Ad Ops All Stars: Ryan Nathanson, SHE Media
by Kathleen Booth, on Sep 22, 2021 9:00:00 AM
How do you go from working in ad operations to serving as Chief Operating Officer for a major media brand?
This week on Ad Ops All Stars, SHE Media Chief Operating Officer Ryan Nathanson talks about his career journey, and how he transitioned from working in ad sales, operations and yield, to COO for first Salon Media Group, and now SHE Media.
Listen to or watch the full episode, or read the transcript below, to learn more about Ryan's story.
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Kathleen: Welcome to the Ad Ops All Stars podcast. I'm your host, Kathleen Booth. And today my guest is Ryan Nathanson, who is the chief operating officer of SHE Media. Welcome to the podcast, Ryan.
Ryan: Hi, thanks. Thanks for having me.
Kathleen: Yeah. I'm excited to talk with you. You have a long and really impressive career in advertising and ad ops. But before we start, I always ask my guests a quick icebreaker question. And so I want to start with that and we'll see what you have to say, which is if you had to explain what you do for a living to a five-year-old, how would you do it?
Ryan: I put the ads that they click the skip now button on, on YouTube. That's me. I'm the reason that the skip button exists.
Kathleen: I liked that you centered it on YouTube in your answer, because having that-
Ryan: That's what five-year-old are spending their time-
Kathleen: I was going to say having had several kids, they watch more YouTube than they do TV. So that was a really good way to do it. I liked that. All right. Well, so now let's go back to kind of what I started with, which is you've had this really, to me really impressive career. I looked through your LinkedIn profile and it's an amazing list of companies and an equally amazing list of positions within those companies. I always like to say to my guests, nobody goes to college and gets a degree in ad-ops. How did you wind up in this field? Can you kind of go back in history and share how that started?
Ryan: Yeah, sure. So I don't think anyone lands in ad ops. I think for me, I didn't know what I wanted to do like many folks in college. And so I did the most basic thing, which is communications. Everything can stem off of a communications degree. And at the time they actually had a digital media path. It wasn't a degree, but it was a track. And that got me sort of understanding sort of journalism, written journalism, video journalism, and it tied well into sort of just a natural overall liking for technology. That's that was just kind of in my bones. And so I think after school, I combined my understanding of how people communicate, how society kind of communicates verbally and non-verbally with my interest in technology.
Ryan: And I just kind of wound up working on websites because it combines two, right. There's a technology component to it. And then there's an entire communication creative side to it. And I found myself in publishing because that's where at the time a lot of offline publishers were starting to realize they need to become online publishers. So I think that's kind of where it all started. And then as those publishers realized that they need to be able to make money off of their asset online, I was just along for the ride. I was kind of at the beginning with them. I was part of the web department, part of the communications department and started to learn the idea of monetizing a digital asset. And from there, it was just a mix of roles as the digital ecosystem evolved. And as online publishers figured out new ways to monetize, I was moving along with them from... to ad ops roles or ad product roles, mostly on the operation side, planning, pricing that kind of thing. And I lived through the expansion and I wouldn't say collapsed, but the aggregation of digital as it, so does every four or five years-
Kathleen: Right. I feel like everyone eventually says something is dead, right? X is dead. In the marketing world it's like email is dead. SMS has died, QR codes are dead, but then nothing ever really dies.
Ryan: Nothing ever really dies. And every five years it comes back as being new anyway. Right. Email and SMS, definitely not dead-
Kathleen: QR codes, the latest example of something being massively resurrected, thanks to COVID. QR codes have been around for over a decade and everybody thought they were definitely dead and then COVID happened and now we all know how to use them. So.
Ryan: Yeah, and SMS is hot right now, right?
Ryan: The whole idea of getting subscribers and their mobile phone numbers. So that's kind of where it started the intersection of communications and technology for me. And that's kind of led me to where I am.
Kathleen: So, talk a little bit about SHE Media and what it is and what it does for those who maybe aren't familiar.
Ryan: So, SHE Media is a publisher. We represent women's lifestyle, vertical of content. We have over 80 million unique. So we reach a wide range of females in the United States. And we communicate to that audience in many different content verticals, all kind of within the lifestyle range. We do so with our owned and operated properties, SheKnows, Stylecaster and Soaps. And we also do that through our events business. BlogHer is another owned and operated property, but it's also was known for its live events. It's now much more of a publisher on its own. And we also have a partner network. The partner network is really sort of our attempt at identifying the best of the independent web within the female sort of lifestyle category, reaching out to those publishers, bringing them together and helping them sort of figure out a business model and thrive and help them monetize. And we bring all of that to advertisers as way to generate revenue. And we're part of the PMC portfolio of brands.
Kathleen: Great. And the thing that I think fascinates me about your career and kind of what I'm excited to dig into a little bit more is you are now chief operating officer for the company. That's obviously a larger executive management role, but you started with these roots in ad operations. And there are definitely some skills. I think that, that come from ad operations that probably feed into what you do, but there's a whole other set of skills. And you mentioned some of them earlier, you had to learn along the way, like pricing and things like that. I think for a lot of people in ad ops, at least based on the conversations I've had, many recognize that there's kind of two options. You can either pursue ad-ops as your chosen discipline and take it to the highest level.
Kathleen: And that might entail going to larger publications and managing bigger teams or international teams, or you can branch out and go into other areas of media. I think what you've done is so interesting to me because it requires really quite a broad set of skills and what I want to understand is how did you gather those? Was it primarily learning on the job. Did you have a goal to get where you are. Where you mentored? How did you get to a place where somebody looked at you as the right candidate for chief operating officer having come from that background of a more operations ad ops kind of role?
Ryan: Yeah. So I would say, no, I didn't really have this as a goal. I certainly wasn't classically trained as an executive. I didn't go to business school or anything like that. These skills are something that I learned kind of on the job. I need to have variety. I don't like doing the same thing over and over again for years on end. So I think maybe one of the things I saw was I was interested and curious. I think that's what it was. I was curious about what that person did over there at the table next to me. And so I held many different roles within a digital media business. I had to execute those roles from individual contributor, all the way to managing a team.
Ryan: And so that's how I kind of gathered those skillsets. I understand the operations of a digital business because I actually had those roles. I actually did those things over the course of a year. So I have a... I would say a pretty good appreciation for what everyone is doing on any given day. And maybe that makes me a good candidate to help lead them. I think also just in general, because of how I came through in my career, the time in which I started and what I've seen. I went through a lot of transition from business to business. I was with a company that was bought three times over, within the span of three years. Things like that, acquisition and venture capital, and that's abundant in our industry and having 15 years of experience, you're going to experience some of that stuff.
Ryan: So one of the additional things that I would probably say as part of what makes me a good candidate, or what made me a good candidate... and I don't know if the person who said I was a good candidate, had good judgment or not, we'll see, is the human factor. I grew really deep appreciation for the idea of how people are motivated. How in some of the darkest times at some of these companies that I was with and by dark time I just mean uncertain times. How do you keep a team motivated? How do you motivate yourself to continue to do a really good job at what you're doing? And I had to kind of figure that out along the way, both again, as an individual contributor, but also leading a company through an acquisition from an operations perspective, how do you keep the trains running when there's a disruptor like that.
Ryan: And that the concept of disruption in digital media is constant, right? So if you apply sort of how you go through an acquisition to, well, there's disruption that occurs every day and you learn how to sort of have appreciation for what everyone does because you've done it, but also understand how to keep people together, how to keep people motivated and also how to find the efficiencies in what they do. So I think those are some of the things that make me slightly unique or what may be unique in the eyes of a PMC and SHE Media when I was brought on board here, and those are sort of the unique perspectives that got me there.
Kathleen: I have a bunch of questions. That's such a fascinating story. And I think you're right. It's so interesting thinking about when you started and what's happened in the industry since then. And also just by virtue of the companies that you joined, what you got to experience with acquisitions and that sort of thing. If somebody is getting into ad-ops now, though, and they are listening to this and thinking, my goal is someday to be COO of a media company, obviously there's elements of your story that you steered, and then there's elements of your story that was right place, right time, et cetera. But if you were to give advice to somebody who wanted to steer the whole journey, what advice would you give them to position themselves well, eventually for a role like the one you have now?
Ryan: Okay. So I started in ad ops. That's where I spend most of my time. That's where I cut my teeth. And I would say that the number one thing in ad ops as applicable to this journey is the project management element of it. You are receiving assets, you're scheduling things, you're keeping the trains running on time. You're checking for delivery, you're doing reporting. So you have sort of the analysis part of it. Take that concept of having to run all these campaigns and manage the organization of all these ad tags and the on schedule... Making sure things are on schedule, take that concept and apply it to everything else. The thing about operations in general, it's just about project management and expectation setting. That's what it is. And using analysis to set that expectation. using that analysis to make other people understand why the project timeline is what it is. Just like you and ad ops would take sort of what your current delivery is in order to get ahead of any under delivery with a client, or get ahead of any optimizations you're going to make with the client.
Ryan: You have data to tell you that to back you up. So it's probably the project management and the analytical piece of it. That will get you out certainly beyond ad ops into client services or project management. These are the people who are working directly with the clients and not just on delivering ad campaigns, but also maybe branded content, influencer campaigns, so on and so forth. The second element of it is to be curious, and to... Again, I think it's the human factor. You got to be able to talk to people. You have to be curious about what everyone else is doing. You have to fit that appreciation sort of into your project that you're managing and it's not about who you know. I believe this, it's not about who it's who knows you. That's the statement that I believe in.
Ryan: So it's about getting out there and talking to people and being involved in different groups. And again, it grows your appreciation for what those groups have to do for you as the project manager. And so you're going to start to be able to manage projects much better. You're going to be much more likable because of it. Your programs are going to run much more efficient because of it. And it just snowballs kind of from there.
Kathleen: So that's so interesting what you just said about "it's not who it's who knows you." I read something recently and it was an article about return to office plans for COVID. And it talked about how in particular younger professionals who are just starting out in their career are really kind of going to be hurt in the long run by working remotely, because... And I had never thought about this before, but because their ability to advance is connected so deeply with the professional networks that they build within their organizations. Obviously with outside as well, but within the organization, the peers, the mentors, the other leaders in the company that they get to know and make themselves visible in front of. I know a lot of media companies are still working remotely and have plans to do so either forever, because they've changed their model or through the end of the year, or what have you. Given what you said about, "It's who knows you." Do you have any advice for somebody around, especially in this remote work world, how you can make yourself more visible and form those connections more effectively?
Ryan: Yeah. So to two answers there, one of them is a lot of companies are at least on a hybrid model. The offices may be open. It's not a requirement for you to go in. And by all means I'm not saying go in, but if there are moments in which you are going in. And so as a manager for young employees, I never had an opportunity to be so close to senior staff members, especially in an empty office. Again, so if you had the opportunity to go into the office, you're comfortable with it, your leader is going to be in the office as well. There's no better time to sort of get one-on-one time with them. Even if you don't talk to them. You're the other person they see.
Ryan: It's hard to-
Kathleen: You're the only one.
Ryan: Yeah, it's hard to ignore the human being. So that's one. That's only applicable to, let's just say 20% of the people that are listening to this. The advice for the other folks. And I kind of learned this during COVID... Going back to one of the things I said that kind of gets you from ad ops to wherever you want to go is curiosity. Those that are curious are, those that are sending proactive emails with questions or sending through an idea, those types of questions and emails kind of break through the noise of the day to day, especially for me. There's a certain cadence and a certain conversation that happens every day, but things that are outside of that typical conversation that come through kind of make you stop. You notice it.
Ryan: So I think it's about being curious. It's not being afraid to send an email, slack or something. If you want to learn something or understand something or get guidance on it... Someone came to me a couple of weeks ago and asked me where they can learn more about a different department. And it took me all of two seconds to hook them up with the right person. I was happy to do it because I'd love to see people within the organization who are curious beyond their current role. But now I know who that person is. It's simple stuff like that. Yeah.
Kathleen: I think that can definitely seem intimidating for some people, but I agree that's a great way to make yourself more visible. And it's one of those things that's hard to teach. Like it's hard to teach people curiosity. It has to come from inside. And so it's definitely something... If you're listening and you're working on it, that's great. And if you're not working on it, maybe you should be, especially at a time like this when we're remote. I want to rewind back to something you said earlier, because you talked about how one of the most crucial skills for positioning yourself for a higher level role is project management. And in my head, I was like I'm bookmarking that because I remember there was a time early in my career where I was like everybody talks about project management, but what is it really like? So can you break down to you? I don't need you to define project management, but what aspects of it are those things that carry you through to a higher role, because it's such a nebulous term.
Ryan: One thing, one thing alone. It's your ability to set expectations, that's it. And when I say set expectations, I mean your ability to make everyone agree or feel okay about the expectation. And in order to do that, you have to set that expectation very differently with different people. It comes back to the human factor and understanding where someone is coming from, what message to send in order to set an expectation with party A, but the client is going to be very different than how you set the same expectation with your internal departments. Different vernacular, different vocabulary, different cadence of conversation, that sort of thing. So if you're able to set expectations, whether it's a good expectation of delivering something early or a bad expectation, these things are broken and we have to push it back. If you're able to set that expectation and make everybody understand sort of why that's being set and what the outcome is going to be and how it's going to be solved for, if you can do that, that's the thing that you could do in any role, I think that's a huge asset to any company.
Kathleen: And any advice for setting the, maybe not so great expectations because I know like early in my career, that was the thing that terrified me. I felt like I had to get everything exactly right. And it took me a while to learn that actually admitting something wasn't going as planned or that something didn't work is in some ways more powerful if you deliver that correctly. So I'm curious what, how you handle those situations.
Ryan: Well, first and foremost, I would say learn enough to not deliver bad news. And what I mean by that is if you become curious about how the thing that you're project managing gets put together, then you can get ahead of and understand many of the pitfalls that may occur in the future. So that makes you a really good project manager. It's just increasing the quality of the project itself, because you're curious, and you go beyond just managing a timeline that's number one. And you will reduce a lot of headache for everybody in doing that, but things happen. And they're oftentimes where you have to deliver bad news. It's really just about not taking anyone for fool. Don't give lip service when you're delivering bad news. It should be very straightforward.
Ryan: Here's where we are. Here's what happened. And here's what we're going to do. And here's what the outcome is going to be. Take the emotion out of it... Which is very hard to do, but take the emotion out of it. Also, when you're reading responses, try to take the emotion out of those response because it's not going to help you if you're reading emotional responses and trying to deal with that in your project management. To me, that's the way to deliver not so good news. It's just kind of very black and white, very straightforward, very unemotional, and also have a solution. And if you don't have a solution, it's what are you doing to get to a solution? And when are you going to provide a solution? Because sometimes you have to deliver the deliver bad news immediately. It's time-sensitive you may not have a solution. That's okay. Just say that you don't have one and you will have one in 24 hours-
Kathleen: By X time-
Ryan: Exactly. Again, expectations setting, it all comes down to expectation setting at the end of the day.
Kathleen: I love that. It's funny what you said about don't read emotion too. I interviewed somebody recently who said one of their biggest rules as a manager, when they talk to their team is don't read tone into-
Ryan: [crosstalk 00:23:14].
Kathleen: Slack messages, my emails, don't read tone. And I was Ooh, I'm going to write that one down because that's a good one.
Ryan: Yeah. Yeah.
Kathleen: And it's a good rule for yourself too. All right. Shifting gears a little bit. I want to kind of zoom out now and there's a lot happening in the world of programmatic advertising media. What do you see as the three biggest challenges facing media companies like She today?
Ryan: Well, I think I just have to mention first party data and cookies, just because it's out there.
Kathleen: If you didn't, everyone would wonder why.
Ryan: It'd be like "He's missing something." So in that regard, the biggest challenge isn't... I think the media is highlighting the wrong thing in regards to the death of the cookie. They're highlighting how are advertisers going to still make their investments efficient by putting the right ad in front of the right person? That's what they're talking about. If there's no cookies, how do we do that? Right. For me, I don't see it as a threat in being able to do that. I see it as this technology, the cookie, which we use to put the right ad in front of the right person is no longer scalable for the privacy focused world we're going into. So there has to be another technology that helps us do that.
Ryan: Another technology that is compliant to the privacy laws and policies today, but also flexible and scalable for the privacy policies and laws that are going to occur in the future. Very hard to do that with cookies. So number one, it's what is that technology going to be? SHE Media needs to be able to identify the technology. We need to be a part of the solution. We do represent a large portion of a particular audience. So we have to be investing in trying out solutions and providing the market feedback and that sort of thing. So it's what is the solution for putting the right ad in front of the right person? And then, the other is our own first party data, meaning what we know about the user and how can we use that to enrich the first part of that conversation. Not just the technology, but how do we also add value on top of it?
Ryan: And, we've been heavily invested in first party for a couple of years now, but it's becoming more and more tangible than ever. So I think that's the first challenge that we see. The second challenge is probably just diversity of ad investment from agencies. I think another hot topic has been how underserved communities within the world are, or are not receiving certain ad investments from agencies, black owned businesses, black owned media businesses. Just an example.
Ryan: I think that that is a real problem that needs to be solved. I think agencies are recognizing this as well. They've made commitments in terms of how much money they're going to be spending with those media outlets. And I think it's important for larger media companies like PMC or SHE Media to help do that. I think part of the problem is when you have an underdeveloped media business, you also lack the technology or the connections to receive the investments from the agencies in the first place. One of the reasons why they may not be getting the kind of investment that they should be is simply because of just lack of connection. So we want to help that. We want to help make sure that those connections are being made and that we're helping underserved sort of businesses create more equality.
Kathleen: How do you do that? What are some thoughts around how that could happen?
Ryan: I think it's about partnering with those businesses. We have our initiative Meaningful Marketplaces or MMP for short, where we go out, we identify publishers that fall within sort of the underserved communities and we help them monetize their web property. And we take the same monetization technology we use on SHE Media owned and operated sites and PMC sites and we effectively give it to them and by doing so, we're elevating their inventory. We're segmenting their inventory in a way that better maps to how agencies want to buy inventory in the first place. So it's making their inventory more valuable just through technology, but also more available in kind of one spot. It's very difficult for agencies to buy a hundred million dollars worth of inventory from underserved businesses on their own. It would take tens of thousands of different deals to do that.
Ryan: We're aggregating that inventory for the agencies, making the inventory available in means that fit their businesses and their execution styles. And in a way to go there.
Kathleen: I love that.
Ryan: I think the third is just the ever sort of expanding and collapsing opportunity of walled gardens and social media. I think it kind of ties back to the first part, which is the data aspect of what's what's going on. Having a solid first party data strategy, I think overall helps us and helps diversify their investment off of social platforms and walled gardens, if you will. And I think we're interested in continuing to help break that down and help make sort of audiences available across platforms and wherever they go. And again, I think that all ties back to the first party. So maybe the first issue is cookies, then it's diversity and investment as the second, and the third is first party data. That's kind of what I [crosstalk 00:30:15]
Kathleen: Sound like you hit on three of the big ones, for sure. All right. Well, we're coming to the end of our time. And so now I want to transition over into the two questions I like to ask at the end of every interview. The first is with... We've already sort of touched on it. There's so much change happening in the industry. And you said it earlier, the one thing that is constant in the advertising operations and media world is change. Right. So how do you personally stay up to date and keep abreast of all of this? Are there certain sources of information that you really rely on to keep yourself educated?
Ryan: Yeah, I think that the standard industry publications do a pretty good job at highlighting the topics. Again, they may be taking different angles in general, but if there was one piece of advice that I would give in terms of how you stay on top of something in addition to the standard trades advantage MediaPost or whatever would be to get really close with the vendors that you work with. So in ad ops, you're definitely working with a lot of different tech vendors. One of them is going to be Google probably. And so just stay close to their tech roadmaps.
Ryan: It's very revealing as to how they view how they view the world and sort of where they think the world is going. If you look at their sort of product roadmaps, subscribe to their customer newsletters, if you're not directly in touch with a vendor, because you don't manage that relationship, certainly ask your manager to be on those customer newsletters or if you can be a part of those conversations. And I think you get a lot of insight just from those connections. So vendors is probably one of the primary places to get the nitty gritty of what's going on.
Kathleen: That's great advice because they have to stay on top of a lot of it. And so let them do the work for you-
Ryan: Pretty much.
Kathleen: Make your life a little easier.
Kathleen: All right, next question is, this podcast obviously we profile folks who either currently are, or have in the past led ad ops teams who are doing really outstanding work. Anyone in particular that you think is a real all-star who we should make our next guest.
Ryan: Name names?
Kathleen: Yeah. Name names.
Ryan: So there's a few that I can think of that I've worked with very closely. We were kind of in the trenches together. The two names that come to mind are Joseph Portolese and Michael Bendell. For two very different reasons. Joe is a classical ad-ops kind of guy. He probably spent more time in ad ops than I than anyone I know. Just in that role. I think he would be able to really kind of dissect how you stand ad ops, how you manage a career within ad ops. I'm a good example of how you manage your career outside or how you leverage ad ops to manage your career outside of ad ops. [crosstalk 00:33:37].
Kathleen: This goes back to what we started with. You either stay in it or you're like "How am I going to branch out?"
Ryan: Perfect examples of stay in it, individual contributor to team manager to consultant. Right. I've had a lot of really good times working with Joe in that regard. And then Michael Bendell kind of very different. Not so much ad operations, but we'll call it ad tech. He led ad operations from a managerial perspective and you have to understand ad operations in order to kind of get into ad tech, but he was more, how do I scale that operations? How do I make ad operations, especially in the programmatic space, we're talking about programmatic guarantees and PMPs. How do I make that scalable for the team? How do I report on it? And so, from an industry evolution perspective, I think if he wasn't the one that's setting the table in terms of how technology grows with programmatic and how ad ops grows with programmatic, he certainly was in the conversation. And I find that he's got really great insight into how the technology supports stand ups and how ad ops can leverage certain technologies to increase their overall efficiency and their performance.
Kathleen: Those sound like two really good recommendations. And I love that they're so different in terms of their career evolutions and their trajectory. So good ones.
Kathleen: All right. Well, that brings us to the end of our time together. Thank you. If you're listening for joining me and Ryan 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 platform of your choice. And to hear more interviews with leading ad ops experts head to clean.io. And while you're there, check out our resource center to learn more about protecting your user experience and your revenue. Thanks for joining me this week, Ryan, this was a ton of fun.
Ryan: Thanks so much.