"Data-Driven Thinking" is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.
Today’s column is written by Mike Haight, an executive at Infinitive.
In the digital advertising business, time is always of the essence. We offer real-time auctions and immediate placements and track impressions in microseconds. The deadline for deploying new technology – from ad servers to order management systems and yield management tools – is always yesterday.
But in running fast and furious toward the “destination” of the latest and greatest technology, digital ad teams risk undercutting the value those very technologies offer. To paraphrase the old line about travel, the implementation is the destination for digital ad teams seeking to generate full return on significant investments in such technology.
Value takes time because the steps that deliver the most value – integration with other systems, such as finance and CRM systems, process redesign and end-user communication and training – take longer than simply turning on new software features. Optimizing ad tech environments is less about simple configuration and more about broader business transformation.
It’s counterintuitive to go slowly in our fast-moving world. But a little more tortoise-like thinking can position us for hare-like speed. Consider a few ad tech paradoxes.
To some extent, users are often resistant to change because the status quo is just good enough. Then there are those who want the latest-greatest capabilities as fast as they can get them. These users may be quickly satisfied with a minimum set of features because they are trying to perform the same job using new tools instead of using the new tools to improve their work.
Or they simply give up on a new tool if they can’t figure it out in a day or two. And some users are reluctant to adopt today’s new tool du jour because they know it will be replaced by tomorrow’s tool du jour. So they cling to their spreadsheets, which they know won’t change.
If technology is worth installing, it’s worth taking the time to learn how to use it effectively. More to the point, understanding how to use a tool effectively requires taking the time to understand what business need or problem the tool is meant to address. Thus, ad operations leaders must understand how new tools add value, articulate that value to stakeholders and provide the training and support for different individuals to use them properly. All of these steps take time. And the more complex and important the software, the more time should be invested in these steps. When new technology fails to deliver the target value, it’s generally not because the company chose the wrong software, but because there were breakdowns in one or more of these key activities.
For example, inventory management tools can be game changing by providing real-time insight into inventory. But they can present a somewhat steep learning curve to users. That’s why so many folks still prefer Excel. In my view, insufficient training is the root cause. Once users understand how inventory management systems work, they’ll quickly begin to trust the outputs and become more productive. They will also come to recognize when additional analysis is merited, such as for demand peaks and seasonal cycles. And they’ll be delighted to know they can still use Excel for such ad hoc analysis.
A similar situation exists with reporting. Solutions up and down the tech stack have sophisticated and powerful reporting capabilities, but they are vastly underused at most organizations. A little bit of training would go a long way to help users figure out which of the many options will help them make better decisions and to do their jobs more effectively.
Technology integration and maintenance are other areas where slowing down adds value. Though digital advertising is largely technology-driven, ad tech maintenance is usually an oversight. IT often doesn’t consider ad systems and apps in its portfolio, so ad ops groups serve as tech support and system administrators by default, and those tasks seem secondary to other revenue-related work.
But the reality is that completing complex – and potentially high-value – integrations with finance, CRM and inventory systems require greater IT chops than most ad ops teams have. Specifically, it’s necessary to apply real API expertise and know where the “hooks” lurk between different systems and processes. Here again, these integrations are worth the effort as they help optimize overall environments.
Looking at customization, many publishers and media organizations feel their products, processes and organizational structures are so unique that standardized software simply won’t work. For example, just because a popular tool can’t calculate reconciliation values for a single item in a large product portfolio, they forego the many other benefits, such as automation, better reporting and the like.
Experience teaches that today’s ad tech offers strong opportunities to advance process efficiency and effectiveness. The key is for ad ops teams, IT and other stakeholders to understand both what the software can do and where some customization is truly worthwhile.
All of this is part of a broader trend of ad tech groups thinking and acting more like IT professionals by focusing on integration, standardization and program management, all of which are leading practices in IT. Ultimately, ad ops teams will spend more time engaging end users and stakeholders to understand their needs. These are milestones on the journey to maturation.
The bottom line is that most digital ad operations teams will have to decide between going fast in deploying systems or optimizing the potential business value those new systems bring. During implementation, the focus should very much be on the latter. Of course, some of that long-term value will come in the form of saved time — thanks to the automation and elimination of manual and duplicative tasks.
The slow route often works out to be the fast route in the end. Turtle, meet hare.