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Evolution of the Ad Ops Role: What You Need To Know In The Programmatic Era

Evolution the Ad Ops Role: What You Need To Know In The Programmatic Era

When Raef Godwin came to the PGA TOUR’s digital team in 2000, ad operations was such a simple role that it did not even necessitate the full-time attention of a single employee. In between managing fantasy gaming and other website duties, Godwin would take orders from clients and code a static piece of advertising creative into the webpage so it could be served to every single person who visited PGATOUR.com.

If only things were still that simple. Between managing client concerns and juggling many different technology vendors, today’s ad ops professionals have a wide array of responsibilities in a job that is only becoming more complex. Though Godwin remained the sole member of PGATOUR.com’s ad operations department all the way up until 2008, the team he oversees today as Vice President of Revenue Operations now has more than 20 full-time employees working on it, some of them in roles that didn’t even exist three years ago. He also obtained his IAB Digital Operations Certification in 2014 to stay competitive in the marketplace.

While ad operations might once have been fairly straightforward, the role has evolved into one that requires its practitioners not only to be technically savvy across numerous platforms but also to be capable of working directly with clients to ensure that their campaigns are meeting expectations. The only way for ad ops teams to succeed is to commit themselves to staying up to date with every one of the latest programmatic innovations and client-side anxieties.

“It’s akin to going from driving a prop plane to driving a modern jet,” Godwin said. “Effectively, you’re still doing the same thing. The pilot is still flying, and we’re still delivering advertising for our brand advertisers and our partners. But the complexities are night and day.”

One of the biggest things that has changed over the past few years is the amount of interaction there is between ad ops professionals and their clients. AOL Senior Manager of Video Client Services and Operations, Marina Scukina says that in the past, her clients were not really keeping track of the exact sites that their ads were running on. But now that clients have better technology and smarter tags at their disposal, this process is much more transparent, and it’s up to the ad ops team to make sure their employer is helping clients achieve their goals.

In order to do this, ad ops professionals need to be deeply familiar with their inventory and all of the different options they can use to traffic a given campaign. As an example, Scukina laid out a hypothetical scenario in which her sales team had sold a campaign to a brand with a certain set of targeting parameters to specific a content platform (i.e., News Channel X), but inventory reporting revealed to the ad ops team that AOL would not be able to place all of the inventory. In an instance such as this, the ad ops team needs be capable of reaching out to the client and asking to expand the parameters of the campaign. So, for example, instead of just targeting users within News Channel X’s technology section, ad ops could suggest running some ads on other high-performing sites that reach the desired target. Or they can use cookies to follow News Channel X’s readers to other properties. To make these kinds of changes, Scukina says ad ops teams need to learn how data is collected and utilized across the ad-tech ecosystem.

“Ad ops team members need to know everything the client knows and more,” Scukina, who also is IAB Digital Ad Operations Certified, said. “Sales teams are really good at telling the story to the client and making a picture of what the client would like to achieve. On the ad ops side, we need to understand how we will actually do that using our technology and the data tools that we have.”

Speaking of technology and data tools, today’s ad ops professionals need to be able to work with a bunch of them. While Godwin only needed to know a little bit of code when he first started in ad ops, he says that the people in his department today need to be capable of working with roughly 20 different data management, yield optimization, and performance measurement vendors. Members of his team are responsible for vetting and integrating these partners, as well as for working with them after installation on things like new software releases and platform customizations.

This technology mastery has become even more important as advertisers have increasingly pushed for viewable and fraud-free inventory, making it essential for ad ops teams to understand how viewability and invalid traffic are measured. And in addition to connecting all of these different tools to a publisher’s own system, ad ops must also ensure that their various partners are integrated smoothly with one another.

“There’s nothing that’s just, like, out of the box. You don’t just go and say, ‘Yep, okay, we’ve got that,’ plug it in and then it’s up and running,” Godwin said. “If you’re looking for easy, ad ops is the wrong place to be.”

Given the diverse skillset needed to handle the job, it can be difficult for companies to find qualified candidates to fill their ad ops positions. After all, as Godwin put it, “nobody majors in ad ops in college.”

One way prospective hires can prove they have what it takes is by acquiring IAB Digital Ad Operations Certification, the industry’s only accredited program that requires participants to pass an exam covering all of the latest ad formats, metrics and technology tools ad ops practitioners need to work with. The exam is open to all industry professionals with at least two years of digital ad ops experience.

Thus far, everyone at PGATOUR.com who’s eligible for the program has become IAB Certified. In addition to using certification as a means of evaluating new hires, Godwin says it has come in handy when members of the ad ops team have interacted with outside sales teams, clients and creative agencies. By including proof of certification in their email signatures, PGATOUR.com’s ad ops professionals have been able to assure their partners that they know what they’re talking about.

For Scukina, going through the certification program also provided the added benefit of contextualizing the ad ops knowledge and experience she has picked up over the years.

“I’ve been at AOL for almost five years now, and sometimes I wonder if ad ops teams at other companies might do something differently,” Scukina said.  “During the IAB Certification exam prep, it was kind of like, ‘We’re all doing the same things, we all have the same confusions and we all need to learn the same standards.’”

Of course, these standards will only become more complex in the years to come, as publishers continue implementing emerging formats like connected televisions and begin adopting new ones like virtual reality.

Indeed, with all the changes that have come to ad ops during Godwin’s sixteen years at the PGA TOUR there’s no telling what could be on the horizon over the next decade and a half.

“Every time you think you have something figured out in digital, there’s a brand new thing,” Godwin said. “It’s insane that there was a day when someone would say, ‘How did our ads do?’ and you would just send them a number based on pageviews, and they would send you a check.”

Info Session: Digital Ad Operations Certification -12/1/15
Learn more about IAB Digital Ad Operations Certification and Training