Confessions of Publisher Ad Ops

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

In the next installment of our “Confessions” series, we go deep within the publisher side to ad operations. This is a critical, although often overlooked, role in the digital media ecosystem. In short, ad ops makes the system work — and has a view of the tug of war that goes on between publishers, advertisers and networks. Our ad ops manager dishes on why publishers don’t trust Google, agency trading desks and ad networks, in no particular order. Please get in touch at the email below if you’d like to contribute. We promise full anonymity in exchange for honesty.

Ad ops is thought of the unsexy side of the business, yet it’s critical. What’s the biggest misconception you run into?
I would say the biggest misconception regarding digital ad ops is that it consists of people with no technical skill set or expertise. We are often approached with a demeanor one reserves for a phone customer service representative for a large bank or your cable service. To be fair, as the focus moved away from print and towards digital during the past two years I’ve noticed a slow but significant shift in how we are perceived. It can be frustrating as sales, sales planning and the product departments typically receive the accolades during company success stories. Ad ops can often feel like the neglected middle child raising their hand to say, “Hey, remember when I pulled you out of that burning building?” meaning “Remember when we made that idea you had actually do what you wanted it to do?”

Who is more unreasonable: sellers or buyers?
Wow, this is a loaded question. For the most part, I would have to go with sellers. They live in a constant state of fear and panic, which results in unreasonable behavior. In many ways there is a lack of experienced digital sales people, and that lack of experience has profound implications on how they manage their own expectations and their clients’ expectations. Most of what ad ops does, besides managing the execution of critical revenue driving business, is manage irrational expectations. Buyers are mostly unreasonable when they are trying to set a precedent with the publisher that will alleviate their workload in a long term way, and ad ops pushes back on that request. Sellers win the unreasonable prize here because it is at those critical moments when ad ops needs sales to be reasonable but instead they react from fear.

Google among others is always saying how unnecessarily complex the digital ad system is. Do you think this fair, and if so, what’s going to make it more efficient?
Google feels everything is unnecessarily complex as long as the solution is a Google solution and they have actively encouraged the digital advertising environment they define as complex. Google has a jaw-dropping suite of digital advertising services that in and of itself is extremely complex to navigate. What has become frightening about Google is their complete unabashed arrogance. Let’s be honest here, Google isn’t shocked or disturbed that the “digital ad system” is complex. They are shocked that other companies have the nerve to play in that same space and not cooperate with Google’s platform.

There’s so much data that’s flowing back and forth in digital media. Is it too much?
Reduced data collection through advertising means clean advertising. Clean advertising means fewer systems to retrieve metrics regarding a campaign’s performance. Trading desks and ad networks, especially Google’s AdMeld, are multi-purposing advertiser ad units for their own business interests with pixels for piggybacking and retargeting premium site users to lower cost sites. All these components make up the “complex” in the “complex digital ad system” that companies like Google are complaining about. They should stop embedding layer after layer of scripts into ad tags and that would help simplify the complex digital ad system.

Publishers seem pretty wary about data leakage. Are ad networks and trading desks blameless?
Ad networks and trading desks are public enemy No. 1 when it comes to data control. It is that plain and simple. We’ve only just begun to discover the insidious nature of what kind of data they are collecting across digital publications. We have an “oh my god” moment at least once a week while we uncover the chain reaction some pixel embedded into an ad unit is unleashing. Industry policy around data privacy is a joke, and there are few in government who are young enough to understand how digital advertising works in a way that can drive a real effective policy. Ad networks and trading desks have cut the bottom line of publishing industry so that they can’t afford to staff enough people to handle the onslaught. Honestly, it is a complete racket, trading desks are stealing user data from publications. They take that stolen data and monetize it. Wouldn’t that be called a “black market” transaction in any other business situation anywhere else in the world?

What’s the worst practice you’ve run across among ad-targeting companies?
On a more day to day level it is simple stuff like submitting campaign creative waiting for it to go live and then revising things in the background by embedding cookies to grab user data. It is very difficult for ad operations to police this type of behavior while maintaining day-to-day business. Unfortunately, most of the traffickers on the agency side don’t really have an understanding of what they are being told to load into tags. We’ve had advertising fronts come through for short term flights. Fake companies that run on the site basically as spiders pretending to be advertising. They grab as much as they can and they are never heard from again. These “companies” are created by trading desks that are owned by massive advertising agency conglomerates who then promote that data on the cheap, cutting publisher direct sales out of the equation.

Updated Q: A few readers have questioned your assertion that trading desks have created “Fake companies that run on the site basically as spiders pretending to be advertising.” Can you explain this practice and whether it’s widespread?
We have had a few come through large agencies that have their own trading desks. Companies with websites that look like they were thrown together with a site builder template. This is rare but has indeed happened. More prevalent is the practice of real brands that would never otherwise run on a premium publication for one very expensive placement. They come through from an agency with a trading desk and the pixels collect the demos from the premium site which then are re-monetized through the desk. Then it is business as usual for a few months and a new one comes through to refresh that data for the trading desk.

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