Ad Ops All Stars: Sarah Wagner, 10Up
by Kathleen Booth, on Jun 23, 2021 9:00:00 AM
Sarah Wagner's career has given her unique insights into the world of advertising operations.
From her early work as an ad ops strategist for ComicBook.com, to brand- and agency-side work at Envision Healthcare and Fusion92, to serving as Director of Programmatic for Tribune Publishing, she's gotten a 360 degree view of what it takes to effectively run advertising operations.
Today, Sarah is the Lead Revenue Strategist at 10Up, which makes websites and tools for content creators and publishers like Time, ESPN and Adobe.
In this week's episode of Ad Ops All Stars, Sarah shares what she's learned in each of those roles, how technology has changed the field of ad ops, and what future ad ops leaders should do now to build a successful career.
Listen to or watch the full episode, or read the transcript below, to hear Sarah's story.
Resources from this episode:
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Kathleen: Welcome to the Ad Ops All-Stars podcast. I am your host, Kathleen Booth and this week, my guest is Sarah Wagner, who is the lead revenue strategist at 10up. Welcome to the podcast, Sarah.
Sarah: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Kathleen: Yeah. I'm excited to have you. Your name came up when I asked another guest or two who I should talk to next. That's how I always love finding new people to speak with is just from other folks within the industry. So, I'm going to start by asking you the question that I tend to ask all of my guests, which is, if you had to describe your job to a five-year-old, how would you do it?
Sarah: Oh, man. Herding cats.
Kathleen: Herding cats, all right. So, let's talk about that.
Sarah: Sure. Yeah. I feel like ad ops is truly in one form or another you're project managing yourself, stakeholders, more technical partnerships with dev and maybe product teams and just constantly keeping on top of ongoing projects and ongoing changes in the industry. So, it really does feel like you're constantly trying to chase down, "Has this been done? Has this been updated? Wait, now we actually have to pivot and make this change instead of that change I said last time. Sorry about that." So, yeah. It does feel kind of like project management in its own way.
Kathleen: Yeah. Like you're a master juggler.
Kathleen: So, tell me a little bit about your career because you've worked for some interesting companies, some very, very large, some not as large. I'd love to hear the progression. I always say to people, when I do these interviews, it feels like nobody grows up saying I'm going to work in ad ops, right? It's not one of those, I want to be an astronaut kind of things. So, how did you wind up in ad ops and then what has your career progression looked like since you started?
Sarah: Yeah. It's been crazy. I feel like I've been ping-ponging all over the place. I actually started out, my background is chemistry and microbiology.
Kathleen: Oh my God, I love it. That is not what I expected you to say.
Sarah: Yeah. I actually wanted to get a PhD in environmental toxicology and I'd heard back from Texas A&M and they gave my stipend to another student and I was so crushed. I was like, "I can't be the one student coming into this program and paying my way." It's just so shameful in the sciences. You can't be working in a lab and be the one person without a stipend carrying you through. So, at the same time, my brother had just quit his job. He'd been doing the agency world UX in front end of had been at Microsoft and apple and he decided he wanted to start his own thing. And he asked me like, "Listen, I know you've been doing some marketing on the side for bands in the Nashville area," because that's where I live.
Sarah: That's where I grew up. You just kind of fall into music when you live in that city. So, I was really familiar with marketing. We didn't really consider it like this rigid marketing role. It was just like, "Hey, how do you get awareness out for these bands on these social media platforms that were starting to pop up?" This was like 2010, 2011, when Twitter was just becoming a thing. And things beyond Facebook were out there.
Kathleen: Isn't it crazy that that was only 10 years ago?
Sarah: It is. It's really wild to think of that. And the evolution of social media since then has been so wild. I remember when everyone thought like, was it Vine was going to take off?
Kathleen: Oh, yeah.
Sarah: Exactly. Yeah. And so, I decided, instead of pursuing a PhD, I was going to work with my brother and work with his team, which was just three developers. So, they were ex-Facebook, ex-Microsoft, ex-apple, like this insanely intimidating group of people that were so incredibly typing. And just taught me so much about marketing, not even coming from traditional marketing backgrounds, right? They were all kind of adjacent to marketing in their previous roles, but kind of the dev support for those teams. And that's when I learned paid and they're just like, "Figure it out, do it. Here's all the supporting documents you need. Just figure it out." This is how we learn. And we just took this app that they were working on Gravitus from beta to launch and I was there one marketing person.
Sarah: And from that, one of their marketing advisors on their board took me under her wing and I started working with her as a consultant. And one of the accounts I had with her was ComicBook.com. And that was kind of an incubator for CBS at the time. And I joined that team and that was my first ad ops role.
Sarah: So, yeah. That was 2016. So, yeah. It was weird going from brand side to pub side, but at the same time pretty seamless, I think. It was a really small team, right? And I think coming from a very scrappy environment where you just have four people heads down trying to figure things out every day, ad ops made a lot of sense. I had the skill set needed to kind of navigate like the, "Wait, what is header bidding? Wait, what is this documentation? We can try this. Okay, let's try this and fail. And let's figure this out. Let's figure out how to do it better." So, that was a really fun time for me, I think.
Kathleen: I love your story because it is so unusual, but I love just how you pivoted. And you talked about like you had the skills necessary to figure out ad ops, dig into that a little bit for me. And what are those skills? What was it within your background that you think is set you up for success?
Sarah: Sure. I think not being scared to fail and being totally okay to admit failure and to pick yourself up and try again, that's a constant thing in ad ops. And I think we're seeing it right now with the ID solutions and with FLOC and with just the Privacy Sandbox in general and the will it won't it kind of attitude and the, should we use hashed emails? Should we not? And everyone is on the fence, but when I was at Tribune, I think something that I really lean into with the team was, "Listen, this is the one thing that we can try and we can try. It's very low risk if we keep it in one's house environment and we can fail quickly if it doesn't work."
Sarah: If we don't test this and we can't prove out that it does or doesn't work for us, then we'll always wonder, was that a solution that we in isolation of, without having marketing help us out and figure out how do we pull out of an S3 bucket, the data that we need for maybe audience segments and Lotame. This is something that we can do pretty quickly without a lot of dev work.
Sarah: I think being willing to be curious is also a skill set that I learned from just working at a startup. You have to be curious, you have to always be coming to those stand-ups with new ideas, new ways to reach the audience that you're trying to gain traction with, right? I think that those two are really like the pillars of what makes a good ad ops, like coordinate their specialists or strategists or director all the way up to the top. It's an important skill set.
Kathleen: So, the two things being number one, sort of appetite for risk/willingness to try and fail and the second being curiosity.
Sarah: Yeah, definitely.
Kathleen: Yeah. It's interesting because we're what six, five or six episodes into the season and that theme has come up a lot. And so, it's definitely something. There's something to that curiosity thing. I think one of our guests said, they love the show, how stuff works. And that sort of was like symbolized it for me. The same kind of person who's like, "I want to figure out how really do they make hotdogs?" Or, "How is a ball-bearing made?" It's the same kind of person that's going to want to figure out all the things you talked about, like the ID stuff. And because that's the other thing that has struck me about ad ops is that there isn't a degree for it. There isn't a university for it. Everybody's kind of learning at the same time and having to figure it out.
Sarah: Yeah, exactly. I agree.
Kathleen: You talked about going from the brand side to the pub side and I'd love for you to share a little bit more about that because I don't think I've had anybody talk about that before on here. What were the big differences and were there particular challenges that you found difficult?
Sarah: Yes. I mean, it's so different. So, I've been since the CBS incubator, I was in traditional brands, like agencies, like Envision Healthcare. I've been at actual agencies, Fusion92 and now back at 10up. And I've been at a very traditional large publication Tribune, right? Which is now part of Alden's groups. So, their second largest group, and yeah-
Kathleen: Yeah. My local newspaper was part of that roll up. The Capital in Annapolis, we were owned by Tribune and just got folded into the Alden family.
Sarah: Yeah. I know MNG is, I saw somebody is down on their board at Tribune. So, well, wishing them all the best, but I've seen definitely a lot of different structures, a lot of different ways of doing things and a lot of different ways of thinking about media and just how the dollar flows and how they think about it, right? In house brand side. I think the idea is we need to protect our budget number one, right? So, I remember at Envision Healthcare, we would get direction mid year, "Hey, you need to spend X million of dollars in the next 30 days or we'll lose a budget. Quick, spend it, spend it, spend it. Spend it quickly." And then as a team, you're just trying to inject structure and just cover your own ass. Really just trying to make sure that everything is buttoned up as best you can while also spending the dollars as quickly as you can.
Sarah: And I really learned doing that. Okay, this is why so many in-house teams outsource. Because you can sign an IO in a week and be like, "Okay, we have a paper trail. We've committed spend of 1.5 million to this agency. So, please financial audit internally. When you're looking at my marketing budget, we've spent the money. You can't take it away from us next year." It's just such a crazy way of thinking about marketing. And I don't think it really fully breeds the creativity and the curiosity of like, how do we do this better? How do we iterate? Are we being thoughtful with what we're spending, where we're spending. Agency side, I think you do get that curiosity. You do get that meticulous thoughtfulness as well. Because you want to keep, you have to win that account every year, right?
Sarah: Every time renewal comes up, you have to convince them and convince their stakeholders, "Yes, we are the best option for you." So, you do see really buttoned up process, agency side. I think publisher side, you see, it's like a blend between the two, right? I mean, I think at Tribune, I think we had really good resources for the rev ops team. I think that it was a struggle with the moving targets of financial goals. But I have to say, comparing it to what we had at the very, very small team that was really just a CVS, not even an incubator at that point, just like a Sandbox environment for them to just play around with throw ideas over the fence and be like, "Hey, do something with this." We did have very good resources at Tribune compared to CVS. I mean, when I joined Comic Book, we didn't even have like a stack or BERT. We were pulling everything together in an Excel sheet.
Kathleen: Oh my gosh. And that wasn't long ago either.
Sarah: No, I know. But it's definitely, I mean, I've seen it before since then, right? Some publications just cannot justify the price tag of some of those vendors. So, we did have really good resources at Tribune and I was really grateful to get to touch so many tools. And also vendors treat you differently when you're out a large publication. Going back agency side again, I'm still publisher focused. So, it's very interesting to suddenly see like, "Oh, the way that your accounts are structured now, you're on an Alias again, like, oh, back to this, no more white glove service for us." But I think that everywhere you go, it's going to be a little bit different. And I think you see the differences that you'd expect dialing it up or dialing it down in scale, right? In the size of the, like, "How many impressions are you serving for a month?" Okay. Well, if it's on the billions versus millions a month, then you're probably going to get a lot more handholding just because you're making every vendor so much money that scale. So-
Kathleen: So, you talked about the evolution of how tech enabled the ad ops world has become and how especially at the higher end within the industry, the tech stacks are more complex. If somebody is starting out in the ad ops world or maybe they're at a smaller property and they don't have that kind of a tech stack yet, or they're looking to change jobs into a situation where that does exist. Can you talk a little bit about what, if you could rewind the clock, what you might do to prepare yourself to work in that sort of environment?
Sarah: Yeah. I mean, you're either paying for the product or you are the product, right? So, be the product. Build something out, really cool in Data Studio that solves the issues, right? We work with your developers so that they can inject the orders for you when you're setting up header bidding. Don't do everything yourself if you don't have to. Of course, that is dependent on like, do you have a developer even in-house who can just help you? Or are you paying a team hourly? Or do you have a retainer that's really, really limited. So, obviously there's give and take based on that structure. But typically a small publication you're going to have at least like one developer, one UX, right? One ad ops person. So, there are things that you can do, right? And that developer probably knows something about getting you initially set up in Data Studio hopefully.
Sarah: I also recommend just reach out to your network where you make friends with people like me and people like Catherine and Connie, who you... Connect with Rob Beeler and the Beeler.Tech group. Try and make connections who can kind of maybe back channel connect you with people at the vendors that you're trying to work with. At these asks the skis that maybe the Alias isn't being their response and maybe you can make a friend there. Things like that have helped me along the way. And I think if I could go back and we do it, yeah. I wouldn't get out of Excel. I definitely have automated a lot of that to save myself some time, which we did pretty quickly, right? But it was in the early days when I started there and it was just 50 of us at that publication before CBS that acquired us. We were just running pretty lean because we had to. We had to look good on paper.
Sarah: Yeah. I think that would be my biggest tip. Automate as much as you can and try and iterate quickly. Make sure you're doing the testing and you're trying to stay ahead of the curve as far as, is each header, SSP is each service side SSP actually providing value. How are you proving that, right? Focus on those things. Don't focus on the day-to-day reporting and fixing broken things like try and automate all of that if you can.
Kathleen: So, you've worked at such an amazing breadth of companies and company sizes. What's the largest ad ops team you've ever been a part of?
Sarah: The largest ad ops team. Surprisingly, they're all pretty small. I guess the largest team was probably at Fusion92 when I oversaw both the DCM and DFP side of the... So, I was really brand side and publisher side ad ops at that time. And that was a very fun thing to explain to vendors because they never knew when I was reaching out what I wanted. And there were even some times where we would try to find economies of scale across those two different areas of media which was really interesting and unique to get to see. But at that point I think I was a team. I had a layer of management reporting up to me. So, it was probably about four or five of us at the largest.
Kathleen: And were the teams, you mentioned most of the teams were small, is that because most of the teams that you've been a part of have been fully programmatic or have any been direct sales as well?
Sarah: So, at Fusion it was direct and programmatic, but brand side only. Direct reported up to me. So, I guess if you extended that out to programmatic, it was probably about six or seven of us and then of course at Tribune, it's huge, right? But at a large company like that or Envision Healthcare, you're just so siloed. So, I couldn't rightly say that I was a team of 60 because I couldn't see them. I didn't really interact with them. We were truly only focused on the large publications at Tribune or all in the same kind of like where we could find economies of scale, we centralize that and we would focus on that as a rev ops team. And it was really just as far into deal IDs where maybe there's a custom format that needed to be hosted in our ad server for the creative.
Sarah: But that was as close to direct as I got. And the rest was just header bidding, the server side and a little bit of tag based a little bit of hard coded, but that was pretty much it. So yeah, I would say probably like seven or eight people as the largest team, which is pretty small when you think about team sizes you find in other industries.
Kathleen: Well, especially in some of the companies that you've been a part of. So, when you were at a company like CBS or Tribune, talk to me about what the biggest challenges were that you kind of experienced day-to-day on the job.
Sarah: I think at Comic Book one of... So, to be clear, we had not yet been acquired by CBS when I was with them. So, it was VC driven. Trying to balance at that company, the desires of our VC team with what we knew as a rev ops team was the right thing to do. It was maybe a better move and better suited to our audience. That was very challenging and I was very grateful for my boss at the time, Brandon O'Neill who taught me so much about ad ops. He protected me a lot from that, but I could still see it. And it was just challenging and it was draining and we hit a really challenging quarter where we let go of internal sales and we let go of our sales consultant and inbound sales fell on me along with ad ops.
Sarah: So, that was really, really challenging. I learned so much about how agencies kind of communicate and function in the chaos there and like, "Oh, get this deliverable by end of day today. I know I only sent you this RFP four hours ago and it's going to take you probably like eight hours, but just give it done. We need it. Otherwise we won't spend on your site."
Kathleen: Did it gives you a different level of empathy for the sales teams that you work with?
Sarah: Yes. I don't want to say like, so some sales people that I've worked with have been a real challenge to understand and to work with just because of the anxiety-inducing, "Can you get it done yesterday?" Like, "No, I can't. I can't create time, I'm so sorry." And then after an hour, calls and just the, how did this mistake happen and the postmortems, but yeah, I get it. I think it helped me after that role going into management at Tribune. I really tried to teach my direct report Anisha that, "Listen, you have to see it from their point of view and you have to understand how stressful this job is and understand that if their commission is structured in a way where their salaries online for a mistake that we ended up making, that's why they get, that's why they react the way they do." But it's that, the best salespeople I think I've worked with are the ones that are incredibly attention to detail focused. And I've noticed in media, that's just so hard. There's so much that you can easily miss, right?
Kathleen: Yeah. That's interesting. And building that relationship with the sales team, I think that's another theme I've seen that coupled with this notion of burnout and stress, and I'm curious, how have you personally dealt with that over the years?
Sarah: Oh man. It's really hard. I think I've just learned that ad ops is always going to be kind of the grind, right? Definitely don't get into this industry if you aren't okay with 60 hour plus weeks in Q4. It's just never going to be quiet. And especially this Q4. What is going to happen? Are we going to wake up in 2022 and just see a race to Safari CPMs? We would joke about that at Tribune and have seriously like what is going to happen? But we'll see, right?
Kathleen: At least everybody's in the same boat, right?
Sarah: Well, yeah. But that could be a whole other podcast episode, Kathleen. I mean, I feel like the publications that have won the authenticated traffic race, they are so far ahead of everyone else, right?
Kathleen: Yeah. You make a great point because I do feel like it's this, like striation of the haves and the have-nots. Everyone has the same challenge in front of them, but not everybody is resourced to tackle it in the same way, which is very interesting.
Sarah: Oh, yeah. And you can't put out this call to action to your audience and be like, "Please help us out, give us your email address." We really have to sell this." They don't care. They don't understand the value. They don't see the value there to them. Yeah. I don't think, but going back to finding balance, I think just shutting off, I know at Tribune, I didn't have my work email on my personal phone and I think that really helped. Agency side it's different. You've just kind of have to lean into it, right? And you have to make alliances and over communicate with your team members how you're doing and it's fine, right? I think everyone needs a breather here and there. And especially women and men with children that I work with. Like this morning, somebody was like, "I have to go to a school showing it. At 10:00 AM, I'm just going to dip out." And you just give them air coverage. So, make friends with your teammates because they'll help you stay sane.
Kathleen: Yeah. Well you seem to have a real Zen attitude about it, which is amazing. Or you hide it really well.
Sarah: Yeah, I think that's good. I think I'd probably hide it pretty well.
Kathleen: Well, tell me a little bit about what you're doing at 10up, because this is a relatively new role. And so, what is the role? What's the company like? How big will the team be? Give me that little land.
Sarah: Sure. So, I am at 10up, actually working on an old account from Fusion92 that left shortly after I did. And now 10up has this account as AOR and really pleased to be working with that sales team. Again, I really do appreciate just having already a year and a half foundation of work with that team. So, we kind of hit the ground running again and we already have the cadence of communication down, but it's a different structure, right? It's a different agency. So, I'm working on that account and we're hoping to grow this team, it's called Accelera, It's within 10up. And right now it's very lean. It's just three of us on the rev ops team. And we also have an audience team and we have a massive dev team dedicated to WordPress.
Sarah: So, it's really a unique situation where I am at zero shortage of developers. There are so many developers honestly. Exactly. It's really exciting. And then the thing about dev resources though, is if you're not constantly exposed or if you're not excited or curious about ad tech dev as a developer, it's not necessarily like every developer here could go in and help me troubleshoot why SSPA and this header isn't working the way I expect it to work, right? So, there's definitely resourcing changes to come. I hope to support Accelera down the road, but it is really exciting.
Sarah: I mean, some of the accounts that I'm going to be exposed to down the line are some pretty big ones. And I'm really excited to get the opportunity to possibly do some consulting work with Accelera and grow a team here and learn from others. My boss, Katie, she came from the Atlantic. So, I know I'm going to get a chance to learn a lot from her and the person I go to for any HR support and help, his background is dev. So, it's just a really exciting team structure to join.
Kathleen: Well, that's great. Well, I feel like we're going to have a sequel where we check back in in like a year or two and see how everything's going.
Sarah: Yeah, definitely.
Kathleen: So, last question for this part of the segment, if you could rewind the clock and give your younger, just starting out in ad ops self, some advice, what would it be?
Sarah: Oh man, maybe you lean into data science so that you could be more useful when it comes to S3 buckets and data dumps and understanding how to pull and push data from different environments. Because I feel like with so much that you do in ad ops now, you need that, right? Even with something like, how do we get our first party data segments into Lotame or to Permutive? Oh, ask the data team. So, it would be really cool to have leaned into early on like more cross-functional roles. So, I think that's what I would go back and tell myself.
Kathleen: All right. So, we're going to shift gears then. And there's two questions I always ask at the end of the interviews. And I want to hear what you have to say on these, the first being, I mean, we've talked in this episode about how much ad ops has changed, is continuing to change, is changing right now based on regulatory changes, platform updates, et cetera. How do you personally stay on top of all of that? Are there certain resources or places that you go to educate yourself?
Sarah: Yeah, I am very curious, right? And I love meeting new people and I think those two things together led me to start a meetup with Catherine Beattie and Rob Beeler in Chicago. And that has really helped me stay in touch with what's going on, right? Especially when you're agency side. When you're in house pub, you learn and hear about the ongoing sense, the industry from your coworkers, from the consortium, right? There are just so many more checkpoints that you hit, but going agency side, you're a little bit removed from that. So, when I joined Fusion92, I think that was when I was really hungry for, and I'm so sad that they've kind of died down with COVID, but we're going to start getting them going again. And there's some plan for the summer in Chicago that I'm really excited about.
Sarah: That helps me a lot. And I think not being afraid to just ask stupid questions, like when you're on a call with an SSP and they throw out something and they're like, "As you probably know..." I'm like, "Actually I have no idea what that is. I don't know what you're talking about there." In writing things down and referencing things later and digging into them more on my own time. When things are mentioned, I'm curious about, a lot of it honestly, you had to research on your own. And I think that we do have the resources do that, right? I know Catherine Beattie mentioned, we're both in a lot of different slack workspaces, which helps us stay connected. We're also very involved in the AdMonsters community. So, speaking at conferences, going to conferences, you just have so much cross pollination of knowledge from different teams. I mean, you really learn a lot from participating in things like that.
Kathleen: Yeah. It's really an amazing community. I've very much come to appreciate that just through all of these conversations. It's really cool. Well, speaking of community, the other question is who in the ad ops world do you think is doing really outstanding work and should be our next guest?
Sarah: Yes. Okay. So, I think Keith Candiotti over at Optimera. He used to be New York Daily News. He is amazing doing very cool things with viewability flooring, with brand safety and with what he's calling Smart Refresh and he's been in-house pub and now he's vendor side. So, he has that very unique perspective as well. And he and I would lax on about just things changing in the industry. So, he's definitely not just a vendor who's going to help you with the things within scope of his product. He's there to support any new ideas, which is very cool. And I also think Lisa Reed over at Tribune, she actually used to report up to Catherine Beattie, but she was my counterpart while I was there. Yeah. So, she's director of ad product over at Tribune. She has been through so much. There's so many mergers. It's just so much M&A activity.
Kathleen: And now another one.
Sarah: I know. I mean, she started out at San Diego, right? As part of the LA pod and then joined Tribune that way and just ended up part of the central team. And she is so meticulous, so good at herding cats, right? And just seeing things through to the end and not dropping the ball. I really admire her. And I really admire just what a good communicator she is and what a good manager she is too.
Kathleen: Well, those sound like two really wonderful suggestions. So, thank you. I will definitely be following up with those two people. This was a lot of fun and I'm so glad that you came on and shared your story. If you're listening to this episode and you enjoyed it, of course, I would love it if you would head to Apple Podcasts or the platform of your choice to leave a review. And to hear more interviews with leading ad ops experts, you can head to clean.io and while you're there, check out our resource center to learn more about protecting your user experience and revenue. Thank you so much for joining me, Sarah. This was awesome. Loved your perspective.
Sarah: Thank you. This was fun.