Ad Ops All Stars: Paul Bannister, CafeMedia

by Kathleen Booth, on May 12, 2021 9:30:00 AM

Paul BannisterPaul Bannister might not be an ad ops practitioner, but he's well known in the industry and has had a big influence on it. 

Over the past 15 years, Paul has worked his way up the career ladder at CafeMedia, and now serves as the company's Chief Strategy Officer. In that capacity, he has a unique perspective on the strategic role that ad ops plays within publishing organization, and how that role has evolved over time to keep pace with technological innovation, new regulations, and more.

Listen to or watch the full episode, or read the transcript below, to hear what Paul has to say about his own career as well as how CafeMedia is laying the groundwork for a profitable future.

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Kathleen: Welcome to the Ad Ops All-Stars podcast. I'm your host, Kathleen Booth. And today my guest is Paul Bannister, who is the Chief Strategy Officer at CafeMedia and a board member at the IAB Tech Lab. Welcome to the podcast, Paul.

Paul: Hi Kathleen. Thanks for having me.

Kathleen: I'm excited to talk to you. You're somebody who I think is really well known in the Ad Ops world. You've been in it a long time. You've worked in lots of different roles. You've taken leadership positions on a lot of things that are really crucial to the industry. So I can't wait to dig into it with you. But first I have a question that I ask all of my guests as a little bit of an icebreaker, but also because I think the answers are really interesting. And that is, if you had to describe what you do for a living to a five-year-old, how would you do that?

Paul: That's a really hard question. Well, so not quite a five-year-old, my eight-year-old sits outside, when he was doing hybrid school, which now he's back in full-time school, sits around the corner from me, so he would hear a lot of what I did and was very interested. So I'll think of how I would explain it to him and kids get that ads are part of the internet, whether they're watching a YouTube video, or if they're on Roblox, or some other game like that. And so I talked to them about how I make a lot of the ads work across different parts of the internet. So I think that's what I would tell a little kid.

Kathleen: Got it. It's so true, what you're saying too, because my youngest is 14 and he's always like, "Mom, I have to watch this many ads in order to unlock this new skin or this thing." And so they do have, interestingly, a really innate understanding of the trade off that ads represent. Which, I think before kids were so digitally native, I don't think that that existed. So, maybe it's getting easier to explain what Ad Ops is.

Paul: My 11-year-old is now understanding that even deeper, where he watches too much YouTube and he says, "We have to get ad for YouTube." And I'm like, "Oh, ads are important." whatever. And he's like, "I skip all the ads." Which means the creators that I like don't get paid. And I'm like, "That's a really good point." So I got to think about whether he should be watching the YouTube ads or we should be paying for YouTube Premium, we'll figure that out.

Kathleen: I mean, I'm impressed that he gets that nuanced part of the conversation. Well, I would love to just start out by talking about the progression of your career, because you've been with CafeMedia for a long time. And it's actually pretty unusual, I feel like in the world in general, for people to stay at a company for so long and also even in the Ad Ops space. And perhaps that's because Ad Ops itself has evolved so much just over time. But I'd love to hear about what were you doing when you first joined and how has your role at the company evolved over time?

Paul: Sure. So funny thing about me, I have never worked in Ad Ops. I have never managed the Ad Ops team directly. I have worked in lots of teams that touch Ad Ops a lot and really been very involved in components of it, but I've never actually done the job. Although, I'm moderately good at running GAM reports and probably could do some targeting, although my team would never let me do that. So I have worked in a lot of different roles, but even prior to my career here, I've spent pretty much my entire career in digital advertising.

I started a site in 1995 that was one of the earliest sites on the web to run ads, so I've been doing this for quite a long time. Back in the days when we were coding our own ad servers and trying to figure out how to count clicks and things like that, that are obvious and easy these days. I've worked in product and worked a lot on the content, CMS and components of product like that, as well as the ad parts. I've worked in engineering, not as an engineer, for a long time, but managing engineers and doing that.

I have actually run ad sales, for three years I did that and managed a whole team of sellers and sales development people and account managers and all that side of the business. And obviously with that, spent a lot of time with the Ad Ops team, talking about, what do we need to traffic and what the criteria are and whatever else. And then, more and more these days in a fast growing company, I spend my time fairly split between externally facing things, like working with a lot of our largest partners on new things going on in the industry and figuring out how we as a company can participate in those things and help push things forward.

And then also a lot of time internally trying to, as we grow, as new teams are created, as new functions are created, just think about how they can apply together more inside the company. And again, because we are an ad driven company, ads and Ad Ops is a huge piece of that, but I've always been touching different pieces. And that's, for me, why I've stayed with this company for so long. One, it's got a lot of great people and we're doing really cool things. But two, I've had the luck and privilege to be able to be involved in a lot of different things and I find that really interesting.

Kathleen: I think for that reason, you bring a really fascinating perspective. Because for this podcast, I definitely talk to a lot of people who are the Ad Ops team lead and they're in that very particular role. What I was interested in exploring with you is, as somebody who has sat in many different seats and who now sits in an important strategic seat for the company, how do you see Ad Ops as a function fitting into the overall business strategy of the company?

Paul: I mean, for us, ads are our business. We are diversifying into some other areas to help our publishers a little bit more in other places like SEO and email and other components of what they do. But for us, ads is everything. So in a funny way, our Ad Ops team is relatively small, it's only maybe three or four people, but our Revenue Ops team, which deals with all of our exchange partners and DSPs, when we work with them and things like that, that's eight or nine people. And then there's another 30 or 35 people that deal with stuff on sites, like more yield optimization and things like that, layouts. So in total, it's 50 people across a company of maybe one 175 that directly are dealing with ad related things every single day and all the different components of that. So, because it's such a large chunk of our company, those teams are very integrated with the product team, the engineering team, our communications team, and all kinds of other teams across the company. So it's very, very, very plugged into what we do.

Kathleen: What percent of the ads that you guys deal with are programmatic, is it 100?

Paul: Near 100. We do some amount of direct sold, but we try to do as much of that through PMPs and programmatic guaranteed and things like that. We do have a small amount that's direct sold, but nearly everything else is programmatic.

Kathleen: So talk to me about how these different teams work together, because one of the things that I've heard a lot from other folks that I've interviewed is that collaboration is definitely important, obviously. Especially if you did have a big sales team, for example, that would be a really important point of collaboration. But in your case, it's revenue operations and as you said, DSPs, all the different parties that you deal with, the exchanges, et cetera. And there can be some natural tension in there, I feel like, because Ad Ops, it does tend to catch a lot of the last minute fires that happen, et cetera. So I'd love to know your perspective on how do you set your team structures up? How do you manage the organization in a way to create good collaboration between all those different teams for the greater good of the company?

Paul: It's a good question. I think as we've been growing, we've been trying to build processes that standardize what we do in Ad Ops. I can think back to my days when I ran our sales team, I'm sure me and my team were a constant source of stress and just like, "There's this IO, it's the last minute. Oh my God, the targeting is all wrong, change this." All these last minute things that end up the Ad Ops problem and I can feel that pain. I think what we've tried to do is build more and more processes that make it so these things that happen that can be fire drills and can be real problems can turn into just more like a set of procedures where it's like, "Okay, we got a last minute problem, pull out..." We don't have a runbook per se, but, "pull out the way we do that." Boom, boom, boom, it gets done.

And we've really tried to really standardize and operationalize things to make it so, I won't say there are never fire drills, but to try to minimize them with pre-thinking and planning ahead. And when a new fire drill comes up, think about, can we turn this into something that won't be a fire drill next time? As well as a big thing we spent a ton of time on is access to data and reporting, because we find that so many fire drills and problems can be stopped if you have better information on the upfront and you can find problems before they turn into real emergencies. So, really spending a lot of time building out reports, building out alerts, building on automation, where we're like, "Okay, these eight sites are having a problem based on this data that we have, let's deal with that today." The day after it happened, rather than catching it a week later or something. So, trying to get more and more ahead of things by using data more smartly.

Kathleen: What is your tech stack look like to support that kind of reporting?

Paul: I don't know all the details. We use Snowflake primarily as the database and we use some amount of Amazon Athena as well, for where all the data gets stored. We also ingest all of the gamma logs, so we have all the gamma log data. We have a whole bunch of logging of our own, that all gets ingested into these Snowflake in Athena databases. And then we have some people who are just running SQL queries against that and doing fancy database stuff. But then we also use Looker and some other automated dashboarding systems to build out either dashboards or alerts and things. So, teams can, just like you login in the morning and you're like, "All right, here are my 10 things I need to deal with right now." You just know what's on your plate and that makes it more of an operation and less of a fire drill.

Kathleen: It's amazing how just the technology has advanced to enable us to automate so many of these things. And listening to you talk, what struck me is that the skillset, obviously we're all about Ad Ops on the podcast, and the skill set that somebody might've needed 10, 20 years ago to go into Ad Ops is so different than it is now. I would love to hear your perspective for someone considering a career in Ad Ops, what are the right skills? How technologically savvy do you need to be?

Paul: I think it helps, because a lot of the problems that come up are things that are some mix of analytics technology and operations and having some knowledge and capability in all three of those areas, I think really matters a lot. I agree with you, I think people who could have been great at Ad Ops 10 or 20 years ago, people can evolve and people can continue doing what they're doing, and that's really important. But I think people who stood still, I think today's world is too complicated and it's getting harder, I think.

But I think the technical side matters a lot. To be able to see what, and I'm going to mangle things, these are areas of not expertise, [inaudible 00:12:20] I know that your company deals with, being able to find them, isolate them, use logging tools to find information about them, tracking down what the problem is and then going to the source of the problem and saying, "We got to fix this and here's what the details are." That is no longer pushing buttons in GAM, that is a much more technical and analytical perspective.

Kathleen: So I always like to say that nobody grows up saying, "I'm going to be in Ad Ops." right? It's like, "I'm going to be a ballerina, or a doctor, or an Ad Ops person." It doesn't happen. And so, when you think about hiring, and there's also not a degree in this, when you think about hiring, and I know you're not running a team right now, but you know as much about this industry as anybody else, what would you look for in a candidate to join an Ad Ops team today?

Paul: I think this is true for almost any person I'd want to hire, I think curiosity is a huge just characteristic of somebody that I think is really important. And I think Ad Ops, because it is so much tracking things down and some amount of detective work and some amount of, again, analytical perspective. And people who are curious are going to more naturally not settle for what they think the answer is, and really dig down that rabbit hole and try to find really what's going on here and really, how do I fix this and really, how do I stop this from happening again? So I think curiosity is the most important thing, but I think that's true for almost any role.

It is advertising at the end of the day and I think having an understanding of the industry is important or at least an aptitude to understand that and understand the role of the advertiser, the role of agencies, how DSPs and SPs interact, why they operate that way, things like that. And I think understanding the industry is important, because again, it can help you think through either the challenges that you'll face on a regular basis, or think about opportunities, in terms of how to build things differently, or do things differently, or structure things in a way that makes more sense because of the way the industry at large works and understanding that's important too.

Kathleen: So you mentioned curiosity, and I would agree with that. That's something I look for when I hire too. I'm curious, do you have any tricks on how you measure for that in the hiring process?

Paul: It's hard. I like people who ask good questions. I like people who've done their research and come to an interview really prepared and knowing the company and having read, for us, all of our blog posts and all of our things we put on social media and things like that and understand what we're doing and have a sense of that. And when they've looked at those things, that they come up with smart questions, I think that's a really good sign. Because, curiosity is looking at lots of stuff and asking lots of questions and not being satisfied with the answers. And again, the satisfaction thing is hard to get out of an interview, but somebody who can distill a lot of information down and ask good questions, I think is important.

Kathleen: Yeah, that's definitely true. So, you sit in an interesting role, as we said in the beginning, Chief Strategy Officer, what does your day-to-day look like?

Paul: It changes a lot, which is great for me, I get bored if I do the same thing for too long. It depends a lot on what's going on. The last year and the next year, a lot of my time is focused on all these changes going on in the industry with respect to the end of third party cookies in Chrome, and the move towards privacy in general, and how those macro trends are impacting the industry, and then how they are impacting our company and our publishers, and trying to think those things through. So, it is a lot of time in discussions in the W3C, and the IAB Tech Lab, and other organizations, as well as with a lot of our big partners and big advertisers, understanding what they're thinking about and how do we get ahead of these changes?

So, a lot of my time these days is actually working on that, which is super interesting and I find really cool. And then, I've also been trying to turn more of the information that I've learned into content for other people, because I think that's really important to spread information around the industry. Because I think as an industry, the more we all know and the better informed we are, the better we can all operate and better we can work together on the future. So I think that's really important. So, I do a fair amount of writing and for internal purposes, as well as for external purposes and trying to, again, turn that information into something other people can digest and hopefully find useful.

Kathleen: That's great. Now you did mention the cookie apocalypse. So I have to ask what are you doing to be prepared for it?

Paul: So, we have what we call the four pillar approach. And so there's four different things we're working on. The first is industry engagement and that is working in the W3C and the IAB Tech Lab, and Prebid, and PRAM, and these organizations that are defining the way things are going in the future. And part of that is to understand what those changes are going to be. And part of that is to influence what those changes are going to be. And the W3C is a good example, myself and Don on our team spend a lot of time in the discussions and spend a lot of time actually putting tickets in on GitHub and talking with the Chrome engineers. And that helps us understand what's going on and hopefully helps us push those things in a good direction.

So first is industry. The second is what we call identity, which is about capturing emails, primarily across our properties, primarily via email newsletters, although doing lots of other things as well, and trying to help our publishers build deeper relationships with their audiences. Which is great, because that's an important thing to do anyway, but also great because as we all know, those emails can be used for new technologies like [Liferay 00:18:28] of [ATS 00:18:28] and Trade Desk UID2, as well as clean room technologies and figuring how to plug into those as well. So that's the second track, is email capture and usage things.

The third is what we call first party data, which is really accelerating what we've already done a lot of work on with our contextual targeting systems and user targeting systems. And as third-party, cross-site tracking goes away, how do we take more and more of those capabilities internally and make it so we can provide more targeting information for advertisers ourselves. So building out those systems, and obviously those two of identity and data are very tied to each other. And the third thing is sales. We're growing our sales team significantly because we think that one of the outcomes here is that some buyers will move more back to direct to publisher and out of programmatic. And we want our sales team to be staffed up and have great capabilities and be there to really work with advertisers in a deeper way as we go forward. So those are our four pillars, which generally overlap with what I hear a lot of other people talking about. We just have to create buckets and a framework around them.

Kathleen: That's really interesting. So if you are preparing to expand the role of sales within the organization, is that also going to have an effect on how your Ad Ops team is structured?

Paul: I think so. Although I think, again, we're trying to build things to be scalable and operational and spending a lot of... So, part of our track with growing our sales team is more people and a better pitch deck and things like that. But part of it is better capabilities. So spending a lot of time these days with our product team, really coming up with new capabilities we can build, whether they are new units, or new delivery styles, or data targeting and things like that, to build those capabilities and do it in ways that is scalable in the future.


There's always going to be some amount of custom work that needs to be done, but trying to think ahead and create things. Because, while advertisers do want... We make the joke that advertisers always want never been done before, but with proven results. And that's true, but a lot of times advertisers also want scale, and efficiency, and reach, and things like that and they just want things to work. So they're interest in those sorts of things are very aligned with ours. So it's like, how do we build these things in ways that are scalable for us and for the buyer?

Kathleen: Now, I was interested that you mentioned newsletters because I also, I think it was yesterday, there was a little news article that came out about Flipboard shifting its focus to newsletters as well. And hearing you mention it, I'm wondering if you see newsletters really having a resurgence within the publishing world as a new area of focus because of the control you're able to have over your own audience with them?

Paul: Yeah. So the Flipboard news was interesting and I have to read it a little bit more, because for them, it seems like they feel confident they can sell lots of sponsorships into newsletters. And that sounds great and it could work for some people. It isn't our core focus, at least at first. We think newsletters are a great way to re-engage with users, because if a user signs up on a site, that means that they're interested in what that site has to offer. And a newsletter is a great way to bring them new content and new information and keep a touch point with that person and get them to come back over time. So for us, in the beginning at least, newsletters are more about driving engagement than they are about necessarily monetizing them. But I think monetization could come later as we figure out more and more about, can you do that in a way that can work with driving engagement and also make it a valuable source of revenue for publishers?

Kathleen: Yeah, it's going to be interesting because I do feel like newsletters are a great tool for helping to build a habit amongst an audience and then reinforcing that habit. But it's so interesting to see how many newsletter first media businesses have scaled in recent years, like Morning Brew and The Hustle, et cetera. And so I feel like there's this convergence happening, and it's only being further reinforced by what's going on with cookies. So, only time will tell.

Paul: Exactly. Exactly.

Kathleen: So shifting gears a little bit, what would you say, and maybe we just answered this question, but what are the biggest challenges that you personally face in your job?

Paul: A lot of what we just talked about. It's so complicated and there's so much going on and how do you keep on top of everything? And some days you feel like you're winning the, I don't say battle because I don't go to battle, but winning the day and other days you're like, "Oh, we didn't win today."

Kathleen: I just want to keep my nose above water, right?

Paul: Exactly, yeah. Yeah. So it is this constant back and forth and change. As we're all running our businesses and doing what we need to do today, how are we looking forward and trying to reposition ourselves to be in a good place for where we think things are going to end up?

Kathleen: How do you personally try to overcome that challenge?

Paul: One benefit I have is, being senior within our company, when I feel like something isn't going right, I just get myself involved, which really sometimes isn't what everybody wants, but hopefully is usually a force for good. But just running a little bit like, if you see something, say something sort of mentality. Try to find the problems, try to find future issues and try to get ahead of them and where it makes sense, get involved and try to fix those things.

So for me, whenever I turn around and I'm like, "Oh, that didn't work out the way I wanted. That was a bad outcome." For me, the pro and the con is, it's on me, I should have fixed that or I should have done a better job and it's like, "Okay, then I can learn from that." And I can say, "Okay, how do I do a better job tomorrow?" And just come in and be re-energized for what the next challenge is. I definitely like solving problems and most of the time I feel like I solve problems the right way, but when you don't, you just have to learn from it and pick your head back up again and get back in the game.

Kathleen: Amen. So if you could turn back time and give your younger self any advice when you were first entering the industry, what would that advice be?

Paul: It was so long ago. That's a hard, hard question. This is a little bit of a diversion from your question, although not that much, I'm naturally an introvert and it took me a long time to come out of my shell. And I think if I could have gone back and shook myself and been like, "You're going to come out of your shell sooner or later, you should work on it sooner." I think that would have been good for me. So for me, it's less a about a business thing, or a technology thing, or some other thing and it's more about one of the most important ways to advance in any business is to collaborate and to talk to people and share things and learn things. And if you don't get out into the world, it's hard to do that. So I think that that, for me is something that it took me a while to get there. But now I feel like it's so beneficial to have conversations with people and learn from other people.

Kathleen: Yeah, that really resonates with me personally. I've always described myself as an introvert who's really good at faking being an extrovert. People are shocked when I say that I'm an introvert, because I host podcasts and do public speaking. And I'm like, "Yeah, but that's not what it means to be an introvert."

Paul: Exactly.

Kathleen: No, it's about what gives you energy and where you draw your energy from and sometimes I really like being by myself, but you've got to push yourself.

Paul: 100%. Yep, yep, 100%.

Kathleen: Yeah. Well, is there someone who's had a really big impact on your career?

Paul: It's a lot of people. I can't think of a single person to say. I feel like I try to be a sponge and try to just listen to people and take people's advice and thoughts and try to be thoughtful about things. So it's hard to say a single person, unfortunately.

Kathleen: No, that's good. If you have a really good support system and network. All right. Well, I always ask all my guests two questions at the end of every interview, so we've come to that time now. The first one is, and you have already sort of touched on this, but I want to dig a little bit deeper. The Ad Ops world is constantly evolving and recent days, it's never more true than now with all these crazy changes with cookies and privacy, et cetera. How do you and your team stay on top of all of this? Do you have particular sources of information that you really rely on to stay current and to educate yourself?

Paul: There's a lot. I mean, for me personally, for good or for bad, I spend a lot of time on Twitter and there is such a great community of people who are talking about all the things that we're talking about and care about them and mostly have good information. So I think if you get involved in that part of the world, and find the right people, and follow them, and engage with them, and figure out the ones who you should ignore, I think that's great, because it's really where a lot of the conversations are happening. And I follow and talk to a lot of the Chrome engineers who were working on the Privacy Sandbox on Twitter. And it's like, that's awesome because they're talking about the challenges they're facing and what they're doing and it's like that gives me really good information. So for me, a lot of it's that.

I'd say for us also, we really try to focus a lot on internal sharing within the company. Because we have a lot of people who are really engaged in lots of areas, like Patrick McCann on our team is on the board of Prebid. And so, I barely go to a Prebid meeting a couple of times a year, but he goes to every single one of them and he chairs parts of Prebid and so he has lots of information on the Prebid side of the world, which is great. So we have meetings internally where I'll share information from IAB Tech Lab, and Don will talk about things within W3C and Patrick we'll talk about Prebid and we'll share that within groups within the company, as well as on Slack and other places to try to information share, because no one person can understand all of it. So you've got to pick your area of expertise and then share the distilled version of your knowledge with as many people as you can.

Kathleen: It truly takes a village, right?

Paul: It totally does. Yeah.

Kathleen: You mentioned Twitter, I'm going to put you on the spot, any particular, top three to five people that you would suggest folks follow on Twitter that you think deliver a lot of value?

Paul: Great question. Looking through, so Aram Zucker-Scharff at the Washington Post, he's at Chronotope, is super smart and understands the Ad Tech industry really well and has a lot of good things to say. Ari Paparo, who's the CEO of Beeswax, although they were just acquired by FreeWheel. He's super smart and has lots of great things to say, although he's saying less now that he's owned by a big company, and I'm not sure whether that's because he's busy or because it's a big company. But he's great to follow. There is a professor at Boston University, this guy, Garrett Johnson, who does a lot of research about digital advertising and its impact and its effectiveness and things like that. He has lots of great things to say and lots of really good studies. So he's really interesting to follow. I'm just looking through my feed and there's so many smart people I could probably mention. I could probably just ramble 20 more names.

Kathleen: Is your profile public?

Paul: My profile is public, yep.

Kathleen: So then basically if you're listening and you want to know who to follow on Twitter, go look at Paul's profile, see who he's following and copy him.

Paul: And I only follow 400 people, which may be somewhat a lot, but not that terribly a lot.

Kathleen: No, that's not that bad.

Paul: I try probably be pretty curated in who I pick.

Kathleen: That's great. All right. Well, there you have it, you can build your Twitter list right off of Paul's. So my next question is sort of related to this, but narrowing down the focus more to the world of Ad Ops and Ad Ops team leaders. I know you know a lot of people within the industry, who in the Ad Ops world do you think is doing really outstanding work and should be my next guest?

Paul: I think that the team at Meredith is really smart. And I know some of the people over there. Nicole Lesko, who's the head of the team, is super smart and doing great things. So I would say Nicole is a great choice.

Kathleen: All right, I love it. Well, this has been a ton of fun. I really appreciate you joining me and sharing just your experience throughout your career. It's really interesting the path you've taken. And I mean, obviously you play a major leadership role within the industry, so I love hearing your perspective, especially on some of these recent developments with cookies and privacy. Thank you, if you're listening, for joining me for this episode of the Ad Ops All-Stars podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, 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, you can head to And while you're there, check out our resource center and learn more about protecting your user experience and your revenue. That's it for this week. Thank you so much for joining me, Paul.

Paul: Thank you.

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