Ad Ops All Stars: Kerel Cooper, LiveIntent

by Kathleen Booth, on Nov 10, 2021 9:00:00 AM

KerelCooper (1)

LiveIntent CMO Kerel Cooper didn't start his career out in marketing.

Following stints in ad operations at companies including Earthweb, JupterMedia and Advance Digital, he moved on to LiveIntent where his career has evolved from platform development, to account management, product marketing, and now Chief Marketing Officer.

On this week's episode of Ad Ops All Stars, he talks about making the transition from ad ops to marketing, and shares advice for anyone considering doing the same.

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

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Transcript:

Kathleen: All right, three, two, one. Welcome back to the Ad Ops All Stars podcast. I'm your host Kathleen Booth and this week I am joined by my guest, who is himself a big podcaster, Kerel Cooper, CMO of LiveIntent and Host of the Minority Report Podcast. Welcome to the show Kerel.

Kerel: Thanks. Thanks for having me, very excited about this conversation, especially when I get a chance to talk to a fellow CMO.

Kathleen: Yeah, I love talking to a fellow podcaster and marketer as well, other podcasters are the easiest people to interview, so this is going to be great. But we always start out before we dig into anything else with an icebreaker question and I'd love to hear what you have to say. The question is, if you had to describe what you do for a living to a five-year-old, how would you do it?

Kerel: Oh, boy. Wow, that's an interesting question, I guess I should have practiced on my four year old daughter. Yeah, no, I guess what I would tell a five-year-old is that daddy helps or my four year old, daddy helps a company communicate their products and services to the marketplace. I mean, that is what I do as a marketer, that is what you do as a marketer as well too.

Kathleen: Yeah. Good explanation. I may have to borrow that-

Kerel: Try to keep it simple.

Kathleen: When I talk to my next five year old, I may be copying you. So you have had an interesting career journey, I think you're the first CMO that I've had on the podcast. And even though, yeah, exactly. Even though this podcast is about ad ops leaders, that comes in many forms and it's all about the career journey, which doesn't always end at ad ops leadership and I think you're a great example of that and it never really starts there either. Let's be honest, we talk about this all the time in the show about how there isn't a college degree for ad ops and so most people have had these other careers or majored in something else. And so it doesn't usually start with ad ops and sometimes it doesn't end with it. So I'd love to first, maybe you could just say a word about what LiveIntent is for those who might not know. And then let's trace back where you did get started, because I want to understand how you got to where you are.

Kerel: Yeah, sure. So first I'll start with LiveIntent, so for those who are not familiar with LiveIntent, we are a people-based marketing platform that is powered by the email address. And so we help publishers and brands monetize, acquire and retain their audience all within email newsletters. We are a little bit over 12 years old and really started out as a way of solving dynamic ad delivery within email newsletters. So before LiveIntent existed, most publishers and brands, if they were monetizing their newsletters were hard coding ads into their email newsletters, they were selling based on hear a voice or send volume. And we brought that dynamic ad delivery to the inbox where now publishers and brands can really monetize their email newsletters, similar to how they would monetize on the web today. And over the course of 12 years have built up this programmatic ecosystem within the inbox where again, we help over 2,500 publishers and brands do just that, acquire, retain and monetize their audience within email newsletters.

Kerel: I'm the chief marketing officer there, so I'm responsible for the business of marketing if you will. So everything from PR and corporate communications to product marketing, demand generation and creative and branding, all fall within my responsibilities. And I have a outstanding team that I work with and enjoy working with on a day-to-day basis.

Kathleen: Awesome. And how big is your team?

Kerel: We are now 16 people, I have to look up into the sky because we have a few open positions. So if we fill all of our positions, I think we will get up to about 18 or 19 folks.

Kathleen: Wow, that's great. And I know there's, I don't know what your experience has been, but all the other marketing leaders I've talked to say that right now, hiring is just one of the biggest challenges. There's a real shortage of available talent at the moment.

Kerel: Yeah, it definitely is. And I think specifically in our business, as the role of marketing continues to evolve in ad tech and MarTech and needing different types of skillset within the organization, I think that makes it a little bit more tricky as well, too and a little bit more challenging of making sure you can hire the right people with the right skillset.

Kathleen: Yeah. And now that the world is a little bit more open to remote work, it's like it's gotten harder, but it's also gotten weirdly easier because you can pull from anywhere. And I think assuming that you're open to remote, so it's just an interesting time to be hiring, I think.

Kerel: Yeah. And listen, two years ago, I would say that 95% of my team was based in the New York City area and now, after the last year and a half, two years, I think less than half of our team is now based in the New York City area.

Kathleen: Wow. Well maybe we'll get also to that part of the conversation about transitioning to managing a remote workforce because that's its own unique challenge. But before we get to that, I want to talk about how you got started because you have had a really fascinating career, much of it at LiveIntent, you've held several different positions there, but let's go all the way back to the very beginning.

Kerel: Yeah, sure. So again, for those of you who don't know me, I am born and raised in New Jersey. I actually attended a small school in New Jersey called Kean University, where I got my undergrad in marketing, by the way and my first job out of college, I was a sales assistant. I got hired as a sales assistant to the VP of sales for a company called EarthWeb, which is a digital publisher that focused on producing content for IT professionals. And so that was my first digital job or pathway into the adtech and MarTech space and this was back in 1999. And so I did that job for probably about six months or so and it was real admin work, the typical things you think of as a sales assistant. But my goal there was to get my foot in the door, put my head down, do my job and figure out what my next move was.

Kerel: And after about six months of that, my manager calls me into the office, she's a VP of sales and says, "We have this position that just opened up in a relatively new department that we have called ad operations and wanted to see if you'd be interested in taking that on." And of course, I said, yeah, and it wasn't a trafficking job, it was more of a customer success type job where you're pulling reports for sales, pulling reports for the advertisers that were running campaigns with us at the time. And so that was my first move or toe into the world of ad operations. Again, I did that job for about six months or so, really starting to learn the business of online advertising, what an impression is, what a click is, an insertion or all those basic things is when I learned that and started to build up the foundation.

Kerel: And then after about six months, I was asked if I wanted to learn how to traffic ads and so took that job on and that became a very interesting role for me because that is my first exposure, if you will, to the process of an ad and the day in the life of an ad and what happens after an insertion order is signed and the specs that we would hand over to advertisers. And some of that back and forth that would happen until we got the ads and they were right, and then figuring out how to upload creatives to the advertising, to the ad server and targeting and all those, again, very foundational elements of ad operations and ad trafficking. And again, it was a fast paced, fast moving company and I did that job for probably about a year or so. And then we started to expand the ad operations team and I started to manage people and that was my first, like I said, view into operations.

Kerel: Worked at EarthWeb for a couple of years and then we were acquired by another company, Jupiter Media and thankfully, I made the transition, I survived the acquisition, if you will. And at Jupiter Media again is where I continued down the path of an ad operations manager, helped to expand the team a little bit more, again, learned more about the business. And in 2005, I met someone that you had on the podcast recently, Rob Beeler, we met at one of the very first IAB Ad Operations Conferences that took place in Times Square. And I remember that because I was at this event, I didn't know anyone, I'm still learning a lot about ad operations and of course, Rob, if you know, Rob, Rob knows everyone, that's who he is, he is the master networker.

Kerel: And I remember it like it was yesterday, I was having lunch by myself because I didn't know anyone and he came over to my table and he introduced himself to me. We got to talking and six months later, he was hiring me at Advanced Digital, which was Advanced Internet at the time, at Advanced Digital to lead the ad operations team there. And so in 2006, I made the move over to Advanced Digital, we were a very small team at the time, I think I inherited about six ad traffickers there, but by the time I had left almost eight years later, I was responsible for close to 30 people at the time, 15 full-time employees and then an outsource team. And I think the thing that really stuck out to me and my career at Advanced Digital, was I was there during the transition of going from selling content-based campaigns to audience, so the whole transition to first party data, audience, bringing in a data management platform, looking at different metrics like viewability and an analytics suite. And so I was there leading the charge for that.

Kerel: And again, I think, and I've written about this in the past as well, too, in terms of why I think it's important for people that are looking to break into the media business, why ad operations is a good place for that, because it really is a place where you get to experience everything that is digital media. Not only the trafficking side of things and the operations, but the sales and the contract and the business side of things, a little bit of product as well, go-to-market strategy partnerships. Because ad operations folks are usually the folks that are working with, again, the data management platform, the ad serving vendor, the viewability and other analytics suites. And so was at Advanced Digital for, like I said, close to eight years, and that's actually where I got to know LiveIntent. I actually brought LiveIntent into Advanced Digital and signed the contract. I remember my first day at LiveIntent or the first week I was there and I was getting up to speed and going into Salesforce and looking at the Advanced Digital account and still seeing my name as the primary contact, so that was interesting.

Kerel: But in 2014 I made the jump to LiveIntent and made the jump to move from ad operations to account management. I think at that point in my career, I tapped out in terms of what I wanted to do in the ad operation space. I knew I wanted to stay in ad tech, but I knew I also wanted to do something different. And LiveIntent, I think came calling at the right time and so I think the skills that I learned leading out operations and building up that network and working with other ad ops leaders in space, going to LiveIntent allowed me to leverage those relationships. Because now as the head of account management, I was now servicing the folks that I had built up those relationships with, the people that were responsible for per ad operations. And I led account management for a couple of years there before moving over into the marketing side of the organization.

Kathleen: Yeah. The thing I love about your story is just there is this transferability of skills, and you talked about why ad ops prepared you so well for some of these other roles. And I think the reason that I'm so attracted to these stories is that at least from the sample of people that I've interviewed, it's become apparent to me that unless you're at a really big publisher or like a family of publishers, the opportunity to advance specifically within the role of ad ops becomes somewhat limited if you're in a smaller company. And so you either need to go to a bigger company, or as many people have done, they try different things, they go into customer success or account management, or I've had people on here who've started their own software companies where they've commercialized something that they developed to solve their own ad-ops problems.

Kathleen: So there's a lot of different directions to go, you're the first person I've talked to, who's gone into marketing, and granted you do have a degree in marketing, so I'm sure that was helpful. But I also know enough from my own experience to know that the degree I got however many years ago on marketing has nothing to do with how you do marketing today-

Kerel: Nothing to do. Absolutely nothing to do with it.

Kathleen: So I certainly would not sit here and say that you need a degree in marketing to go into marketing.

Kerel: Yeah. I think what helps me the most as a marketing leader, well, I think there's a couple things. One, the fact that I've taken the path of ad operations at a publisher, and then spent time on the front lines, leading account management, I have a very good, and also I think unique perspective of our customer base and of our prospect, because that's what I used to be and those are the folks that I use to communicate. And so for someone who came up through the traditional path of marketing, they may not have that same perspective or unique perspective that I have, especially when it comes to positioning and keeping our message simple and how we want to go to market to communicate our products and services to our hard customers and prospects. I think that's one, the other piece I would say is because of my background in operations and being involved in the nuts and bolts of it and rolling up our sleeves and really understanding how key process is to certain things, that's another piece that I think I bring to the marketing org.

Kerel: Because I think a lot of times people think that marketing is just the website or making a deck look pretty or something like that, but what I think people don't understand is the majority of the good work of a great marketing team happens behind the scenes. Customer segmentation, product positioning, your MarTech stack all those fundamental things. And I think my experience in that operations brings that perspective, I think, to the table as well too.

Kathleen: Yeah. It makes me think about the fact that I spent the bulk of my career, I mean, I am a marketer, but I spent the bulk of my marketing career marketing to marketers. And it definitely, it does help so much if you've sat in the seat of the audience that you're trying to sell to and I think having been in ad operations that really gives you a unique insight into the marketplace. So for somebody who is in ad ops and might think, gosh, I would like to go into marketing myself. You had a way point in between, you were in account management, is that something you think is necessary? Or what are the skills you think somebody would need to focus on in order to make that transition?

Kerel: Yeah. I think, so what's interesting about my career journey is I never thought that I'd end up in the CMO position, I thought because of my background in ops and then moving into account management, I was always of the mindset as okay when I get to the C-suite, it'll probably be as a COO or something to that effect. But it was really our CEO at LiveIntent who came to me when I was leading account management and we were going through a reorg and he basically encouraged me to move into the marketing side. And first I started off leading up our product marketing team. And I honestly didn't see what he saw, but I trust our CEO tremendously and he's usually right about these sorts of things. And what he saw was what you just said in terms of being a former client, being on the front lines, that you just have a different perspective of how we need to position our products and our services and a different level of empathy for our customers, because you used to be there.

Kerel: And so I didn't see that path, he did, I'm glad I went down that path and I'm enjoying being a CMO right now. I would say to anyone listening, the advice I would give is if marketing is a career that you want to move towards, one, you got to make sure you're proving yourself in the job that you're in today. No, one's going to take a chance on you in something new, unless you're really proving yourself and providing value in what you do today. The other thing I would say, and I've learned this along the way, whether it was when I first started in ad operations, or when I made the move to account management or the move to marketing, I always went back and became a student of the position that I was moving into because it was a new field. And I think that that is super important, it doesn't matter how many years of experience, you know this, it doesn't matter how many years of experience you have, especially in the ad tech and MarTech space.

Kerel: Our industry is always evolving, there's always something new to learn and I think that if you're going to make that transition into what feels like marketing you have to humble yourself and make sure you don't think you know everything because you really need to become a student again.

Kathleen: Yeah. And it's interesting that you said embrace the fact that you don't know everything because even once you've gotten to the CMO level, I say this all the time, the biggest risk is assuming you know more than you do, especially about the audience, because we are never truly representative of our full audience. So it doesn't matter how much experience we've had, whether I'm selling to marketers or you're selling to ad ops people, everybody's different. And the only way to really know is to get something out there in the wild and test it and put it in front of your customers or your prospects, or what have you and get feedback. We don't know, just because we like something doesn't mean everybody else will and vice versa.

Kerel: And you're right, and you are not going to get it right on the first time you do it, you may not get it right on the second or third time you do it because you're right, your customers are very different, everyone's different. You have different types of customers, customers that are at different stages of the buying journey as well too. And I think that that also speaks to the fact that as a CMO, you need to make sure you're managing up and make sure you're managing expectations internally as well, too. In terms of the fact that it is a process, it is a journey, we are going to make some mistakes the important thing is to learn from the mistakes, pivot and then try something new. I think that's very important.

Kathleen: I wish I could say amen a thousand times to that, but we don't have time, that would be the whole podcast because yes, I agree so strongly with everything you just said. Especially because, and I talk about this a lot in my post to LinkedIn and elsewhere, marketing is one of the most visible disciplines within the company because everybody sees it. And a lot of people think that they are great marketers because they experienced marketing. And so you do very often wind up in situations where everyone in the company has an opinion, whether it's very informed or not about the work you're doing. And so managing expectations and communication are very important.

Kerel: So true. That was one of the things that I learned very early on when I started leading marketing teams, is that everyone thinks that they are a marketer.

Kathleen: Yes. And everyone has an opinion, that's true. Well, the other thing I'm dying to ask you about is, and I have to, I'm going to formulate this question as I say it and so we'll see how it turns out if I need to reword it. But I think the space that you're in right now is so interesting because you're dealing with, it's almost like programmatic advertising through email newsletters or dynamic-

Kerel: Exactly what it is.

Kathleen: Yeah. And I come at this through a marketing lens, but I'm also in the advertising world and so I know that newsletters are such an important vehicle, especially at this moment in time for publishers, as a marketer, it's always been important to me to develop an owned audience and to not be reliant on the platforms I advertise on. And now I think publishers themselves are really coming to appreciate the importance of owning their audience as well, given all of the regulatory and platform changes that are happening. And so this isn't necessarily about being in ad ops, but I'm just curious, for folks who are listening and if they are in ad-ops, what do you think they should know as far as what this movement or the shift in importance of email newsletters and properties like that means for future careers in ad ops and in advertising in general?

Kerel: Yeah. Well, I think first, I think the saying is content is king, and I think that newsletters is a very important vehicle to deliver content, news, information, entertainment, e-commerce, whatever it is that the consumer signs up for. And you're right, we've seen the importance of newsletters accelerate tremendously over the last year and a half, two years. And I think prior to the pandemic, we were seeing people spending more than five hours a day in email between personal and work. And that, like I said, has just accelerated, as people have been home and are looking for trusted sources of news and information and entertainment and buying, e-commerce has taken off as well, too, that's accelerated and I think newsletters has probably been one of those vehicles that have helped e-commerce.

Kerel: So what I would say to any ad operations person that's listening to this as you sit within your organization, ad operations continues to play a key role in the future development of products and revenue within an organization. Newsletters could definitely be a part of your strategy. And I always say this newsletters is not the end all be all, but it is certainly should play a key part in your holistic strategy as it relates to revenue and as it relates to your first party data strategy as well too. And so really take a hard look at that, really connect with, I think your content folks who are planning out the strategy. I mean, we've seen a lot of publishers revise their approach to newsletters over the last year and a half as well, too, whether it be short form content, testing long form content, traditional editorial versus opinions, versus bringing in personalities that will write newsletters.

Kerel: And so I think there's an opportunity to connect with the product folks, connect with the content folks and really make sure that newsletters is really a part of that holistic approach that you really want to be building as we go into 2022.

Kathleen: Yeah. I am fascinated by this topic because in one of my prior jobs, I was working on basically building a media company around an agency and we created a newsletter that we sent out three days a week and grew it, I think in the two years I was there, we grew it to about 30,000 subscribers. And so I studied a lot of newsletter strategies and the three things that I saw that really stood out to me, one was companies that began as newsletters. So you look at the hustle and the morning brew, and these are really valuable companies that have sold for like, HubSpot bought The Hustle and Morning Brew is spinning off into different iterations of itself, that had their start as purely a newsletter and then became a business. So it's like the reverse of what we're used to, which is you have a business and you then start a newsletter, this is, I have a newsletter that turned into a business. So that was one.

Kerel: And it goes back to content being king, these companies were delivering great content and through that great content, they were able to build up tremendous size audience and that's where the value comes from.

Kathleen: And build a habit, that's the big thing-

Kerel: And build a habit. Yeah.

Kathleen: Is it has to be, you have to instill habit in your audience. And so one was newsletter first as the business model, two was newsletter as the product, not just through advertising, but New York Times has some paid subscription newsletters. And a lot of really innovative publishers are moving in the direction of charging, courts I think did this as well. And then the third, which I think is really interesting, that I've just experienced in the last two weeks is Axios, which is now going from newsletter as the product and newsletter first business to now selling a newsletter platform because they've been so successful and they're now starting to sell education around how to create newsletters. And so there is this, I'm going to call it newsletter as an industry movement that's happening, and so I think it's really cool that you guys are at the center of that.

Kerel: Yeah. And it's been a very exciting time, I've been at LiveIntent now seven years, the company is a little over 12 years old. And so to watch the evolution of our business, to watch the evolution of how our customers think about email newsletters and to watch this movement, like you said, there are other companies like Substack that have popped up, LinkedIn has enhanced their newsletter program. Other companies like Facebook and everyone else is trying to get into this as well, too. Twitter bought an email company, I think earlier this year as well, so it is really interesting to watch that. And what I love to say is that I think over time, the email newsletter in many ways has replaced the newspaper and the magazine. If you think about years ago, you'd wake up in the morning, you open your front door, you pick up the newspaper, that's how you get your news and information. Well, today is like, you're in the bed, you hit the alarm clock, you roll over, you grab your phone off of your nightstand and what's the first thing you do? Is you look at your-

Kathleen: Which, it's sad, but it's also so convenient and easy because I'm totally guilty of it.

Kerel: Yeah. But that's the technology plus the content.

Kathleen: Well, that is just so cool. And what an amazing time to be in the role that you're in. I'm going to shift gears because I feel like we can talk about this forever, but I want to make sure we squeeze in a couple of questions I always ask folks. The first being, you talked about the theme that I hear so often in these conversations, which is just the steam of change, the ad ops field changing the advertising industry changing, the regulations, the platforms, all of it, the tech. So how do you stay up to date? And you talked about also being a perpetual student, what are your favorite sources for staying on top of everything that's happening?

Kerel: Yeah. Well, I definitely hit the industry trades, the regulars all the time, AdExchanger, Digiday, MediaPost, Adweek, Ad Age, definitely hit those. I think focus groups has been a big part of what we've done at LiveIntent over the last year or so, and really learning from our customers, I feel like that's a tremendous way to learn, because as you said earlier, every customer is different, they're at different stages of the journey. And when you can get together a group of customers and prospects and facilitate a conversation and have them talk to each other, you pick up and you learn there. I definitely have a lot of, I would call it off the record conversations with people in the space too, at least almost pretty much weekly at this point, I'm talking to somebody and that's a good source of news and information in terms of, I think what's going on.

Kerel: So it's a little bit of everything there. I also sign up for my own newsletters, you mentioned Morning Brew, they have a fantastic newsletter Marketing Brew, which I sign up for. And that helps me stay on top of news and information. So a little bit of everything.

Kathleen: Yeah. It's pretty amazing there's literally a newsletter for everything. In fact, the problem is the opposite that there are so many, I think that you sometimes struggle with winnowing them down. I know I have this problem in my inbox. It's a crazy mess, but that's for me to figure out. So this podcast is all about shining the spotlight on people doing great works in the world of ad ops, who else out there do you think is an ad-ops all-star and should be our next guest?

Kerel: Yeah. I have a few people. My buddy Dennis Colon, who I've known for a very long time, he's now a leading product at a company called Giphy right now, but definitely an ad ops veteran. He and I met when I was at Advanced Digital and he was at Conde and advancing Conde fall under the same corporate umbrella as sister companies. And so he and I built a great relationship and have worked together for a number of years, he's great. Someone that I met and hired when I was at Advanced Digital, her name is Carolina Fernandez. She's now over at a company called Adform, but she ran ad operations at Advanced Digital for a number of years, especially after I left the company. Great ad ops mind, a great ad ops leader, I think she's definitely someone you'd have a wonderful conversation with on the podcast.

Kerel: And then a longtime friend in this space, Rachael Savage, who is at Conde right now and has a number of years of ad ops experience and leading ad operations teams. So those three folks come to top of mind. I think, I highly recommend you having them on the show.

Kathleen: That sounds like a good list. I'm excited to dig in and learn more about each of them. So this has been so great, I've really enjoyed it. And if somebody wants to learn more about you or check out, LiveIntent, what's the best way for them to do that?

Kerel: Yeah. So for me, you can hit me up on LinkedIn, just search Kerel Cooper, you'll find me, I don't think there are too many Kerel Coopers out there, so I should be easy to find. And then, yeah, liveintent.com, a lot of great information there. Check out our product blog to get the latest on our products and a bunch of case studies that are there too.

Kathleen: And I would be remiss if I didn't also say check out Kerel's podcast with Erik Requidan, you guys are still doing Minority Report. You're profiling some amazing people and I think it's a great show. So definitely go check that one out if you haven't listened to it already.

Kerel: Yeah, definitely.

Kathleen: Yeah. Well, listen, if you're listening to this episode and you enjoyed it, head to Apple Podcasts and leave the podcast a review, that's how other folks find us. And in the meantime, if you want to hear other interviews with leading ad ops experts, you can just head over to clean.io and visit our resource center where you'll learn more about all the different folks we've profiled, and you can also find other resources on protecting your brand user experience and revenue. That is it for this week. Thank you so much for joining me Kerel, this has been a lot of fun and I really enjoyed learning more about you and your career.

Kerel: Thanks, Kathleen. Great conversation.

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