Approaching the Future of Digital Advertising: Part 1 of 3

October 20, 2020

**This is three part series is a bonus chapter from Join or Die.

The best career advice I ever received was during an internship with a big box retail company. The territory manager for the NY region had come to our store for his quarterly visit. After a long day, while he gathered his belongings to leave, he motioned for the attention of one of the assistant store managers, an energetic leader who was viewed as a rising star within the company. “Aisha, you’re doing great. But don’t get comfortable. In fact, never be comfortable. Comfort leads to complacency, and complacency leads to wasted talent. It’s a recipe in which current success leads to future failures. Don’t let that happen.”

I just happened to be standing next to the intended recipient. I may as well have been invisible, but I’ve carried that lesson with me my entire career. If I ever feel myself getting comfortable, my subconscious tends to recall that memory and jolt me awake in the middle of the night.

An omnipresent lack of comfort might not seem attractive at first, but I believe that it is an antidote for success. David Ogilvy referred to this concept as divine discontent: “We have a divine discontent with our performance. It is an antidote to smugness.”92

While it certainly causes me a great deal of stress to realize that we will need to continuously reinvent ourselves as an agency, it is, as former Disney CEO Bob Iger wrote in The Ride of a Lifetime, incredibly important to keep one foot in the present and one foot in the future.93

With that in mind, we need to discuss how we think about the future.

When we look toward the future, I prefer to start with the moonshot idea of where we might be at the end of a long transition period, and then work backwards to discover the pathway to reaching that destination.

That is: hit the rewind button to about two or three years out, then stop and take a careful look at what you see. Then hit fast-forward and work your way back to the present.

This practice has helped AdVenture Media transition into the modern, automation-driven company that we are today. It has also helped protect us from the recent turmoil that many businesses have experienced during the COVID-19 epidemic.


How We’ve Adapted to Change


Three years ago, we’d envisioned a future wherein Google Ads had become completely reliant on automation. At the time, much of our day was spent manually optimizing client campaigns, and we really didn’t understand what automation was or how it should impact our work. To be honest, I thought that automation was just a big secret that agencies kept from their clients. That perhaps this was just technology that could automate campaigns, allowing agencies to sign more clients and not actually do any real work? It appeared to be a Ponzi scheme.

I was wrong. I didn’t really understand the difference between an algorithm and a script. Therefore, it was hard for me to conceptualize the idea of training an algorithm. Eventually, it became clear that automation was here to stay. So, I might as well accept that and try to figure out if it was actually legitimate or potentially useful.

We embraced automation with the same determined optimism that has guided all our strategic decisions over the years. It turned out to be a good bet.

I knew at the time that there were many things that we should have been doing but didn’t have the time, energy, or internal resources to do. We did not dedicate as much time to research and analysis or to conversion rate experiments as we would have liked, and we did not have a minute to think about long-term goals. Every day was its own fire drill.

While it was not entirely clear in 2017 what our agency would look like in 2020, we had an idea of what we needed to do to prepare ourselves for the range of possible outcomes.

The thought process went like this: If by 2020 we will be an agency that heavily relies on automation, we will also have to add a slew of additional service offerings to layer on top of that to remain valuable to our clients. We should become masters of that technology so that we can pass on that knowledge and expertise to benefit our clients’ campaigns. We would have to embrace the role of consultant, leveraging our vast experience to provide insights that would help our clients in a variety of ways.

To make this possible, we had to make a number of changes to our agency operations, education, skills, and most importantly, our culture. This appears to be a massive undertaking, but completely manageable if you analyze the challenge, practice extreme self-awareness about your abilities and current standing, then break down the solution into several steps.

Step 1: Stop Working with Dead-End Clients. We started by becoming more discerning about the clients we brought on board. This is more challenging than you might think, as you need to be willing to sacrifice short term revenue for the greater good of the company (this is increasingly difficult when you have salespeople who earn a significant portion of their income from commissions).

Still, we wrote a list of commandments about new business. These included not only minimum thresholds of advertising spend but also subjective rules about the types of clients that we wanted to work with. Similarly, we will not take on a client whom we do not believe we can provide value for or help become successful. We realized that our time was our capital. Just like a venture capital firm, we needed to be more strategic about which companies we invested our capital into. If we are not convinced that a business model or product has potential for success, or if we think we are not the best agency to help them become successful, we turn down the business.

Step 2: Sign Better Clients. While step 1 sounds great in theory, it can only make practical business sense if you’re working to fill your sales pipeline with new leads that fit the criteria of companies that you seek to work with. Around this time, Ari Pirutinsky had completely switched into a sales position and began a massive initiative to increase client referrals and reviews. His role was to focus on the long-term horizon, and so Erica Newman, another tenured account manager with a stellar ability to develop meaningful long-term relationships with clients, began participating in sales efforts to manage the recurring inbound leads we were receiving in the short term.

Isaac began working on new course content, and I started publishing more client case studies and developing blog content. It would take a year or longer for these efforts to transpire into positive outcomes.


Step 3: Grow the Team. We needed to think about the roles that would comprise our consultative, automation-driven agency and find people with the skills who could fill these roles as they developed.

The most apparent category was related to Conversion Rate Optimization and usability. Isaac and I learned everything we could about these topics and then hired individuals with specific training in those fields. The second was data science—a topic that I have a bit of experience with, but I wouldn’t consider myself to be an expert. The last category was harder to define, but we knew that we needed more people with a strong business acumen and entrepreneurial attitude who could help consult with our clients at a higher level.

Many believe that there are two kinds of thinkers: right brain (creatives) and left brain (analysts). I don’t think it’s fair to assign people into these categories and pretend as if their abilities are finite, as we have seen this theory disproved time and again. Some of our largest data-oriented problems have been solved by people who would be traditionally viewed as right brains. Similarly, some of our more creative ad concepts have been developed by a surface-level left brain. I would argue that a left-brained data analyst is completely useless if they cannot develop creative hypotheses about what is actually happening within a given data set.

Therefore, you don’t need a team filled with people on opposite ends of this right-brain-vs-left-brain spectrum. Most people fall somewhere in the middle. The goal is to fill your team with a broad range of skill sets and perspectives. Then create an environment in which individuals can both speak up and challenge one another.

The caveat that we faced as a company was that we needed to hire all these people first, then transition over time into an agency that could fully take advantage of their skills. These people needed to understand that their primary roles, at least for the foreseeable future, would be that of a traditional PPC account manager.

Thankfully, when you compile a team filled with data scientists, entrepreneurs, and CRO-thinkers, you end up with a great core group of account managers. However, the real value that these people offer can only be unlocked when the agency completes that next transition into the future. What’s more, these people would inevitably leave the agency if they felt unfulfilled, or stopped being able to see a future in which they could spend more time working on the projects that they were truly passionate about.

Step 4: Embrace the New Tools and Technology. While all of this was happening, I began consuming everything I could about machine learning and attempted to figure out how these ad platforms were going to change over time. I read several books, enrolled in online courses, and subscribed to thought leaders in the automation and larger tech space. I also worked exhaustively with our Google and Facebook teams to better understand how automation specifically worked within the ad platforms at hand.

Lastly, we drove a change in our company culture, specifically around our attitude toward automation. If an automation-related test failed—when being tested against a traditional, manual solution—we had to accept the responsibility for the failed test and not blame the technology. We had to believe that failed experiments were more likely a result of our own inability to use the technology.

We have never become satisfied with our level of knowledge about automation. Even though our automation knowledge has, quite literally, been able to fill an entire book, we stay grounded in the idea that what we still need to learn could fill libraries.

Eventually, the pieces fell into place. Many clients woke up one day to realize the value of Conversion Rate Optimization, and new tools allowed these testing methods to become much more accessible and affordable. Automation certainly replaced a lot of our daily tasks, which drove performance and freed up our time to consult with our clients on broader topics. These topics naturally included new projects for our data scientists to dig into and others for our entrepreneurial-minded team members to spearhead.

**This was the first of three sections of this bonus chapter. Access part two here.

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