As TikTok’s popularity rises, buyers say the ad team needs to grow to keep up

TikTok is looking to grow as media buyers say the app needs to expand its U.S. team to keep up with demand. The company is currently seeking candidates for at least 17 positions for its ads business: two brand strategists, two influencer campaign managers, an ad products specialist, an ad operations manager, a trust and safety policy manager, among others, in its U.S. headquarters of Los Angeles, as well as offices in New York, San Francisco and Mountain View, California, according to jobs listings on LinkedIn.  

The Bytedance-owned short-form video app launched in the U.S. in 2018 but its popularity has skyrocketed in recent months, drawing more big-name advertisers like Ralph Lauren and Chipotle, as well as a number of beauty companies like Eos, Too Faced and Elf to the app.

The allure of TikTok for advertisers isn’t just the potential to be among the first major advertising wave on the app, which has captured the attention of younger audiences, but the ability to run campaigns with sound as it is native to the way users watch content on the app, according to media buyers.

Buyers say the company is in a growth phase and that TikTok’s ad business now resembles early Snap Ads with low CPMs, a buggy self-serve platform (for those who have access to it), few metrics and unproven sustainability. Buyers have other complaints, like wait times of up to 24 hours for campaigns to appear on the platform and a junior ads team in need of help, too. For advertisers expecting the maturity of an ad platform like Google, TikTok will be a letdown. But for advertisers looking for a new platform to experiment on while it’s still growing, even with the current hiccups, buyers are bullish.

“They need to scale up a bit to meet the demand on the platform,” said one media buyer who has run multiple TikTok campaigns for clients. “We saw the same thing with Snap and Snap Ads a few years ago.” 

“They don’t have the ad tools built out or measurement tools to really help us figure this out and justify it to compare it to some of the more established digital platforms,” said Matthew Rednor, founder and CEO of Decoded Advertising. “That’s a big complaint and one of the biggest reasons that big advertisers and agencies are not yet on the platform, even though everyone is there.”

It’s standard for new platforms to have immature ads businesses early on and TikTok is no different, according to buyers who say that while ad reps are kind and easy to work with, they aren’t as seasoned as reps at Google or Facebook. At the same time, the company’s main headquarters are in China and some decisions are still run through that team making the time difference a pain. That can, in turn, lead to a slower campaign implementation with some campaigns taking at least 24-hours to be live on the app, according to the first buyer.

It’s unclear how large the current U.S. ad team is or how it is organized, as a spokesperson for TikTok declined to share that figure or share current user numbers; buyers weren’t certain of the size. In February, Digiday obtained a deck that said TikTok had more than 27 million users opening the app eight times a day. The company offers video ads, brand takeovers, brand lenses, “top view” video and its signature hashtag challenge. 

The difficulty advertisers and agencies face with TikTok currently makes sense to Shann Biglione, evp of Americas and global strategy at platformGSK, who said that clients’ expectations for platforms ads teams are often something like Google’s, which is “the gold standard” of ads teams. Dealing with that comparison, “it’d be surprising if TikTok didn’t struggle,” said Biglione. 

Biglione has worked with TikTok’s ad team in China but hasn’t yet worked with the team in the U.S. “When you have up and coming platforms, especially one that doesn’t have [its main] headquarters in the U.S. [it can be hard],” said Biglione. “Operationalizing in China versus the U.S. is a bit different. China is much more fast-paced. Decisions can happen very, very quickly in China versus the U.S.” 

Multiple buyers compared TikTok’s current ads offering to early Snap Ads as costs are low — CPMs are generally around $1.50, according to a buyer — but the tools and measurement capabilities aren’t built out yet, making it hard to prove the value of being on the platform. The company’s self-serve ad platform is still in beta as well as its interest-based targeting, according to a spokesperson, who said that “everything we’re doing is still in beta,” that the company is “in an experimental phase” and that it is “still figuring out what works for the brand and the community.”

The self-serve ad platform is bare-bones at the moment, with capabilities that allow buyers to get ads on the platform but there’s nothing flashy, no advanced capabilities and that it’s “a little bit buggy,” said the first buyer. “To be fair, they did let us know in advance that that was the case. It had been ported over from the Chinese version. We’ve also been helping them and flagging bugs we run into.” 

The lack of results to showcase could keep buyers away for the moment; currently, the company’s ads site doesn’t offer any case studies for prospective advertisers to check out. Metric Digital CEO Kevin Simonson said that the shop hasn’t yet worked with TikTok but likely will in the first quarter of next year. “[The] reason being is that the people I’ve seen who have tested it, paid ads not influencer, haven’t seen good results,” wrote Simonson in an email. “I have a feeling it’ll only work like Snap only works, cheap AOV in beauty for the youngins’.”  

Still, even with that comparison and the lack of clarity into what the platform delivers for brands, there’s lots of interest from advertisers and agencies and that will likely continue to grow, according to buyers. 

“We know a ton of people are there, we know it’s a hot platform, so we should be experimenting and dabbling there versus waiting for them to have mature measurement systems because we know people are there, and this is the time to get on,” said Rednor. “To reject it because they don’t have a full team of reps yet or any of the things that the mature platforms do is kind of crazy at this point. You’re going to be somewhat left behind.”

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