How Starcom trained 1,200 employees to speak programmatic

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This is the first article in a series on “Agencies in the Ad Tech Era,” a look at how the call for automation and efficiency is challenging agencies to rethink their structures.

One of the major fears about programmatic ad buying and selling is that it will replace humans with machines. But media agency Starcom has argued that it doesn’t have to be that way. So it has spent the last 20 months orchestrating a large-scale internal reorganization that would make all of its employees ready for the ad tech future.

The problem was, that its classic “buy media, sell media” structure was made outdated by the realities of programmatic. So it launched a large-scale talent overhaul that included training every single one of its 1,200 employees how to be well-versed at all things programmatic.

“We needed to step away from channel allocation and an investment-by-channel approach,” said Amanda Richman, president, investment and activation.

Starcom was going through what most media agencies are: An internal structure that is based on channels, instead of technology, just doesn’t work for programmatic. The lines are blurring between media and creative.

The solution: Everyone at Starcom went back to school.

The first step, which Richman and Starcom senior leadership took two years ago, was a to create a map that showed the agency of the future. Every single role in the agency was mapped out: what that person did, where they were better suited, and what had to be done to get them there.

For example, execs realized that in the investment group, where roles centered around “head of print” or “head of national broadcast” were better off embedded in a client team dedicated to Kraft or Kellogg’s. There was also a rethinking of roles like “TV,” so they encompassed all video, including online and mobile.

But the agency is quick to emphasize that programmatic and automation did not mean humans were — or will be — replaced. Instead, Richman said the agency chose to invest in its talent just as it also invested in technology.

The second phase of Starcom’s program was to focus in on programmatic and data. A new program called “Data Next Now,” led by Richman and a five-member team, held about 15 sessions across six weeks across three different offices, getting right down to the basics of what a DMP was, how an ad exchange worked, or how real-time bidding worked.

“The big problem with programmatic is that everyone needs a common understanding of the language,” said Richman. “Everyone does. Even if they’re not making inventory calls, they may still do billing and reconciliation, so they need to know.”

Starcom isn’t alone in pushing through education for programmatic. The IAB, for its part, has also seen demand increase for its programmatic training programs over the past year, “reflecting the uncertainty and fears that initially stemmed from programmatic,” according to Carl Kalapesi, vp of industry initiatives.

The material was originally developed by IAB Programmatic Council for sellers of digital media, but the IAB found that there is now also interest from both buy side and ad tech. “In response, the IAB expanded the training materials to cover both the buy and sell side, because if sellers understand the buyers’ perspective and vice versa, it improves the outcomes for all.”

One welcome side-effect of an agency-wide training program was that it allowed Starcom employees to feel more empowered — essential especially for the millennial and younger employees, said Richman. “What we’ve learned about young talent in general is that they want to show they can make an impact,” she said. “They could do it here, and they were held accountable. Everyone had skin in the game. There was no opt out.”