The Early Days Of AdTech (from the people who built it!)

Caroline Albanese
Dec 9, 2019 · 16 min read
From left to right: Erin Laughlin, Madeline Tobish, Guthrie Collin, Kedar Prabu and Caroline Albanese

Two years ago, the idea for an advertising technology team started as a lightbulb moment by Dow Jones Group Chief Product and Technology Officer Ramin Beheshti. He knew Dow Jones was capable of doing more in the ad space — we had great content, terrific talent and an amazing customer base.

As he was getting ready to launch a dedicated team, he wanted to know what people around the business could bring to the table, so he decided to host an advertising technology-themed hackathon to explore innovative ad tech ideas. The hackathon brought individuals with both technical and non-technical backgrounds together from across the organization. Small teams worked collaboratively to invent new features, tools, and solutions. The results were game-changing, and when an Advertising Technology team — known as AdTech — was finally launched, the new team had tons of great ideas they could immediately put into production.

Around the time of the hackathon, the AdTech team officially launched with one person — Chief Analytics Officer & SVP of AdTech Guthrie Collin. He built a team to reinvent how Dow Jones connects customers with content to develop some fantastic ad solutions. In under two years, the team has quadrupled in size and works diligently on bringing new applications to life.

Together, the AdTech team has developed efficient product and tech solutions that help brands reach some of the most influential people in the world.

As the first official birthday of the AdTech team rounds off, I sought out Ramin, Guthrie and my fellow teammates — Erin Laughlin, Madeline Tobish, Kedar Prabu, and Vishaal Patil — to ask them all the same question: how the heck did we pull this off?

Caroline Albanese, Sr. Product Manager: What I’m really curious about is what was the world like before Dow Jones even had the AdTech team — because this team didn’t exist, right?

Ramin Beheshti, Group Chief Product and Technology Officer: Embarrassingly.

Madeline Tobisch, Product Manager: There was a lot leading up to the inception.

Albanese: Where did this idea come from?

Beheshti: Well, I think one of the challenges was that there were pockets of advertising work happening everywhere. But actually, on the product teams, advertising was kind of a secondary thought. It was always like, “Storytelling Experience! So, what do we do with advertising?” It was part of everybody’s job, so it was no one’s actual job.

Erin Laughlin, Product Director: It was a time during a lot of transition in advertising in general.

Beheshti: So, that’s where we start to hire for our Head of Advertising as a push to fix it. It was quite a big gap that we had it on our side and we would speak to our traditional competitors and they had these functions and we were like, “I think we’re behind.”

Guthrie Collin, SVP of AdTech & Chief Analytic Officer: Their pitch for the role was very simple. It was you: had no team to speak of, we have no budget to give you — but we have a role for someone to come in and discover what assets we have, discover the opportunities are there, discover what are some of the challenges and create a proposal for a set of solutions. That could include a budget ask, but [it] had to be reasonable and needed to be collaborative.

“Who is this person that thinks that he’s gonna be able to actually take this off the ground and make something of it?”

Beheshti: I spoke to Guthrie for probably only about 25 minutes and then he interviewed a lot of other people — I mean A LOT of people. Within twenty-five minutes, I knew that he was a great personal and cultural fit. He was understanding, had the pedigree as he was coming from Amazon’s advertising team, and just had a nice mannerism about him.

Collin: I actually pitched three ideas. One was what has now become Thematic. The second was look-a-like targeting based on the Thematic type of behavioral targeting. I can’t remember the third now, I’d have to go back and see. But two of those, of course, have now come to fruition. Another of the things I talked about was going, “You know you’re not doing enough on performance to drive advertisers to spend more with you.” Which has become DASH performance analytics for ad campaigns.

Albanese: What was it about Guthrie that made you go, “That’s the guy”?

Beheshti: I really liked Guthrie’s honesty, transparency, and passion.

Vishaal Patil, Director of Engineering: I had met Guthrie, and I’ve never seen someone so excited about ads and data. It just got me thinking like, “Alright there’s more to building ad products using technology than just writing HTML.”

Beheshti: I needed our engineers to start thinking about advertising technology as cool and something that they can build solutions for. To make it stop being such an afterthought because no one wants to work on it.

Collin: So I took those ideas [from before] and threw [them] in the garbage when I first came on board. I read a really influential book called, “The First 90 Days,” which Ramin had recommended. And I spent the first 90 days just listening, identifying ways I could create quick wins, but also analyzing the situation to develop a budget pitch and a set of business plans.

Laughlin: I’ll never forget Guthrie was always talking to anyone and everyone. We were like, “Who is this new guy who’s just interviewing everyone?” Or like, “Is he a consultant? Why is he always up here?”

Albanese: Because he didn’t have a team, right?

Laughlin: He didn’t, and no one knew who he was — until, of course, he met with everyone.

Collin: In the meantime, I was lucky enough to have an AdTech Hackathon to take place after being there [for] two weeks.

Albanese: Was that your idea?

Collin: No, it was Ramin’s idea. It was postponed for my start date.

“It takes both the place we’re going to go and a crew on the ship to get anywhere.”

Beheshti: The hackathon idea came around April time — about the same time as we realized we needed to put a team together. I worried if we got great loads of ideas to come up, there would be no one to focus on it.

Albanese: Erin, at the time you were leading the Performance team for our ad campaigns. How did you get invited to the Hackathon? Were you talking to people on the tech team?

Laughlin: No, just got an email from Dow Jones saying that there’s a hackathon [focused on advertising]. I didn’t even really know much about the tech team in general before that.

Albanese: Madeline, you were on the Sales Planning team at the time. How did you come to sign up?

Tobisch: Someone in my office forwarded the hackathon email, which I actually hadn’t received in the first place. It was very much fate as far as getting that note and encouragement. And I was like, “Why not?“

Albanese: Had you ever done a hackathon before?

Laughlin: Never.

Tobisch: I’d never even heard of hackathons.

Laughlin: I was familiar with what they were based on reading articles about people doing them at Facebook. So, I thought it was interesting.

Tobisch: I actually almost backed out because I had a trip to Boston that weekend. Looking back it’s pretty crazy how close I came to not actually going after I had signed up!

Laughlin: I knew Madeline only via working with her a bit through the planning team, and I met her when I would go back to Chicago to visit. But other than that, I didn’t really know her.

Tobisch: There wasn’t really anyone from planning or sales, which is something that you notice in all the hackathons. I think there’s just a general lack of awareness from [their team] on hackathons. We got on a call maybe a couple of weeks before, and they were like, “So, what should we do?” I didn’t realize that they were literally looking to me for an idea.

Laughlin: I’ll never forget the original idea for our Hackathon was something around budgets. And I’m like, “That’s boring. We have a really large pain point on our team. Here’s an idea to consolidate data that we frequently work with because it takes our team forever to consolidate campaign reports across all of our custom content campaigns.”

Tobisch: I remembered the [Sales Planning] leadership had said that they really didn’t want people working on smaller plans. They wanted an alternative solution.

Laughlin: During the hackathon, Guthrie was a mentor and that’s when our team first met him. And he actually sat in our very first group meeting to brainstorm ideas first. He was just quiet in that meeting, kinda just absorbing everything.

“I texted all my friends that I got second place and they’re like, ‘Wait, do you code?’”

Beheshti: The reason that I don’t love saying that these ideas were “simple” or “easy” is that it makes it seem like what the teams ended up building wasn’t that complicated. It was more like there’s some low hanging fruit because I was living in a world of people talking about ad stuff and not quite understanding it because that’s not my background [and] even I got it. The product Monty brought it to life for me like, “Right. It’s like a self-service tool for people in ad operations. And it will massively impact them — oh we can build that!” Or when I saw DASH, I said, “What? We don’t have reporting that we can give clients easily?”

Tobisch: [Monty] came second and I was so shocked. I remember I texted all my friends that I got second place and they’re like, “Wait, do you code?”

Laughlin: [DASH] comes in third place. A lot of salespeople particularly liked the idea. I really didn’t think much would come of it. It was just a fun idea, but couldn’t actually go anywhere.

Tobisch: I still didn’t know that product manager was a role, but I walked away feeling really confident. I felt like this is something we’re actually going to build after — it seemed so straightforward.

Beheshti: When you don’t know an area, it’s very hard to know what you necessarily need somebody to do and I think the hackathon was a spark.

Laughlin: Within two to four weeks later, I get an email from Guthrie saying to fill out a form, provide more detail about the project — what resources we might need to look like. I think even high-level engineering efforts, and that’s when I was like, “I don’t even know what that means.”

Tobisch: The way you build things for a hackathon is very different than when you build it in the real world. Molly had sent me a note saying, “Thanks for pairing up with Minneapolis. We think you’d make a really good PM.” And I turned to my boyfriend at the time like, “What’s a PM?”

Albanese: Did she reach out to you asking you to be on the team?

Tobisch: She was more [saying] thanks and congrats. Then I was like, “Okay, what are the next steps?” And she suggested I should get in touch with Guthrie. That’s when I reached out like, “All right guys! How are we gonna build this?”

Laughlin: I was also very confused, thinking, “Who is this person that thinks that he’s gonna be able to actually take this off the ground and make something of it?”

Albanese: Ramin, were you ever doubtful?

Beheshti: Yes. I think I was doubtful as to how it would fit in with the other product and engineering teams. Could it carve out its own space? Could Guthrie carve it out?

Albanese: Was Guthrie ever trying to scout you, Erin?

Laughlin: Not at all. It was more just, “Give me the facts. What do you want to build? What does that look like? And then we’ll bring it back to people to see if it’s something actually worth funding.”

Beheshti: [MONTY and DASH] really gave Guthrie momentum to turn around and say, “Yeah we can do all this stuff and much more, but we need money. We need people to focus on it.”

Laughlin: Guthrie would have weekly meetings with Madeline and me and kind of weave [the idea of building a team] into each of those discussions. I think Madeline was much more on board at first than I was, which is why I was like, “I wonder why she’s so interested in this — what does it really entail?”

Tobisch: He kind of alluded to the idea of a team and that role. I told him I would be in New York in December if he wanted to touch base.

Laughlin: I was pinging her like, “Do you think Guthrie is trying to poach us?”

“It is all about the people you hire. All the success comes from the members of the team and work you do every day and how passionate you are, and how hardworking you are.”

Albanese: Were you ever worried that they wouldn’t take the work? That they didn’t want to do two jobs and that you’d be kind of stuck with these ideas and no one wanted to build them?

Collin: I was never concerned that they wouldn’t take the job. I was always concerned I would not find funding or if they couldn’t get alignment from their managers to co-work. That was my biggest fear.

Tobisch: When I met with Guthrie in December, I told him I could move after July. And at that point, I’m really open to anything.

Laughlin: The nice thing was, Guthrie would present what the role would be about and what type of work we’d be doing. He very much let us kind of think through what that path would look like in our own way.

Tobisch: Then in January, I became a Planning Manager. I remember he was like, “Do you think you’ll have the time to do both?”

Albanese: Were you doing Sales Planning work and Monty work at the same time?

Tobisch: Yes. It was really one of those things when if you want to do something, you find the time. And I was like, “I will stop at nothing at this point!”

Collin: I had those two individuals wanting to take the step as a second job, which was incredible. They both did two jobs from the Hackathon through joining AdTech full-time.

Laughlin: One day I found myself getting added to an email saying, “Join this meeting. We need someone to help advise on redoing our AdTech stack.” I think people in the room thought I was there to fill out the lunch order.

Colin: It [hit me] when Madeline first joined the team officially. I had to write a starter guide and I realized as I was writing THE starter guide like, “Whoa, I need mechanisms. She’s going to keep up the 5.15 and we need to do these Lookback / Lookforward reports together,” and, “Oh my goodness someone needs to teach her Product Management because she’s new to it!”

Albanese: Erin, you were still the Associate Director of the Performance team while DASH was going on, right?

Laughlin: Yeah and that’s what I think what really pushed me over the edge.

Albanese: What made you really consider the opportunity to move into this role? It seemed like you were leading a team and pretty good at it.

Laughlin: I realized I couldn’t do two jobs and it wasn’t fair to the performance team either to have somebody leading that team who wasn’t fully focused on them. It was probably the right move, but that took a while to get to. Probably several months actually.

Albanese: When did you finally take the leap of faith?

Laughlin: Not until late August of that year. And you actually joined before I did!

Albanese: The idea for Thematic was presented to me on my first day. We were going to the tech picnic in a shuttle to the Princeton office with Guthrie. I didn’t have a computer, so Guthrie was trying to explain it to me, but I couldn’t contextualize what he was talking about and then he’s like, “Oh! I know!” And he just opens up his laptop from his bag and shows me this giant document with all these excel formulas like, “Study this!” That was my onboarding process.

Kedar Prabhu, VP Advertising Product & Technology: I had a really pleasant interviewing process. I felt even during the interviews that the business, at least the stakeholders that I spoke to, were really interested in finding solutions to problems that Dow Jones had as a business and we’re looking at tech as an opportunity to solve those problems. That was exciting to me.

Patil: I started talking to Guthrie again probably around October 2018. I met Kedar around that time frame as well. Nothing was settled for several weeks though because basically all of November I was traveling.

Albanese: Guthrie, what were some things that you were looking for when you were building the team?

Colin: So, it wasn’t just one thing. I was looking for a portfolio of attributes, [the] key [to] which was a desire to learn and be curious, a desire to learn about new spaces and learn by growing and trying.

Prabhu: The last interview I had was Ramin and I was really pleased with that conversation. The one thing I notice about Ramin, and it kept reinforcing every time I’ve been in meetings with him, is that he’s really astute. He asks questions that get to the heart of what he wants to understand.

Beheshti: One of the biggest lows was when Kedar got a standing desk and I thought that the sun was being blocked out. All of a sudden I was typing away and it went dark because Kedar’s head was practically in the ceiling. Why is it so tall?

Tobisch: The newness was scary from the product side. This is the first time anything was 100% mine. Every role I’ve ever been in in my life, whether as an internship or here, has been a role that’s been around. But this was like creating things from scratch. There are all these problems that no one’s really been able to solve before, so it felt daunting in some ways during that time.

Laughlin: I had worked with Guthrie in one capacity but I never reported to him. So, I think I was actually more nervous about if that working relationship would change — if he’ll really become the devil and start being so difficult to work with.

Albanese: Was he?

Laughlin: No, I mean he didn’t change it all. And my biggest fear was that he would change.

Patil: I think something that I thought that Guthrie did with the team really early on was throwing people into different areas of the AdTech space, but fully support them and fully empower them to understand the problems that they want to solve and how they can get there. I think that level of autonomy and empowerment is extremely crucial to a new team that’s building up in an organization that’s been around for a hundred and thirty years now.

Collin: While I put together the business case and the pitch to get the team funded, all it guaranteed was resources. It never guaranteed success. In terms of the lesson that I’ve taken away is one, it is all about the people you hire. All the success comes from members of the team and work you do every day and how passionate you are, and how hardworking you are.

Laughlin: I was actually really nervous. Not about the new people coming on the team, but I really just didn’t know what to expect.

Patil: I’m not going to step away from AdTech anytime soon, but it’s definitely something that really taught me that you should step out of your comfort zone and that’s how you grow.

Colin: It was a challenge for me to recognize that other people had a different working style than me.

Albanese: That was very clear during our monthly product roadmap reviews, “Lookback/Lookforward.”

Tobisch: Our first Lookback / Lookforward was a disaster. Everything was going awry and we were just trying to follow along to this new mechanism like, “What is happening?”

Prabhu: One of the many many mechanisms.

Albanese: That was the one where really no one knew what it was supposed to do and at one point I think Kedar was like, “I don’t think this is a good idea. We should scrap the whole Lookback /Lookforward.” Guthrie was just like, “No!”

Collin: One of the challenges just learning how to manage a variety of different people that are in a variety of different places in how they like to work — from that vantage point. Because you don’t want to implement your own sensibilities or working styles, you gotta give folks mechanisms, but they can’t be counter to necessarily how they work.

Albanese: I’m so happy that Lookback/Lookforward was one of your biggest challenges. That brings me joy.

Collin: Lookback/Lookforward is actually easy for me! But I am constantly tweaking things.

Albanese: Yeah, constantly. Constantly. That was the only constant with Lookback/Lookfoward, which is that it would always change — especially in that first year.

Prabhu: I think we’re getting closer now.

“I like that we just like hanging out with each other.”

Beheshti: I think the other thing is just how well the team works together. I mean, I’m sure there are arguments and disagreements and stuff that happens with the stakeholders that you work with — but I am always excited to go walk into the Lookback/Lookfoward meetings because I love seeing what the team does. It is also a very diverse team in background, experience, male and female. It’s really quite nice to see.

Collin: The team has been able to come together on developing their own mechanisms, like holding BTW on Friday’s is a great example. It is just the team jumping across geographies and making their own ways to keep in touch and talking to one another over time.

Patil: I like that we can as a team separate ourselves from work and just behave like friends at times. We do that in BTW where we have an opportunity to celebrate our work but also just celebrate our lives and the great stuff that’s going on around us. It’s moments like that.

Prabhu: We really do have a great team and I can’t overstate how important it is to work with smart, enthusiastic, decent people because it’s easy to take for granted when you have it. But I’ve worked at places where that’s not the case, and it’s a very different experience.

Patil: For probably six months, we’ve had this monthly happy hour and people still show up because they want to and I still go when I can because I want to. I like that we just like hanging out with each other.

Collin: We had a strong mission that was coming from real intensive analysis and discovery from a business opportunity case. And to form a team, that is a must-have input to really be successful because you need to give people direction from day one. If I didn’t step forward and say, “This is what we’re going to do,” then we would be nowhere, and if we didn’t have passionate people like [our team] to do it, we’d also be nowhere.

Beheshti: The other interesting thing is also how we took new people but also combined them with people who have worked at Dow Jones in other roles and geographical parts and moved them into one team. It’s an amazing fusion new fresh blood, but also experience within Dow Jones, and some people who have never worked in tech before. That combination is so cool to me.

Collin: In terms of the lesson that I’ve taken away is one, it is all about the people you hire. All the success comes from the members of the team and work you do every day and how passionate you are, and how hardworking you are.

Beheshti: It’s always hard to come into roles that never existed before because people either occupy that space or they’d leave you out because they don’t know what you’re doing. The team was created from scratch, there was nothing in that space before, so it’s quite nice to have a kind of greenfield team and now they’re rocking it.

Colin: It takes both the place we’re going to go and a crew on the ship to get anywhere.

Dow Jones Tech

Caroline Albanese

Written by

Product Manager, sick and tired of your bad ad experience.

Dow Jones Tech

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