We Need To Overcome The Peter Principle In Digital Media

danreiners"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 Dan Reiners, principal at Infinitive.

In business, individuals rising to the level of their incompetence is often referred to as the Peter Principle. People rise through the organization, based on their aptitude and success with specific projects. But once they reach the limits of their skills and knowledge, their rise ends.

In digital media, publishing and advertising, the Peter Principle plays out a little differently. I’ll call it the Paul Corollary. This theory holds that successful, effective groups within a larger organization, such as an ad operations team, will take on more responsibility until it reaches a level of dysfunction equal to the rest of the organization. It’s similar to the notion that if you want to get anything done, ask a busy person. But sooner or later, that high-performing individual will get overwhelmed and perhaps even discouraged, with a resulting drop in performance.

This is a real problem in the digital advertising world because it exacerbates the already serious talent shortage in the industry. There are simply not enough skilled resources to go around. Too often, the good people are loaded up with so much work – new technology assessments and implementations, large-scale process engineering, digital redesigns or merger-related projects – that they can’t possibly do a good job on everything. The most talented and senior folks may end up doing basic “blocking and tackling” work, rather than higher-value strategic tasks. The end results are often operational breakdowns and increased risk of burnout and turnover.

Another issue: the mismatching of job titles and duties. Sales jobs, for example, actually look more like operational or reporting positions, which frustrates everyone, including sales leaders, who can’t get the quality pipeline data they want, and the reps, who don’t think they signed up for data entry jobs. Clients also may get frustrated because the custom product they were pitched ends up being very difficult to deliver and report on.

Stanching The Talent Loss

Preventing the loss of good people starts with ensuring the right people are working on the right things so the business can move forward and meet its goals. Typically, that requires a more strategic and thoughtful perspective that may seem at odds with the breakneck pace of digital advertising.

Consider how often the “just do it” mentality of many organizations overlooks the important step of building strong business cases and ROI models for individual projects. Will a new supply-side platform, for example, generate enough additional revenue to outweigh implementation or new operational costs? Or can it replace another channel to reduce delivery costs? What’s the impact of current workloads and processes? These questions should be answered before the hot new tool du jour is automatically deployed.

Thinking Long-Term

Clearer technology road maps are also beneficial but require long-term planning. They rigorously define specific goals for new technologies. Again, the questions are direct: Will they lead to new revenue, improve efficiency or reduce existing operational costs? “Must-have” technologies may quickly seem “OK to skip” with a deeper look.

Again, it’s hard to find time for such planning in the fast-moving digital ad space. But it is essential for gaining a long view of what will be important in six to 12 months. That’s why senior staff shouldn’t be handling day-to-day production tasks. Understanding business goals, such as top-line growth or higher-value products for clients, will provide clarity and set the priorities for technology purchases.

Organizational structures and operational models must also map to long-term strategic goals and not shaped in reaction to immediate needs. Many digital media organizations simply don’t have the right people. Or, if they have the right people, they may not be doing the work they’re trained and qualified to do.

Do inventory people plan campaigns or do ad ops teams create manual delivery reports, because no one else can or will? Has a change in sales strategy led to booking more high-touch products and packages without a corresponding increase in ops people?

When responsibilities are not aligned to the team’s expertise and training, non-core tasks can put a real dent in morale, which leads to falling productivity and increased employee churn.

A Holistic Approach That Fills The Gaps

Publishers and digital media companies also struggle to identify qualified new hires to scale up. Project management is one gap. Skilled pros can take care of important and practical tasks, such as organizing project plans, testing and launching new projects and onboarding new vendors, but too few ad ops teams have them. These tasks can seem insignificant, but, when overlooked, serious problems may occur downstream. For instance, no one ever wants to launch a product that was not fully tested or doesn’t include all the planned components.

As digital advertising matures, more organizations will adopt a holistic and sustainable approach. There will be greater emphasis on finding, developing and retaining the right people. This is by far the best way to manage and ultimately reduce the technology-driven complexity that is the everyday reality for so many of us. And it will likely be the best way to support profitable advertising businesses, too.

Follow Infinitive (@InfinitiveRocks) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

 

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