testing for everything. I could see that becoming an off-the-shelf software product as well. Absolutely.

Kathleen: I was just going to say how long until we're all using that?

Andrew: Well, it might be in the plans, I'll say.

Kathleen: Yeah. I mean, like I said, I spoke to Keith. They did that. I was just thinking, I also spoke to David Leviev from Timehop and they built Nimbus, which is a header bidding for in-app. So there's definitely examples out there. And I think we're going to see more. That's really fascinating. Let's go back to your team structure, you said you're heavily programmatic now. Building out that stack, how did you approach that? Because there are so many products out there, so many competing products. I know you said you test a lot, was it really just a whole lot of free trials and A/B testing, or was there some other way you went about that?

Andrew: Yeah. So it started out using a header bidding wrapper. And then from there, muddling our way through implementing our own version of Prebid, and then really the giant leap was a person on the ad ops team, his name is Brian Ty fantastic developer, wrote some split testing software that integrates into our internal analytics. And then from then on any optimization that we made to our own Prebid ecosystem, we were able to do the split test heavily so that we were constantly answering the question, what is the most performant and optimal Prebid header bidding stack? And yeah. I think we've made great progress. We're really reaching the edges of what's possible with Prebid now.

Kathleen: And you said the six people on your team all have at least some degree of coding ability, did they have it when you hired them? Were you hiring for that?

Andrew: Mostly. We have a few people that come from an operations background that are learning to code more, but yeah. It's kind of like in Wall Street where they made the switch from traders on the floor, yelling into phones to most trading happened through computers and hiring mathematicians and physicists and computer developers. Well, now in the ad ops role, I'm hiring for software developers and the ad operations person that I think we can train typically and then have them running software, then absolutely.

Kathleen: And what roles do those six people have? How is your team organized?

Andrew: Yeah, so myself, I'm the director of ad operations and I'm kind of very forward-thinking and setting the vision for the ad ops team as a whole. And then we have a senior developer who I've already mentioned, Brian Ty when he kind of will architect our code and just kind of make sure the quality is there and take on their most challenging problems. And then underneath him, we have four other software developers, two of which come from an operations background, but are slowly becoming software developers as well.

Kathleen: How do you do that? So you hire these operations people and you want them to learn code, is this something that you have as part of a formal training program, or is it more of a kind of a practicum learn on the job? How are you getting them up to speed?

Andrew: Yeah, it's more a practicum and learn on the job. We are a small team, so it's hard to formalize everything, especially in such a fast-moving industry. So there's a lot of learn on the job. I will say, even though they come from an ops background, they had already been experimenting with writing code in their own time. So it's not like they're coming at this with no knowledge.

Kathleen: Yeah. Yeah. It's definitely one of those things that I think you have to do and you have to do it somewhat regularly to keep up your skills. And I only say that as a dumb marketer who knows enough CSS to be dangerous, as I like to say.

Andrew: Yeah, that's a good start. Absolutely.

Kathleen: Yeah. You got to get in there and play around. So zooming out for a minute, you run this team at a time when the industry is changing quite a bit, and you mentioned already open source and the potential that that opens up, but there are a number of other changes having to do with identity privacy. So many things. What would you say are the three biggest challenges that your team is currently facing?

Andrew: The three biggest challenges. The identity one, I think we're all sick of hearing about that. And we have been watching it. We have certainly tested with our split testing, multiple different ID providers. And I think our current approach is to just kind of sit back and watch how things develop. I think ultimately, it'll come down to whatever Google, Amazon, Apple, to size, and the rest of us will have to deal with it. So we are watching closely, and we don't know what's going to happen.

Kathleen: Yeah, or when, right?

Andrew: Yeah. So definitely the id is tough. It's a big query and a challenge we're watching it. The second challenge is Google. Google is very closed and proprietary and doesn't give us much information like any digital publisher, they still make up a very large size of our revenue. And so we have to have them and deal with them. And I think, their support. I think even if right now if you go to Google Ad Manager and you try to submit a support ticket is actually broken right now.

Kathleen: Great timing.

Andrew: Yeah. It's very hard to get good support from Google and often something will be broken and we'll need to talk to somebody and you can't really easily talk to somebody at Google.

Kathleen: Have you found any, I don't know. Do you have any tips for dealing with that as a challenge? Because that's a tough one and it's not like Google is announcing any big plans to overhaul how it provides customer service or anything like that.

Andrew: Yeah. Build up a great network of people that you can reach out to for help, I guess the best way.

Kathleen: Peers, you mean?

Andrew: Peers, other publishers. Absolutely.

Kathleen: Yeah. Yeah. All right. So identity, number one. Google, number two. What's number three?

Andrew: Number three. I think with the rise of Prebid and having access to your own option data now, comes to the challenge of what to do with all that data. And it is a ton of data. If you are a digital publisher, who's just using Google analytics for all your data ingestion, you will very quickly run over your free account quota data. And the paid account is very expensive. So a small and medium-sized publisher, that's not an option. We've gone the route of building our own database where we can ingest all of this data, but it took a long time. It was very challenging. So I think just dealing with the fast amount of data is always a challenge.

Kathleen: So when you say you built your own database, this is going to be a non-technical person, potentially dumb question. Did you effectively build what in marketing, I think of as a customer data platform, like a third party kind of the database that sits outside of everything and talks to everything else and reconciles all the differences, is that what that is?

Andrew: Yeah. And I guess the next step we built our own database. We did an implementation of an existing database, but here we've kind of built our own metrics on top of that. And so we can query our own metrics directly from a database and we have our own UI, that we built on the top of this to visualize that. So yeah. And we built our own Kissmetrics or our own Google Analytics basically.

Kathleen: Okay. So this is the product we're all going to be buying in a year.

Andrew: Possibly.

Kathleen: That's really neat. And I feel like that is always a question in people's heads and this is not just specific to ad ops. This is really any company, the build versus buy debate. Was there not a solution out there that would work for you, or did you just feel like you would get a better result from building?

Andrew: We felt like we would get a better result from building. I mean, each business has their own nuances and when it comes to digital publishing and programmatic advertising, there are a lot of small wins that can add up to large wins. And so we felt building our own. We would be able to invest capitalize on that. Again, I said earlier off the shelf software is often trying to capture the largest market possible and it's very homogenized and it's kind of okay and everything, but not great at any one thing. And so we've really built a system that is best for us.

Kathleen: Now having been a part of these build versus buy conversations in the past, I think that one of the counterarguments to it is always, "Yeah. But once you build it, that's just the start and then there's maintaining it and making sure it doesn't break when you integrate it with things or when the things that's connected to get updated." How did you factor that in, in terms of how you built your team out, and what kinds of resources do you have dedicated to making sure that it doesn't break?

Andrew: Sorry, I lost you there over a minute.

Kathleen: Yeah, no problem.

Andrew: Yeah. So, like I said, we are a digital publisher... sorry, a technology company masquerading as a digital publisher. So we have a very large team of software developers and I think we're heavily weighted to hiring software engineers as opposed to content creators. And so we have the ops teams about six people like I said, we're all technical. And on top of that, we have a tech team, which is about 10 people. And so they do a lot of the maintenance and maintaining of our analytics software. And again, we started out very small, writing small pieces of this analytics product that we thought were most useful and we saw wins there and it was worth it for us to maintain it and build on it and then just expand it from there.

Kathleen: Yeah, that makes sense. So I want to talk about careers because we started out talking about careers and your background as a software engineer. And I think for somebody who's just either started out in ad ops or is thinking of getting into it. If you could rewind the clock and give yourself advice and keeping those folks in mind now, obviously, thinking about what the industry is like today, what advice would you have for somebody who's just starting out?

Andrew: Get involved in software development, get involved in the Prebid project. I wish we had joined the Prebid organization earlier and started contributing. I think that's where the opportunity lies in building something and contributing to the industry as a whole. I think if you're just getting started in ad ops or at a digital publisher, you can end up on this treadmill where you're just circulating through a bunch of different vendors, replacing one with another and not really getting anywhere. And I did a lot of that in my early career in ad ops.

Kathleen: Yeah. That's a great point. And I think I sort of feel like in a lot of different industries, knowing coding is really valuable. I would say that for marketing as well in general, it's something I wish I knew more, I wish I could code in Python just a little bit. I think it would make me a better marketer. So the other question I have is, is there anybody along the way in your career who had a particularly strong influence on you?

Andrew: Yeah, it was a fellow close friend of mine. His name is Dhruv Dang. He owns a company called Real Folk and they build bespoke software for government entities. And he's a big proponent of the build versus buy, and he is pro-build. He's had a huge influence on myself just in terms of approach to software development, as well as my approach to my career.

Kathleen: Great. Well, that's a good segue into my two of the questions I always ask all of my guests. The first one that I'm going to ask, I'm going to do this in reverse order because we're talking about people. The first one is, this podcast is all about shining the spotlight on people in the world of ad ops who are doing great work. Is there anybody out there who you think is really doing an outstanding job? Who should be our next guest?

Andrew: There's a lot of great people.

Kathleen: You can name more than one.

Andrew: Can I? Perfect. I think now talking to a lot of publishers a lot are still very early on in their programmatic knowledge and Prebid knowledge, but one who I've actually learned a lot from, his name is Phil Hersh at Spine Media. Actually quite far with their Prebid knowledge and they know a lot. I think he'd be a really interesting person to talk to him.

Kathleen: All right. Phil. He sounds like a good one and we haven't really dug deep on Prebid yet. That could be a good topic.

Andrew: Awesome.

Kathleen: Second question is obviously, as we've discussed, this industry is changing really rapidly and everything around it is changing really rapidly. Are there certain sources that you rely on to keep yourself current at the cutting edge of everything that's happening in ad ops?

Andrew: Yeah, absolutely. I go to every Prebid webinar, which they happen, I don't know. Every few months or so. The ad ops Reddit is okay and it has its own Slack channel, but often people are trying to sell you things within that Slack channel. There's a private Slack called Programmatic Rev Tech that thing is publishers only, and you have to get an invite to join it. And all the big publishers are in there. And I think that is really informative. If anything is going on in the digital publishing world, somebody is talking about it in there and there's a strict, no advertising policy. So I think that has been really, really useful. And then... sorry, go ahead.

Kathleen: I was just going to say, it's interesting you mentioned that because I'm a member of a lot of different communities, many of which are on Slack. And I do find that the ones that have the strongest moderation and the most stringent rules and rule enforcement are the ones I enjoy the most. So, that makes sense.

Andrew: Yeah. That's definitely my favorite one and I'm one of my primary sources of information. And then finally the Prebid Slack, which you need to be a member of the Prebid organization to join. That is very informative as well.

Kathleen: Great. All right. Well, there's a couple of really good ones if you're listening. And that actually brings us to the end of our time together. And so Andrew, if somebody wants to learn more about Assembly or connect with you online, what's the best way for them to do that?

Andrew: Yeah. I mean, reach out to me on LinkedIn, Andrew Fowler on LinkedIn, and then you can visit our Assembly website. Maybe I'll give you a link to that or something, but yeah. Please feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn. If you ever want to talk about header bidding or programmatic stuff or Prebid, I'm always happy to talk more about it. And I think, we've talked about open source and sharing of information. I'm certainly happy to do that.

Kathleen: Yeah. And thank you so much for sharing your perspective on that. Because that was really interesting just to think about how that could potentially change the world of publishing and media in the future. All right. If you're listening, thank you for joining me for this episode of the ad ops all-stars podcast. If you enjoy this episode, please consider leaving a review on Apple Podcast or the podcast platform of your choice. And to hear more interviews with leading ad ops experts, head to clean.io, and while you're there, check out our resource center to learn more about protecting your user experience and your revenue. That's it for this week. Thank you for joining me, Andrew. This was a ton of fun.

Andrew: Thanks so much, Kathleen. Appreciate it.

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