Ad Ops All Stars: Elizabeth Rodriguez, ENGINE

by Kathleen Booth, on Aug 11, 2021 9:00:00 AM

Liz RodriguezWhat is it like to grow an ad ops team from 8 to 200 people?

This week on Ad Ops All Stars, ENGINE Senior Vice President of Client Services Elizabeth Rodriguez shares her ad ops career story.

While she's currently working in client services, Elizabeth has run ad ops and worked more broadly in publisher operations. When she joined GroundTruth, the ad ops team included 8 people - four in the US and four in India. During her time there, Elizabeth grew the team to include 200 people around the world, with 45 of them working directly in ad ops roles. 

In this week's episode, she explains how she developed a formula for knowing when to grow the team, shares her advice for managing multinational (and multicultural) teams, and talks about how she's learned to prevent herself and her team from experiencing burnout.

Listen to or watch the full episode, or read the transcript below, to hear Elizabeth's story.

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Kathleen: Welcome to the Ad Ops All Stars Podcast. I'm your host Kathleen Booth. And my guest today is Elizabeth Rodriguez, who is the Senior Vice President of Client Services at ENGINE. Welcome to the podcast, Elizabeth.

Liz: Thank you very much. Glad to be here.

Kathleen: Yeah, this is going to be an interesting conversation, because as I just mentioned, you're in client services today, but you've held a number of Ad Ops leadership positions. And so, we're going to talk a little bit about those experiences, as well as about the different directions that your career can take you, as an ad ops leader into client services for being one of those options. Before we get there though, I have an ice breaker that I always ask all my guests, and I'm interested to hear your take on it, which is, of course, if you had to describe what you do to a five-year-old, how would you do it?

Liz: I actually did describe what I did to my five-year old way back when, when she was five she's currently 23. I was actually in the contextual targeting business, when she was five. And I explained to her that all those little hyperlinks that you see, because I was at Vibrant Media at the time, those little hyperlinks that are in green are ads. And the ones that are in blue were at the time, it was Wikipedia, or whatever. And those hyperlinks are basically advertisers, or people who want you to buy something. By you scrolling over, that allows the content on that page to be free to you. If not, you would have to pay for it. [crosstalk 00:01:51].

Kathleen: That's a very good way of explaining it. I'm going to give you a round of applause. Nice, simple, elegant, and straightforward. So, let's talk about your career, because you have had an interesting career evolution that has spanned working in client services and account management at the New York Times, to operations at the Dominican Times, to doing ad ops at GroundTruth and now doing client services. So, you are definitely a little bit of a jack of all trades, which I love. Because, I do feel like in ad ops, you have to be highly collaborative with a lot of different parts of the organization. So, tell me how all of this evolved? How did you go down this media path in the first place? And then, what happened?

Liz: Yeah, so I started my career at the New York Times Digital 20 years ago, basically. And I started out as an assistant account executive. So, I was supporting the sales team. I had great mentors there, but in my time there, I found that there was always a disconnect between the account management team on sales, as well as ad ops, something was always missing. So, then I said, "Okay, in order for me to learn how to better serve the clients, as well as my sellers, let me figure out what ad ops really needs, because no one seems to understand what they need." So, I buddied up with my ad ops person and I was like, "Just show me the ropes, just show me what you do, how you do it." And on my downtime, which was back then, it was a lot.

Liz: But, on my downtime, I would start playing around, going in there, trying to figure out what works. And then, I came up with ideas, "Okay, how can we make things better?" And then, after about a year, they launched a pilot program for a client services team, and I was part of that. So, I was able to collaborate with ad ops, all that good stuff. But, I was also interested in sales, I did dabble in sales a little bit. At that point, one of my good friends, who was actually my first boss in retail, when I was in high school, had Dominican Times Magazine and he needed someone to come in to help build that. So, I went in there, I was the operations lead, it was print. So, I had to build their website. I had to translate everything to Spanish, because we were obviously catering to both general and the Hispanic market.

Liz: And then, just building out processes, making sure that things work, was doing the marketing, was helping with the editorial. It was just an amazing experience, where I learned that I could basically, run my own company. Which was cool, but it was a lot of long hours. A lot of-

Kathleen: Yeah.

Liz: [inaudible 00:04:28] and all that good stuff. So then, I said, "Okay, I'm going to go back into ad tech, back to the general market." Because, I need that exposure and that experience. And I also wanted to learn more, because technology was evolving so much. So, I ended up going into, it was an account management role, but in an ad server at the time, which was Mediaplex. So, that was a great experience. I asked so many questions, the engineer there was just like, "Liz." She would draw things for me, because I was like, "I need to understand this, if I'm going to explain it to my clients, I need to understand all of this backend stuff, or else I'm not going to feel like I'm effective in my role."

Liz: So, I went back to that hybrid situation, where I'm doing one role, but I'm also focused on learning all the components that go into it, because I felt that was the only way that I could, not only help my clients, but help myself understand, "Okay, when certain questions come up where I need to have the answer, at least I know what to go to." So, it was a great experience there as well. And as it goes in all of these companies, you meet so many people, the industry is small. So, as people leave, sometimes they bring you with them, or an opportunity comes up. Then, they're like, "Oh hey, do you want to check this out?" So, that's where I went to Vibrant Media on the contextual. I would say this, but there, they actually created a role for me, because I had the account management sales and ad ops background, they didn't have someone with all those touch points.

Liz: There was a vertical ad ops manager at the time-

Kathleen: Oh, interesting.

Liz: I was doing ad ops within client services. And I reported directly to a vertical VP for automotive. Amazing experience, crazy hours, lots of work, we built that market. And then, we were able to collaborate so well with the internal teams that we built that out, whatever it was great. And then, I moved on to full ad ops role at GroundTruth, at their startup stage, which is a completely different experience. The majority of my team was in India. Then, I had to build out the US team, and then it became a global team. So, an amazing experience and the hours were insane.

Kathleen: I'm sure. It sounds like that's a theme in your career. I want to talk about the GroundTruth experience. Because, that's really interesting, having that perspective of coming in, literally no pun intended at the ground level and building this entire team up. Having never done that before, at least it sounds like you hadn't done that before. Talk me through what that look like? And how did your team structure evolve over time?

Liz: So, when I first joined, I had about eight people. I had four in the US, and then four in India. And because, we know it's a startup, you're thinking you're going to go big. You need to grow this. And the sales and revenue teams were very aggressive and we had these big goals. So, it was basically laying things out. "Okay, what do we need to support now? Where's the revenue coming from? And then, where do we see that going?" So, my way of looking at things, because I've always had all these roles, was like, "How can I find this information? What are you using in terms of CRM? Is it accurate? Is it up to date? And can I get all the information I need, at my fingertips whenever I need it?" And I used the Salesforce information at the time, to determine, "Okay, based on the pipeline, this is what I think we'll need based on how many people we have now, and how many line items and placements and all that good stuff.

Kathleen: Okay, wait. Talk me through that. Because, you just talked about something super, super interesting. I got to stop you, because I want to go a little deeper. Because, I feel this is the stuff that, everybody talks about scaling and this and that. But, very few people really get into the weeds of, "What is this mathematical formula behind? If X happens, we need to hire another person." So, can you break it down a little further? How did you think through that exercise of coming up with the scale formula?

Liz: Of course. So, what was the main information? Or, the components that were necessary were, "Okay, where's the revenue now? How many people do we have supporting it? We were aggressively hiring more salespeople, how many? What was the ratio going to be between ad ops and sales?" And then, obviously there was an account management team as well, which was factored in, but then it's industry-wide, at most organizations I've been, it's always been about anywhere from one to three million, or even more per head. You start at that number, and then if you own your platform and you can actually build out the product, where it's a seamless transition from sales to the ad ops team, or the monetization team, or whatever it's being called at the time, then you can actually have less people doing more, because it's all in one place, and it's simple.

Liz: It's never simple. It's all in one place. And then, instead of them focused so much on the troubleshooting components, they're focused on making it work and actually getting the data that's going to help win more business, or it's going to help make things better for the teams. At the end of the day as an ad ops lead, your focus is not only the revenue. It's, "Okay, your ad ops people are going to burn out." You give them usually 18 months, two years. And if they're not growing, or they're not burnt out, they're going to leave.

Kathleen: Yeah.

Liz: It's that unfortunate truth of the ad ops world. So, look that number, I usually go by the revenue number. And then, I also look at the existing people, how much they're handling? And what that means in terms of complexity per account campaign? And the media that's being sold?

Kathleen: Now, am I correct that, that formula is basically built around a direct sales business?

Liz: Yes.

Kathleen: So-

Liz: I've only been on the direct manage side.

Kathleen: Okay. Okay, that's great context. So, you came in, you had eight people you said, four in the US, four in India. And how were those roles broken up? Are they all in the same role? Or, was there different responsibilities?

Liz: So, initially there was one manager, and then everyone else was individual contributors. So, one manager per region.

Kathleen: Okay.

Liz: And then, we built out further.

Kathleen: And how did you navigate making sure with one half of your team being on the other side of the world? How did you navigate that and make sure that everybody was working really seamlessly together?

Liz: The beauty of working with a team in India, is usually that they accommodate US hours. So, we had people who did the work, US hours. And then, we had the other half of the group that worked their times zone. So, we basically had work being done around the clock, so it never stopped. So, it worked out really well.

Kathleen: Oh, that's great. And then, how big was your team at its largest?

Liz: Almost 200, but that included ad ops, account management, I had a Salesforce support team, I had the creative and design team. And then, I also had at one point when it was that large, we built out a blueprinting team in India. And because I was frequenting India so much with my team, I kicked off that team, and then when it grew, and it was in a place where it was ready to move on to someone that actually could help them better. Then, I took that off my plate.

Kathleen: Nice, and we can have a separate conversation later about India, because I used to travel there a lot for work too.

Liz: Love it. I miss it so much. [crosstalk 00:11:54].

Kathleen: Same, what part of India did you go to?

Liz: New Delhi.

Kathleen: Okay. I was in Delhi and a lot of time in Karnataka as well. Such a great place.

Liz: Yeah- [crosstalk 00:12:01].

Kathleen: And the food is so good.

Liz: I miss everyone and the food. And, that's another conversation.

Kathleen: Yes, exactly. Whole nother podcast.

Liz: Yes.

Kathleen: So, okay. Wow. So, you grew your team to 200 people and I get that it spanned across a number of different functional areas. How big was the ad ops team within that group of 200?

Liz: I want to say it was about 45, because we had US, we had NDL, we were building out China. We had Japan, we had the UK and we had Germany.

Kathleen: And were those [crosstalk 00:12:33] teams situated in those locations? Or, were they working from the US and managing those?

Liz: No, they were in those locations too, because every time we went into a new location, we built out sales, and then we follow with ad ops.

Kathleen: Okay-

Liz: Then, we had our ad ops team from the US and from India, training the other regions.

Kathleen: I want to learn more about how you did this, because I think for somebody who hasn't built out a global team, that can seem really intimidating. [crosstalk 00:12:59]. Yeah, how do you enter a new market? Especially, where there might be some language... In India, I feel literally, everybody speaks perfectly fluent English. And I don't know if you found that every place you went, but how did you approach this? Did you have counterparts that were already in market, who basically helped you navigate this? Or, were you going in and doing this on your own?

Liz: No, no, we had people in market. So, the way that GroundTruth did it, which was really cool, was that they actually hired people in market first. And then, they built up a team. So, they would start with the sales side, they would hire a head of that region. And then, because they had the contacts and they've already built teams, they would start it off. And then, because we were a US company, we needed to have people who spoke English-

Kathleen: Yeah.

Liz: As well, in China. The regulations there are intense, but we made it work. That was a whole different ball game. Japan, it was easier, I think Japan was easier. But again, having a team that doesn't speak English as their native language has to accommodate the US on certain things when they're selling in market, is a little odd, but it works-

Kathleen: Yeah.

Liz: It works, and a lot. And there's so many qualified people that are bilingual, or multilingual. So, it is a global economy.

Kathleen: So, did you directly manage any of the people within those markets?

Liz: All of the account managers and ad ops people, yes.

Kathleen: If you had to give somebody advice, who was about to go down the path of building out a global team, any advice for them, as far as like how to manage that team, in a way that makes it feel really cohesive?

Liz: Absolutely. So, you to find the time, that sweet spot in the time that works for every time zone, for your team meetings. It means that maybe, some people are still going to have to wake up earlier, or go to bed later, but you have to find that sweet spot and you have to stick to it. And in addition to that, you need to learn the customs and norms for every single country you enter. They do not need to accommodate us, we need to accommodate them. So, make sure that you're going in there and you're at least trying to learn something of the language. And if not, and if that's not the case, at least understand, what is okay? And what is not? It goes a long way-

Kathleen: How did you learn that? Did you have someone helping you?

Liz: Google, reading. I love learning podcasts. And that's the other thing, you have to be curious, and you also have to want to do this, because one thing is to grow a business and another is to grow people. And being able to go people internationally, it's a completely different ball game. But, that's my thing, I'm a people's person. And then, I love seeing people grow in their careers. So, my thing is always, "All right, listen, see what the needs are, how can I help them reach their goals as quickly as possible? Obviously, keeping my organizational goals." And then, my mindset is, "This person can eventually be my boss, so how would I want my boss to be?" So, treat them that way.

Kathleen: Yeah, that's great. Now, how often were you in country? And then, also, how often, if ever, did you have those team members come to the US?

Liz: Yes. Oh, the good old days. I traveled basically, every two to three weeks, to different places. It can be US, or internationally. I try to make it to each of the regions every quarter. And then, yes, we did have all sites. So, the entire teams would get together once, or twice a year, depending on revenue.

Kathleen: That's awesome. I bet you miss-

Liz: Oh, yeah.

Kathleen: Being able to go places.

Liz: Oh, yeah.

Kathleen: We're getting close again. I feel like we're getting really close. That's so fascinating. I mean, I think that, it's such a specialty within itself to just build global teams. And like I said, it can be extremely intimidating for somebody who's never done it before. So, you sound like you would be a wonderful resource for anybody who's about to embark upon that.

Liz: Yeah, I think, in this industry, the reason that I feel like I've been able to thrive, it's just because things always get thrown at me and I have to figure it out. And because, I'm not afraid of a failure, or challenges, it's like, "All right." I'm never like, "Oh my God, this is never going to happen." It's always like, "Okay, how am I going to make this work?" And it helps, right? Again, She Runs It. I was on the multicultural panel yesterday. One of the things that came up, was, a lot of women in this industry feel intimidated, or feel like, "Hey, maybe my voice doesn't matter." But, the thing is, when you go into these settings, you have something to offer, you may not have the same pedigree, you may not have the same education. You may not have all these other things that you feel like you would need to thrive, but you have other things that are valuable, that you can bring to the table. So, I feel like that's what's helped me in this industry and the fact that it's never boring.

Kathleen: Yeah, I love this advice. I mean, do you ever have imposter syndrome? Because, I'll be honest. I have it all the time, all the time. I'm always like, "Do I really not know what I'm doing? Have I just managed to fool them all, all the way through my whole career?"

Liz: That's where I pick and choose. I know what I'm good at, and I know what I'm not good at. What I'm not good at, I put it out there, "Hey, this is not my thing. This is not my forte. These are the people that are the experts. I can leverage that I can learn from them, but I am not the person to go to." And I make that clear from the onset. And then, that helps me a lot too, because I know what I can focus on. And also, those are the things that I put on my list of things to learn and to try to understand, especially if I don't know them.

Kathleen: Yeah, I definitely use imposter syndrome as a motivator. It really pushes me to come into things more well-prepared, than I think I otherwise might, because I'm so afraid of not being well-prepared and not having the answers. And so, I don't know. I guess it's a way to harness what it could be seen as a weakness and turn it into a powerful thing. But-

Liz: Yeah, but I don't think we need to feel like imposters-

Kathleen: Yeah.

Liz: Who's expected to know everything?

Kathleen: Yeah. No, it's totally a thing we push on ourselves.

Liz: Yeah.

Kathleen: Terrible.

Liz: We put this pressure on ourselves, because we have an expectation that, it's not accurate.

Kathleen: It's unrealistic.

Liz: Other people don't think about it as much as we do.

Kathleen: Yeah.

Liz: Yeah, so.

Kathleen: Yeah, that's awesome. So, wow. You talked about team burnout and you mentioned how a lot of your jobs have included working long hours. So, how do you manage that for yourself? Because, you totally seem like you have your act together and I don't know. You just seem like, you've got it all figured out. And then also, how do you help your team figure it out?

Liz: Depending, on the stage of my career, or my life, I think, it's been different. In the beginning of your career, not that you're always going to work harder, but at the beginning of your career, you have so much more to learn. So, you're learning, you're doing the job, and then you're learning from mistakes, right? So, it takes time. I always felt I need to put in the time and the work, in order for me to feel like I'm better than what I should be, just because I never want my role, or my job to be questioned. So, my thing has always been my friends, my family, good food. When I used to entertain clients, that helps, because you go out, you get to talk.

Liz: You're not necessarily in that office studying. When I had to work on campaigns late into the night. I remember on Thanksgiving, my first Thanksgiving at GroundTruth, I was literally cooking. And I had my laptop on my kitchen table, because we had so much happening. That was that first year with the platform, probably wasn't ready for all that revenue and all that. So, we would just go around the clock, around the company. It was exciting, because we were building something, but my team was burnt out. So, I made sure I forced them to take vacation. I say, "Okay, you need to take time off. You haven't taken time off in X amount of time. This is what you need to do. We'll figure it out, we'll cover it for you. Yes, it is going to be more for the rest of the team, but we have to do it until we hire, or whatever the case may be." And just always being really open to accommodating the team.

Kathleen: Yeah, yeah. No, I think that's great. I've worked someplace recently that, every quarter, the instructions to managers were, "Make your team tell you when they're going to take at least a week off in this quarter. Have them commit to it in advance, because otherwise it's so easy."

Liz: Yes.

Kathleen: In the last 15, 20 years, every place I've worked has had unlimited vacation. Which is great, but a lot of people won't take it. And so, you have to almost affirmatively get people to agree to do it. Interesting. So, shifting gears now, you have moved into this client services role. And I want to talk about that a little bit. Especially, because you've worked in sales, you've worked in client services, you've worked in account management. For somebody who might be listening, who's currently in an ad ops leadership role. Can you talk about, when would it be the right move for somebody to move into a client services role? Which questions should they be asking themselves, to determine if that might be the best next step for them? And what should they know about it?

Liz: I would say if you're in an ad ops role and you want more interaction and you want to be the face of what's being presented to clients, definitely go into client services. Because, a lot of the times what happens between account management/ client services and ad ops, is that the things that the client services manager doesn't know, they go to ad ops, confirm, come back, confirm, come back. But, if you start in ad ops, and then you already know that you want to go into a more client facing role, the next step is client services, or being on the publisher side, or is that all things. But, knowing the background of how technology works and the entire ad ops components, will help you 100%. But, you need to want to have conversations with clients directly. I think a lot of ad ops people prefer being on the back-end, which is-

Kathleen: Yeah.

Liz: Why they choose that path, or they fall into that path. And they figure, "Okay, this is good for me, Because I can grow here, I can keep learning. I can teach a team. I can mentor, but I don't necessarily have to be in front of clients, or presenting, or things of that nature."

Kathleen: And are there any other skills that, that person might need to brush up on, if they were to go in that direction?

Liz: I would say there's many skills, obviously. Because, a lot of the times, what many organizations do, they do a technical account manager role. So, you have the ad ops background and you have the account management side. You need the organization in both roles, right? So, let's check right there. You can be a good account manager, or a good ad ops person without being organized, being resourceful, because 50% of the time you have to figure things out on your own.

Kathleen: Yeah.

Liz: Things aren't built. You need to be part of that, regardless of the industry. And then, just being curious, being curious on the client's side, to what their problems are? And their needs are? And then, internally being curious to say, "Okay, what do we have? And if we don't have something, how can we make something work out of what we do have?"

Kathleen: Yeah. So, now that you're in client services, different role, what would you say are the biggest challenges that you face now in your current role?

Liz: Biggest challenges still seem to be the communication between teams. Everyone speaks a different language. So, you have sales, you have your planning and CS are usually aligned. And then, you have your ad ops, and then you have products and everyone's speaking different languages, based on what their silo is. And bridging that gap is always a challenge.

Kathleen: Yeah.

Liz: I mean, it's doable. It's just that, you're always like, "Okay, I understand you. I understand you now, this is what you're trying to say." But, you don't want to do that, because you don't want to speak for other people. But then, that's the only way you're going to move things forward, if you're bridging that gap between the groups.

Kathleen: Any particular advice along those lines? Around how to communicate better? Or, whether there are certain meetings, you should have to get everybody aligned?

Liz: I would say, listen. Because, a lot of times we're all trying to get our points across, but we're not listening to what they're trying to say, or their needs are. And then, follow ups. If something is of interest to you, and you want a project to move along. If you're not the one following up, it may not happen-

Kathleen: Yeah, that's a good point.

Liz: Because, there's so many balls being juggled all the time, in everyone's role. So-

Kathleen: That's a great point. All right, I need to switch gears now and ask you the questions that I always ask everybody before we run out of time. So, you've touched on this, the ad ops world changes all the time, whether it's technology changes, or regulatory changes, what have you. Well, are there particular sources that you turn to, to try to stay up to date on what's happening and keep yourself educated?

Liz: Absolutely. So, my main sources, they have been for years, are Media Post and Ad Monsters. Media Post, because I get all the information I need curated, based on whichever organization I'm in. So, I make sure I select the things that are top of mind for me, or very important. And then, on the Ad Monster side, it's all the technical ad ops stuff that comes up, that is always addressed there. All the scary things happening in the industry, I go to Ad Monsters, just so I can one, understand it, to be aware, and then figure out what needs to happen on my end, so that we're not caught off guard.

Kathleen: I love that. Next question. Who in the ad ops world? Is there another ad ops leader that you think is doing particularly great work and who should be our next guest?

Liz: Yes. So, Chandon Jones. I believe he's SVP of ad ops for Kinesso, part of IPG. And he actually hired me at Mediaplex. Was an amazing mentor, so patient, so knowledgeable. He was the reason why I felt that I could do it. Every time we have those rough days, or there were issues that we thought we couldn't solve for a client, just calm, like, "All right, let's break it down. How are we going to have it with this? What can we do? What do we have access to?" He's just great. So, definitely. And that's an ad ops all star.

Kathleen: He sounds like a great one, I can't wait to talk with him. All right. Well, this has been so fascinating, I could talk to you for hours about, because especially growing a global team. I just think that's really, really interesting, and there's probably a lot there, that we didn't even have time to mind. So, maybe there'll be a part two at some point. But, in the meantime, for everybody who's listening. Thank you so much for joining me for this episode of Ad Ops All-stars. If you enjoyed it, please consider leaving a review on Apple Podcasts, or the podcast platform of your choice. And to hear more interviews with leading ad ops experts, head to And while you're there, check out our resource center to learn more about protecting your user experience and your revenue. In the meantime, Liz, thank you so much. This has been amazing.

Liz: Thank you so much Kathleen, it was my pleasure.

Kathleen: You have incredible experience and I can't wait to share this with everyone.

Liz: Thank you, thank you very much.

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