Whether your team consists of you alone or hundreds around the globe, you’ll need to fill six essential roles to create a successful ad product. You can think of these roles as “hats” to be worn, as individuals can fill more than one role (or all of them).
Using the hat metaphor, an individual might have job responsibilities that require a single hat 100 percent of the time, leaving others to wear the remaining five hats. Or, they may wear their ‘primary’ hat 75 percent of the time and wear additional hats as situations arise. In any case, all six roles are required for a well-designed, well-functioning, profitable ad product.
My primary hat is software quality, and I spend most of my time analyzing, testing, and advocating for end-to-end quality in Adzerk’s products. This got me wondering what “end-to-end quality” looks like for our customers (publishers and app developers who build and scale innovative, server-side ad platforms).
Quality isn’t a state as much as an ongoing process, and processes are enacted by people, so I began with our own product team.
First, I met with Dylan Hulser, our lead solution architect, to identify the key people on ad product teams and how they make their teams successful. Next, I compiled and condensed our observations down to these six essential roles:
The Champion is the spark that starts the fire. They identify the business opportunity for the ad product, define its goals and requirements, and oversee its initial implementation from start to finish (though likely not directly implementing it). After the first iteration, they continue to advocate for the product across the organization.
This is a big picture role. The Champion thinks in terms of the advertising market and where their users fit. If the ad product were a company, they’d be the CEO — setting the strategy and vision and promoting it to other team members.
At a small company, this role may be filled by the CEO or CTO. In larger companies, you generally find the Champion is a senior product manager, often the VP of Product.
As the Champion creates a vision for the ad product, the Architect asks, “How do I execute this vision given the realities of our system?”
They are particularly familiar with the constraints imposed by the existing product, and they face the same challenges all software engineers do: limited time, limited resources, and product/technical debt.
The Architect therefore designs and implements a solution that integrates easily into their existing product and won’t introduce (too many) new technical costs and risks. After the initial iteration is complete, they continue to fix bugs and add new features.
They don’t need to be experts in the advertising ecosystem, but they need to learn enough to understand the Champion’s requirements. The Architect can be a single software engineer for small implementations, but the role can easily stretch to specialized teams of hundreds.
The Project Manager
The Project Manager asks, “What’s the current state of fill-in-the-blank?”
First they transform the Champion’s goals and the Architect’s tasks into actionable steps, then they track those until the current iteration is done. They ask follow-up questions; they keep detailed, accessible meeting notes; and by scheduling regular check-ins they act as an information hub for the other five hats.
Once the iteration is complete, the Project Manager collects feedback, analyzes potential improvements, and starts the cycle again. The Project Manager doesn’t have to be someone with the title of project manager, let alone a PMP. This can be a unique role or a secondary hat worn by anyone (but typically the Champion, Architect, or Ad Ops).
The Salesperson drives the ad product’s growth, whether the marketplace is direct sales, programmatic, internal promotions, self-serve platforms, sponsorships, etc.
Simply having a shiny new platform isn’t enough to attract advertisers. They need to understand who your audience is and how their involvement translates to ROI. The Salesperson must be able to articulate that value proposition and promote it to the brands that align with your audience. They push for Advertise with Us pages to be built, as well as help design Media Kits to pitch to advertisers.
Whatever the product, the Salesperson’s work is what ultimately drives the revenue. You usually find this hat worn by someone in Sales or Marketing, but it could easily be the Champion or Project Manager as well.
As the name suggests, Ad Operations (Ad Ops) runs the day-to-day ad product operations. They set-up the campaigns the Salesperson sells, approve brand-safe content, monitor performance, and ensure advertisers are billed correctly. All successful ad products — even if there’s a self-serve dashboard for advertisers to manage their campaigns directly — require someone to configure and/or monitor daily operations.
Ad Ops must be extremely detail-oriented (a typo can cost thousands of dollars), and they must understand the in-depth needs of individual advertisers. Given Ad Ops’s thorough knowledge of the product’s capabilities and limits, their feedback is critical for iteration by the Champion and Architect.
For most companies, the Ad Ops specialist will be someone hired specifically to do Ad Ops. Since the job is often tedious and needs to be error-free, it could be tough for, say, the Champion and Architect to switch from high-level strategy to manually inputting campaign details. For small companies, this hat likely overlaps with the Salesperson.
The Data Scientist
The Data Scientist integrates the outputs of the ad serving process (like impressions, events, and their associated revenue) into their organization's data store and analyzes them. In general, the Data Scientist seeks to understand what variables will maximize product yield (aka, how to improve the ad product to drive more revenue).
Despite being at the end of the ad serving process, their data feeds directly back into the Champion’s decision-making. The data collected by the Data Scientist will be used to measure the success of the ad product and influence its next iteration.
The Data Scientist hat doesn’t have to be filled by an actual Data Scientist with a PhD in Economics (those roles are expensive, and early on it may be hard to justify that salary until the product grows). Instead, having someone analyze even basic data like which ad units drive the most revenue, how different targeting influences click-through-rates, and overall advertiser growth is important in identifying signals that can influence the future of the product.
What happens if you don’t fill these six roles?
When functioning well, the six roles form a team (of one or many) that can adapt and respond to changes in the ad ecosystem, user base, and underlying product itself. Unfortunately, these individual roles can often go unfilled (hats go unworn) or become underpowered within the organization.
We can reinforce the value of each role by exploring the repercussions if one is missing:
Without the Champion:
- Lack of product strategy
- Slow or nonexistent decision-making
- Success metrics not created/met
- No allocation for ad product resources
Without the Architect:
- Product doesn’t evolve with the market
- Bugs go unfixed, revenue is lost
- Advertisers lose confidence in the integration
Without the Project Manager:
- No coordination across roles
- Competing priorities delay iterations
- Milestones unclear and unmet
- Product can’t respond to fast-changing requirements
Without the Salesperson:
- No new revenue growth
- Value proposition not articulated to advertisers
- Advertiser relationships suffer
Without Ad Ops:
- Ad serving errors increase, go unreported
- Refunds for issues could make the product unprofitable
- Advertiser feedback isn’t communicated
- Advertisers lose trust
Without the Data Scientist:
- Success metrics no longer based on data
- New opportunities for growth go unidentified
- Greater organization unable to see quantitative value
As you can see, when any role is unfilled, the organization may have reason enough to cancel the ad product. But that’s not inevitable; team members can start wearing new or additional hats, even part-time, to put the ad product on the path to success.