Confessions of an ad tech grunt

Ad tech is booming, and industry growth means that the field is hiring in droves. While many of these jobs provide exposure to the newest technology and opportunities to put your creative problem-solving abilities to the test, there are others that will leave you questioning your life choices on a constant basis.

On the condition of anonymity, a veteran in the field spoke to Digiday about ad tech’s shadier dealings, the moral dilemmas of doing what you’re told and the effect of digital illiteracy in management.

The ad tech industry has a less-than-stellar reputation. How accurate is it?
There are definitely underhanded practices. There are definitely shenanigans that are going on. On both sides.

What’s the most underhanded thing you were personally asked to do?
My organic traffic wasn’t going to meet campaign goals, so I needed to drop a bunch of traffic on a specific area of the site. You can go buy that traffic through networks that are legitimate, but it’s pretty expensive. You can also go get that traffic through really slimy, ethically ambiguous places, like networks and toolbars that will serve pop-unders that annoy your poor grandmother. That’s probably in the middle of the sliminess, and then the really, really slimy is when you’re literally buying bot traffic which costs nothing. That traffic should get filtered out by the ad servers, but it’s not, because bot network people are really technically savvy people. The bounce rate’s like 99 percent, so you’re getting one pageview out of almost every single person, which means that you’re just annoying people.

How did you feel about that?
I raised it as a concern to my department heads, but they were the ones telling me to do it. It was described to me as a kind of a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy. The agency gets to spend the money. They don’t want the money to not get spent. A lot of the time it was, “Look, 90 percent of the campaign gets fulfilled in a legitimate way, so us spending the budget at the end of the day is a less painful experience for everyone all around, so we should just do this.” You have to do it or quit out of protest, but it didn’t seem like a big enough issue to do that.

So why did you stay?
It was a rote, repetitive, thankless job. If you’re in ad ops, you come in in the morning, you get a thick punch list to get through, you punch it out and you go home. That’s it. The next day, you come in and you do it all over again. But that kind of environment breeds a lot of camaraderie. Ad-ops teams have a strong culture. That kept me pretty happy: You get to work with a bunch of young, fun people doing work that you don’t have to focus on that much, so you can either listen to music all day, you can joke around with people all day.

What’s the most difficult type of person to work with in ad tech?
You have very traditional publishers where the person on top is probably someone who comes from a traditional “think with my gut” background. The definition of their job is much broader than digital. Those people can be difficult.

What’s it like to work with those managers?
It was more sad than anything else. These people know they’re Luddites. They want to learn. They’re trying to get a handle on it. But it’s hard, and they don’t come from a place where they’re able to pick it up quickly and easily. Those people seem scared and confused a lot of the time. And at the end the day, they have to make decisions. They try to gather information, they try the best they can to understand it, and then they pick and choose, and a lot of the time they don’t sound all that intelligent while they’re doing it. It doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence; it was a clear signal that I needed to get out of there and go do something else. Either this person will get fired, and who knows what will happen to my group, or they’ll stay forever and it’ll be difficult to get promoted. It pushes a lot of good talent out of an organization.

What advice do you have for those just starting out in the field?
Get promoted in your organization without really changing your job responsibilities so much, just get promoted in title, and then, shortly thereafter, make a leap to a different company where that job is meaningfully different than the title increase you got. And try a lot of different organizations. In this industry, you don’t want to be a specialist. Specialties die quickly. You need to know a lot about a lot. You want to be in a position where they identify you as the person who can figure out the new thing. Because there’s always something new with the highest visibility. It’s the thing you can’t possibly fuck up no matter what you do because it’s new and nobody cares. They just want to learn. So if you can be that guy, you’re golden.

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