Ad Ops All Stars: Michael Bendell, Bendell Consulting

by Kathleen Booth, on Oct 27, 2021 9:00:00 AM

Michael Bendell

Michael Bendell's ad ops career spans an impressive list of large media brands (Federated Media, MTV, BlogHer/SHE Media, etc.), as well as niche players like This Old House and Ebony.

Today, he's leveraging what he learned through those experiences to provide consulting advice to media companies.

In this episode of Ad Ops All Stars, Michael talks about what it was like from working in ad ops at large brands with big teams and plenty of support, to running ad ops for This Old House, where he had to dig in and do a lot of the work on his own.

He also shares lessons learned from navigating several mergers and acquisitions, and talks about the challenges of managing rapid change.

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

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Transcript:

Kathleen: Welcome back to Ad Ops All Stars. I'm your host, Kathleen Booth, and this week, my guest is Michael Bendell, who is with Bendell Consulting. He is an ad tech consultant. He's worked in so many different facets of the ad operations, advertising technology industries. I'm super excited to have you here, Michael, welcome to the podcast.

Michael: I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.

Kathleen: Yeah. As long time listeners know, I always start with an icebreaker question, and that is, if you had to explain what you do to a five year old, how would you do that?

Michael: My wife loves answering this question for me and she's always like, hey, he's the annoying guy with the ads that pop up all over, but that's his fault. When she would first introduce me that way, I'd feel a little hurt, but then part of me is like, well, that's how people pre perceive ads.

Michael: I will say that I think her answer is a little outdated. I know our children don't spend a lot of time on the web. They grew up watching YouTube and Instagram, and I think nowadays it's probably more, for four and five year olds, it's probably more TikTok. So, I guess I'd be the annoying person who'd make somebody watch a video before they could watch their TikToks.

Kathleen: Yeah. It's so true about YouTube and TikTok, and all these other platforms replacing what we all grew up with. It's a totally different world, right? I'm sure there's going to be some other platform in five years that replaces that.

Michael: I'm sure I'll learn about it from a four or five year old.

Kathleen: Exactly. Exactly. Well, you have worked in so many different roles in the industry, as I alluded to when we first started, and you've also worked for some incredibly well known companies and then some smaller ones. So, maybe we could just start with you tracing back in history a little bit, and talking about how you got into ad ops in the first place.

Michael: Sure, absolutely. I kind of started in development, and there was a time where I felt I hit my ceiling, as how much money I could make in development. Then, I was like, well, what should I do next? I went into project management. So, I was a project manager in banking and I missed technology. So, I left banking.

Michael: I went back into project management for more digital or more technology, and I kept getting all these jobs that were related around advertising. I didn't really go out and find, ad ops. Ad ops, I feel like, found me as the industry began to change from just serving an image. It became more and more technical, and you had these executions, as opposed to just serving a magazine ad, and you really needed to kind of understand technology. So, I fell into it that way.

Kathleen: So, what do you think it was about your background that made you well suited to ad ops?

Michael: I think having that project management background, as well as being able to look at ad calls and debug and that whole analytics aspect of it, I think is how ad ops kind of started. The very cool thing about ad ops is you're so close to the data, right? So, you can make a change and measure that change from a revenue standpoint. Having analytics and the ability to be able to analyze those large sets of data, I think sets you up for, not just ad ops, but your next job in the future.

Kathleen: Now you may have just answered this, but I want to ask it anyway, just to make sure that I'm understanding this correctly. Because, you went into ad ops and you stayed, right? You stayed for quite some time across many companies. You've had a really interesting career. What is it about the field that you love?

Michael: I like large sets of data, and I love the fact that I can make a tweak and earn a lot more money for a lot of different companies. So, I had worked at Federated Media, which represented 12,000 publishers. I ran ad ops management, and then eventually I ran their reporting analytics department. I started in that, make a change to the ad wrapper, and then all of a sudden, you're generating a lot more money for the publishers then they're happy, or not. Maybe, you throw an extra ad on the site and they complain about the user experience. There's always that compromise between revenue, user experience, and how many ads you can have on a page.

Kathleen: Yeah. As you talk about it, the picture that keeps coming into my head is from The Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain, kind of like pulling the levers.

Michael: Yeah.

Kathleen: That's sort of what it feels like.

Michael: In some ways it is. A lot of times the publisher is unaware of all the technology that is out there, everything that you can try and do. You don't want to necessarily say that you're experimenting on a publishers site to generate more revenue, but you usually do run on a few tests. Hopefully, undergo no property before you deploy it in a broader sense, but that is exciting to me.

Kathleen: So, you mentioned Federated Media. From looking at your LinkedIn profile, I know you've also done stints at MTV. You've been at SHE Media, some really big, well known brands, and I'm probably just mentioning a few of many. Your career has evolved since then having started out in those larger environments, and then moved through to some smaller ones, what is that change like?

Michael: It's different and it's tough. When you were originally going to these large companies that were deploying across thousands of sites, and you had an engineering team and analytics department, to then go to a smaller publisher. So, my transition was Federated Media. They were calling say, at the time there were 12,000 publishers.

Michael: Then I went to Blogher, and within six months Blogher was bought. Blogher, for those of you don't know, it's the same thing as Federated Media, these are ad networks that will put code on a publisher's page and generate revenue for those publishers. Federated Media was more of a male focused audience. They'd say they "herd the cats," and then you'd be able to sell that inventory to companies like Coca-Cola saying, hey, we've organized all these smaller, more engaged audiences.

Michael: Blogher did the same exact thing, just as you can tell by the "her" to get to the female audience. Then six months later it was acquired by SHE Media. So, they were a little smaller operation. There were maybe three to 4,000 websites that they had represented at the time that I had worked there.

Michael: Then I felt like, hey, I'm able to make publishers money. How can I help the publisher? How can I educate the publisher? I stepped away from SHE Media. Having all these publisher relationships, and reaching out to them and trying to say, hey, as opposed to these companies' repping you, why don't you make your own money and try to be a little more independent. One of the first places I went was This Old House. So, those of you don't know, This Old House, it's a 40 year old brand that was on PBS. As cable came in, HGTV took over and it was almost a forgotten about brand. Everybody wanted video to run on a site and nobody had it, but I ended up working for a company that had a ton of video, but didn't have that kind of overall footprint.

Michael: So, trying to help those companies, not just serve great content, but to reach an audience. I think that's a struggle, because you always come to the point where you can't put another ad on a page. Then it's what's your content strategy? What's your SEO strategy? What's your product strategy? I think that leads you out of ad ops to that next role. I ended up being the CTO of This Old House, and it's not because I'm a great engineer. It's because when you show that you can change the systems to make more money, then they're like, well, the person who's making those changes should probably be the person running that engineering team. That's kind of how I transition from ad ops to the CTO world.

Kathleen: Side note. I'm a huge, This Old House fan. I also do love HGTV, I'll be honest, but I watched This Old House before HGTV was a thing. That also dates me a little bit.

Michael: It does. It's funny, because I would ask, at the time, my 14 year old and 15 year old, and I was like, do you know what this old house is? I have no clue. Do you know who Bob Ross is? Oh, of course I love Bob Ross. You kind of to think, well, why?

Kathleen: Yeah.

Michael: It's the fact that Bob Ross is on social media, and that's where younger audiences are consuming content and This Old House stayed on PBS. So, they don't have that kind of footprint. Helping that company try to develop that footprint was fun and difficult and challenging.

Kathleen: Well, as a marketer, I will add my one observation to that, which is that Bob Ross was a personal brand, and This Old House was a show. I think what we've seen, certainly also with HGTV now, you take Chip and Joanna Gaines and it's the people, more so than the show, now that are the headlights. That's been an interesting shift, I think in general, in our culture. Where we've moved more to personal brands, having a lot more strength than they ever did before. But, that's a different podcast. The thing that I thought was really interesting about your story, is talking about this evolution from starting as a developer, to then into ad ops, and working on things like Yield. Then really almost coming full circle and going back into the CTO role.

Kathleen: To me, it really points to how technologically driven the field of ad ops is, and you talked about that. How you're so close to the code, and small changes have big impacts. I would love for you to talk a little bit about, any advice you have for somebody who's thinking of entering ad ops today, or maybe somebody who's already in the field, but is just getting started. What are some of the skills that they should they think about developing if they want to advance?

Michael: I don't think you have to be technical to be in this field, and there's are a lot of people who aren't. I usually say I'm ad tech, as opposed to ad ops, because I kind of straddle that line. But, I think anybody who has the ability to question, and look at data, to run a lot of reports and look at that data, and be able to pull a story out, I think that is a great candidate for somebody who wants to be in ad ops. The ability to say, what is your unfilled rate? What's your filled rate? Why did your CPM jump? Why did your CPM drop? Where did it drop?

Michael: You may be able to look at one set of data, and kind of say, my CPMs dropped, but there's also the other part of it of, well, why? So, you don't have to be able to look at the code necessarily. You can run the report and say, well, the client is AdEx. Well then let me look at my AdEx set up, or let me talk to my engine years about AdEx. I think the ability to trace through is super, super important.

Kathleen: So, I guess the corollary to my question that I just asked, is given that so many people do go into ad ops, and by definition, you don't have a background in ad ops when you're just getting started, because there isn't a degree. There isn't a university that's teaching it. So, most first time hires do have other backgrounds, whether it's development or project management. I interviewed somebody who was a professional flute player at one point. So, in terms of managing those people and providing them opportunities to learn those things, and also mentoring and cultivating people in the most effective ways possible. What are your thoughts around that?

Michael: I've worked with a lot of musicians, as you know, you mentioned flute player. I worked with a guitarist. I've worked with some singers. I think because music and math and kind of analytics kind of go together, that you do see a lot of people in the music field in this industry. So, I think it depends on the kind of the type of role in ad ops, but that's not really answering your question.

Kathleen: Managing and mentoring somebody who's just entering the field. I guess in my mind, it's like a combination of, how do you expose them to the right kind of work, where they can learn those skills? Essentially the thread that I've learned from interviewing so many people like you is, is the most essential skill is curiosity, right? It's like being a dog with a bone when you don't understand how something works, or why something's happening and chasing it down and figuring out the answer. How do you, as a manager, nurture that kind of skill in someone?

Michael: You show them what the problem is. Going back to that, the previous example that, hey, the CPMs dropped. How would you go about it and see how they would pull the reports, or if they would even pull the reports. Show them how to pull what reports needed to be pulled. This is where you go back to technology and product. A lot of the times you can't answer the question, because the data's not there. Then it's, how do you get the data there? So, showing the person how to follow that path. Then, is there a solve for it that's available? If it's not, show that person how to escalate that in order to solve that problem in the future, or fix that problem in the future.

Kathleen: Got it. All right. Let's now kind of shift focus, because you went from these bigger environments to these smaller environment environments. Now you're really small because you're doing consulting work, in that sense. You don't have a huge company, or a big team. So, that gives you, I would think, different insights into the publishing world, but it also changes the nature of the game. I'd just love to hear what your experience has been making that shift.

Michael: It's interesting now. The black owned businesses have been booming. Companies want to invest in these black owned businesses, and I've just seen a huge jump. I'm doing a lot of work for Ebony right now. They were a 75 year old brand that had gone from bankruptcy, and then somebody bought them out. Now all these companies, when they think of black owned business, they think of Ebony, and they want to invest and they want to work with them and they don't have the infrastructure. It's been a ride coming into a small company that doesn't have a whole lot, and kind of rebuilding that infrastructure. It's been fun.

Kathleen: That's so interesting. How do you approach that? Because, I would guess, that it's not just building infrastructure, it's doing it really quickly. Because, if you want to be able to satisfy that demand, you have to be able to stand up, almost a new tech stack in a very short amount of time. Is there also hiring involved in that? I don't really know the answer, but I'd be curious.

Michael: Well, I bring my own tech stack. I had formed a company that focused on the tech stack, because I think so many companies work with these concierge companies. The AdThrive and Freestar's of the world that will come in, and they'll do all the ad ops and all that stuff for you. They do take a percentage of that revenue, and a lot of times that percentage is fairly meaningful. So, for a company like Ebony, they chose not to go that route. I think that's awesome. This is where I can come in and help, and bring software that will help them get set up immediately. They don't have to pay a lot of money for it.

Michael: Because, the other problem with any of this ad tech stuff, if you do it on your own it's expensive. You need at least two or three engineers. You can hire one, but everything about ad tech is about speed, and if you can't implement quick enough, you lose money. So, the faster that you're able to implement the better. The people who focus on these, these kind of ad concierge, that's all they do.

Michael: I was working for Billboard and Hollywood Reporter. I had come in, and they were trying to do it on their own. They were struggling, because engineers don't necessarily know ad tech, and ad ops doesn't necessarily know engineering, and this is a pretty common problem in the industry. Everybody thinks they can do it themselves, and in some ways they can, but they could probably do it a lot better.

Kathleen: It is interesting how technically complex it has gotten, and I wonder if there isn't going to be a disruption sometime in the near future where someone innovates and finds a way to make it easier to implement, or bundles things in a way, that makes it easier for somebody who doesn't have an incredibly complex background to implement.

Michael: That's what I'm trying to do.

Kathleen: Aha. I love it. So, in coming into a place like Ebony, are you also having to hire? How are you approaching the human resource aspect of the challenge you're facing?

Michael: I think digital takes a lot of people. Hiring is something that they're absolutely doing, and they're absolutely trying to do. I think the first part of it is, understanding your business, measure your business and make the appropriate hires needed. Because, sometimes, the squeakiest wheel gets the grease, and that may not necessarily be the right hire. I've been helping or suggesting different types of roles for them to bring in. If you are interested in working for a great company, reach out to Ebony, because they are hiring.

Kathleen: So, when you think about a company like Ebony, and what we don't need to make it about them, but a company in their situation. Where they're trying to scale up quickly and really almost start fresh. What are the types of roles that you think are important to hire first?

Michael: The 75 year old startup. Project management's huge. They're really good at the sales aspect of it. That whole kind of order management system, if you don't have that in place, you really need this project management, this account manager, to usher the campaign, to talk about tags and first party versus third party billing. Just some of the basics, and if you don't know kind of how digital works, and not all sales people understand every aspect of ad ops, nor should they, to have somebody to be that bridge, I think is, is really where we're trying to hire up right now for that.

Kathleen: That makes sense. All right, different question, because we touched upon this a little bit when we first spoke, and I'd love to get your opinion and be able to share it with everyone. There's a lot of change happening in the ad ops ad tech world, and a lot of it is fueled by this incredible influx of venture capital in the last few years. What is your outlook on how that is changing the industry? How the industry will evolve as a result of it? What do you see in the future?

Michael: Great question. So, this industry's been tough. I don't feel like I'm that old, but I feel like I'm among the older people.

Kathleen: Has it aged you?

Michael: It has. Part of it's just the fact of this job stability, because there has been so much money that's been pumped into this industry. For example, in my career, I left Federated Media because it was getting sold. I went to Blogher. Six months later, it was bought by SHE Media. I went to This Old House, they put in new management. I made the change to leave to go back to consulting. I then went to Billboard, who was then bought by Penske, who now owns SHE Media and now owns Billboard and the Hollywood Reporter, and that was all in six or eight months.

Michael: So, there's just been so much merging. I just feel like, anywhere I go. Part of why I moved to consulting is this concept of like the gig economy. They want to be able to hire and bring in somebody who has a lot of experience, but they may not necessarily be able to afford that person, or want to afford that person. So, by offering consulting services to medium size publishers, and be able provide your experience, you win, because you get a little more flexibility. They win, because they can get some expertise and not necessarily have to pay a full salary or wage for that. Not everybody can do this, but that's kind of where where I chose to be in my career.

Kathleen: Yeah. It's pretty fascinating to me that, because of the exact dynamic you mentioned with all of this M&A, that in addition to curiosity, one of the skills, it seems to me, it would be really helpful in a career in ad ops is just a level of comfort and a willingness to embrace change. Because, there is so much change happening so quickly, and if you're somebody for whom that is an uncomfortable thing, I really think you would have a hard time in this kind of an environment.

Michael: When I worked in banking, a new person had been there for 10 years and you were still considered new. This digital industry, if you've been at a company for two years, they're like, wow, why you still there? That's a long time. That mindset is just much different then banking.

Kathleen: Yeah. It's crazy how much it's changed. For a long time, I feel, ad ops was seen as, not a traditional industry, but one that wasn't at the forefront or innovating. That has, I think come full circle with the technological change, the regulatory changes, the platform changes, the M&A, the VC. There's so much happening right now. It's an exciting, but for some people, I'm sure it's a nerve-wracking time to be in the industry.

Michael: Yeah. There's always a lot of change in this industry, especially if you're smaller or medium sized. I think, because it takes so many people it could be very costly. A Lot of people went from the transition to magazine to digital, and they weren't making as much money and they had to either downsize, or kind of restructure. Then, you also at these companies that start out digitally that are, are in much better shape, because they're kind of leaner and meaner.

Michael: There's also the software that's also adding to this tax. The publisher needs to install Moat. The agency needs to install Moat. There's all these things and services, you need [inaudible 00:27:54], MS, maybe you need Salesforce. Maybe, you need something to reconcile all third party software, like a stack. Maybe, you need an ad gesture for direct data. That gets quite expensive very quickly, and if you are a small publisher, that's hard to afford.

Kathleen: Yeah, definitely. Well, it is a fascinating time, and I think you're, you're positioned at a really interesting place within the industry to be able to have that of perspective working with so many different publishers. I used to do a lot of consulting and I always enjoyed it, because it was a great way to learn really fast by cross pollinating different experiences. So, very cool to hear your story.

Kathleen: There's two questions I love asking all my guests, and I want to make sure I get these in before we wrap up. The first is, as we've been talking about, the theme of this whole episode, I think has been change, and there is so much going on. So, how do you personally stay on top of it all? Do you have certain sources you rely on to stay educated about what's happening in the industry, or the things that are influencing it?

Michael: I read the Prebid documentation like a hawk, so anything I know that is coming up and changing. Prebid is kind of the open source wrapper that handles the option of bidding, I'm sure everybody on this that is listening knows that, but any little change, any little piece of data. If you can pass in to make more money or putting floors in, they are making all these types of changes, and watching that and looking at that, and making changes to your ad wrapper to test the new features and functionalities to take advantage. Because, you want to be first to try to get that revenue gain and help the publishers. So, absolutely spend a lot of time on that Prebid documentation.

Kathleen: Obviously I'm interviewing people who have, or are currently leading ad ops teams. Who out there do you think is really doing great work and should be our next guest?

Michael: I think there's a lot of people out there. The two names that come to mind is, for me, is Sandra Baez, has she been on the show? I don't think she has.

Kathleen: Not yet.

Michael: She is a long, long time veteran. She's somebody that you want to work with. She's very bubbly. She's got this awesome personality, and she can come in and kind of set up and manage and organize a team. She is somebody I'd love to bring into organization and work with.

Michael: On the complete flip side, Jeremy Zimmerman. So, Jeremy, is somebody who's more that analytics person. He's looking at the ad call saying, hey, I'm not sure you encoded this right, and then he'll throw that off to the engineers and have them kind of chase down that rabbit hole. He's just very good at looking at it from a technical and analytical perspective, and he does the weeds and managing the programmatic and op stacks.

Kathleen: I love that. Two people on different ends of the ad ops spectrum. So Sandra and Jeremy, all right. Well, that brings us to the end of our time together. If someone wants to connect with you or learn more about the work you're doing, what's the best way for them to do that?

Michael: You can hit me up on LinkedIn or email me at Michael@Bendell.com.

Kathleen: Great. I will put those links in the show notes. And if you're listening, and you enjoyed this episode, please head to Apple podcasts and leave the podcast a review. To hear more interviews with leading 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 is it for this week. Thank you so much for joining me, Michael. This was a lot of fun.

Michael: I appreciate it. Thank you, Kathleen.

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