VP Product Rachel Wolan on how product leaders can help customers adapt during unprecedented times
Earlier this week, we kicked off our Product Excellence AMA Hour webinar series by welcoming Rachel Wolan, VP of Product at LiveRamp, alongside our CEO, Hubert Palan.
During a frank and transparent chat moderated by Hubert, Rachel discussed the impact that COVID-19 is having on business and how her company is helping customers adapt during unprecedented times.
In case you missed the webinar, here’s a lightly edited version of the conversation.
Welcome, Rachel. It’s great to have you here. Please, tell us a bit more about LiveRamp and what you do.
I’ve worked at LiveRamp for a little over a year now. Our business is a data connectivity platform that helps brands connect with their customers through a variety of different channels. We focus initially on paid media, so digital media and TV, taking offline data from our customers’ CRMs, which we then use to create an identity graph to the online world.
We have over 1200 employees and are headquartered in San Francisco, with offices in Seattle, New York, London, Paris, Shanghai, and a couple of other cities. We have product managers in every single one of those locations.
We have over 1200 employees and are headquartered in San Francisco, with offices in Seattle, New York, London, Paris, Shanghai, and a couple of other cities. We have product managers in every single one of those locations
Could you give us an example of the type of customers you work with?
We work with the largest retailers in the world, the largest CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) brands in the world, as well as every single major tech platform that you can imagine. We focus on being that connective tissue across the entire customer data infrastructure. We currently have around 2000 customers, but we really focus on the top 500 brands in the world.
One specific example is Target, who use us not only to activate on all their different paid media channels but also to measure all of the activity that comes back. So when somebody sees or clicks on an ad, we’re that identity layer in the middle of everything. We also help Target through analytics and data collaboration. They are building out their entire media business around our infrastructure.
How is your product management org structured?
We’re like a three-layer cake. First, we’ve got the applications, which is where all the product managers on my team sit. Then there’s the platform, which is a lot of the reusable products we’re building that service the backend. And then, the bottom layer is identity. Everything is tied together through our people-based identity solution. We have 50 years’ worth of people-based data that helps companies understand who is interacting with their brand and what they are doing.
With the COVID-19 crisis unfolding, what impact has the situation had on your retail customers?
Every retailer is experiencing a different kind of impact. If you think about the category of essentials – so Target, Costco, or any other grocery store – they’re seeing a major spike in business. They don’t have to advertise anymore, but they’re looking at how they can understand and leverage their data sets in different ways. They are actually investing at this point and upgrading their infrastructure.
Then, if you look at other types of businesses, like clothing retailers or specialty luxury retailers, they are in idle mode. They are having to ask some difficult questions. What will it look like when we come out of this situation? How do we continue to brand-build during this period? How do we redeploy our ad dollars in different ways?
Other retailers are looking at ways to monetize and create new businesses off of their data assets, where previously that wasn’t their number one priority. They’re changing the way they’re thinking about running their business and the value they drive.
These are crazy times. People are having to rethink their e-commerce strategies. They’re having to rethink all the different parts of their business. I mean, we’re probably in the greatest control group in the largest experiment we’ve ever seen.
“These are crazy times. We’re probably in the greatest control group in the largest experiment we’ve ever seen.”
Can you expand a little bit on that last point?
From a human perspective, if you look at some of the data sets around health care or climate change, we’ve never seen a situation before where the entire world has stopped driving cars. We’ve never seen a situation where the entire world could only get what they need from the Internet.
We work with a lot of different data providers. Some of them on the location data side are able to provide interesting models around what patterns of human behavior look like right now. There’s a whole host of different patterns we’re able to see now because we’re holding a data collection device in our pocket at all times. It’s an unprecedented time in terms of the amount of data we’re able to collect about people. And, ultimately, we can harness that for good.
Let’s bring it back a little bit to how you’re reacting to the crisis. As you mentioned, you have some companies whose business is surging, while others have basically frozen. How are you reacting to this in terms of your priorities, strategy, and growth?
We were already seeing a lot of opportunities in one of the headwinds we faced around advertising. Three months ago, Google announced that it would ultimately be deprecating the third-party cookie. That presented a new opportunity to create infrastructure in the advertising ecosystem that is privacy-safe, and we delivered the first technology to market around authentication and collecting consent. We’ve seen an uptick in adoption because a lot of publishers are getting more traffic now. It’s an incredible time for them to be collecting data about their readers.
But the interesting thing is that advertisers don’t want to be advertising against a page that has COVID articles on it. So they are changing their behavior. Also, we don’t know if there’s going to be a sports season. We don’t know if there are going to be movie releases this year. There are all these different events where advertisers would usually plan to spend their ad dollars, where they would be guaranteed a wide audience. So now they have to rethink and ask, “How does my budget look? Is that the right size budget for what I’m going after? Do we have to test out channels that we’ve never tested before?”
From our perspective, we’ve shifted a ton of resources into analytics, away from some of the targeting side. We were already doing that because of some of the changes that were happening in our ecosystem. So we were able to ride that wave, but it meant that we did it probably twice as fast. The COVID situation has forced us as a business to make those changes faster than we’ve ever made them before.
“The COVID situation has forced us as a business to make changes faster than we’ve ever made them before.”
How quickly are you seeing clients redo their outreach strategies? Are they completely rethinking them or just making small adjustments?
It depends on the type of advertising. A lot of them are fairly agile and are saying, “Hey, I’ve never tested out Pinterest or Snapchat before, so maybe I’ll move some dollars there.” They can do that reasonably quickly, especially on the digital side.
The TV side is a much more difficult shift, however. The way TV dollars work is that you have a commitment of dollars upfront, and those upfront meetings happen in April. So we’ve missed the period where the vast majority of TV dollars are spent. Plus, there are no guarantees around the type of TV that’s going to be available. Is there going to be an NFL season? Is there going to be an NBA season? Nobody knows.
So you have to look at where else you can find those audiences in order to spend those ad dollars. Where advertisers would have once spent more money spreading the net wider, they are now trying to be more targeted.
You told me yesterday that the current situation has created a narrower focus on the most impactful initiatives. How do you make sure that you’re focused on the right things? Do you have a practical framework that you use?
We’ve ringfenced our top two initiatives and shifted a bunch of people – engineers, product managers, and designers – over to a set of products related to these areas. We’re also doing the same thing on our analytics solution that we brought to market in March. So, practically speaking, we’re doubling down in those areas where we think we can go faster, where there’s an opportunity to gain market share.
“We’re doubling down in those areas where we think we can go faster, where there’s an opportunity to gain market share.”
For example, with our Safe Haven analytics solution, we’re looking at this as an opportunity to go and get retailers who perhaps would have been slow to work with us previously. We’re figuring out what it’s going to take to get those retailers, CPG brands, or publishers into a trial faster.
We’ve gone from having a horizon of 6-12 months to looking at what we need to build this month. We’re trying to increase our cadence of releases in new areas and start to beat that drum a little bit. At the individual product management level, we’re looking at how we can focus on things that are going to complement our two growth areas.
COVID has made us incredibly focused, in a way that we probably never were before. It’s a forcing function for the entire organization because we know that some of the places where we relied on dollars previously aren’t necessarily going to be there. And so we have to be creative.
“COVID has made us incredibly focused, in a way that we probably never were before. It’s a forcing function for the entire organization.”
You mentioned an interesting point yesterday about how the product function sees a bit further ahead than maybe sales or some of the other frontline functions. Can you talk a little more about that?
Sure. I think that product’s job is to understand the circumstances that are going to make people either love or hate a product. So we’ve been focusing on what it’s going to be like when we open things back up again to society. Are people still going to go to the retailer? Are retailers going to have to change their approach? This isn’t going to be a two-month thing; it’s going to be a two-year thing.
“I think that product’s job is to understand the circumstances that are going to make people either love or hate a product. So we’ve been focusing on what it’s going to be like when we open things back up again to society.”
Previously, someone might go to Starbucks on a Saturday morning, then go shopping to buy some yoga pants, then go to the cinema to see Star Wars. That’s three different brands they interacted with that day. Now, that same person might make coffee, buy their yoga pants, and watch the movie all from the comfort of their own home. That may be the new norm. The customer still wants to interact with those brands, but how that interaction happens is entirely different. So we’re focusing on helping our customers understand the ways in which consumer behavior is changing.
Given that COVID has been such a forcing function for businesses, was it difficult for you to agree on what the most important initiatives are?
We’re still in the very early days of trying to align. For our TV or B2B business, for example, we’ve had to throw the roadmaps out to a certain extent. For B2B, the roadmap was mostly around getting very large enterprises to buy our products. Now, we think there’s more of an opportunity in the mid-market, which means that our products have to change completely.
On the TV side of the business, instead of all those products that we were thinking about for the upfronts, we’re asking, “What do recession-proof insights look like? And how do we go out and test something that we think we already have data for?” So we’re really in a test-and-learn mode.
We’re a public company, and we just had our conference where we basically said, “This is the roadmap. This is where we are going.” But now we have to be in a much more iterative, agile state and be comfortable with the fact that whatever we had planned is probably going to change.
“Now we have to be in a much more iterative, agile state and be comfortable with the fact that whatever we had planned is probably going to change.”
Wherever we see adoption, we’re going to have to move people over there. Between product and engineering, we have over 400 people. So getting them to move in a different direction is like steering a pretty large ship.
There’s a lot of pressure to get everyone aligned quickly and on the same page. How do you create an environment where you can share information seamlessly, even while working in a fully remote setup?
In a larger organization, you have to focus on how you cascade information effectively. We’ve started doing weekly AMAs with our Product, Engineering, and Technical Services orgs, and that has been super powerful. We’ve actually got more engagement during COVID times because I think people really want that outreach.
All of a sudden, you have a captive audience. So we are being really thoughtful about our internal communications and their frequency. We’re trying to create as much clarity as we can, from the executive level down to an individual engineer.
We’ve also changed the way we approach meetings. If you think about a typical meeting, you walk in, sit down, and someone puts on a presentation where they walk you through their thought process. It’s more like a broadcast than an interactive discussion.
As a new approach, we’ve started preparing documents that outline how we’re thinking about a problem. Attendees spend the first 10 minutes of the meeting walking through that document. Then, they spend the next 20-50 minutes discussing the problem in-depth while it’s fresh in their minds. This has helped us narrow the scope of discussions, allowing us to make meetings much more productive and engaging.
How has experimentation, R&D, and other future-looking work shifted since COVID?
The good news for us is that we already had a lot of the controls in place prior to COVID. We have a product development lifecycle and a clear set of criteria and vocabulary that everyone in the organization understands. This helps us to communicate where a product is in the lifecycle, what that means, and what different teams need to do to move it to the next stage.
We also have what we call business value drivers that range from 1-5 and cover things like cost expectation, operational efficiency, customer satisfaction, and the impact on short- and long-term revenue. These are well-defined and understood across the organization.
We use these business value drivers for prioritization. But now, we also need to look at whether we’re building products that are on-trend with where we think the world is going. We need to re-ask questions about how much revenue we will be able to capture if we build something. So I think COVID is forcing us to revisit our business value drivers, but it isn’t completely changing the frameworks we use.
“We need to look at whether we’re building products that are on-trend with where we think the world is going.”
You mentioned that you already had pretty good alignment around your business value drivers. Has this changed at all? Is there now more focus on cost over growth, for example?
The situation has certainly impacted the way we think about growing the team. We’re seeing that if we want to invest over here, we’re probably going to have to put something else on pause.
In the past, we might have let those types of tradeoff linger. Now, we have to be much tougher in our decisions around where we are investing and where we are not.
The crisis is eventually going to pass. Are you thinking about the level of investment you can make now in order to ride the wave out in an aggressive growth mode?
We’re still a growth company. So we need to make sure that we are preparing ourselves for a three-year horizon where we aren’t necessarily going to see the same opportunities.
I think a lot of it is about changing the message of your products as well. Previously, we may have gone to a client and said, “Hey, this product will help you understand your customer so that you can increase your budget over here.” Now, we’re in a place where we have to say, “Hey, how do you optimize your spend on paid media?”
We’ve had to change our tactics a little because our customers are changing their tactics as their budgets are shrinking. But we still want to be the way in which they make those decisions.
Given the uncertainty around the post-COVID world, are you able to be proactive with your clients in suggesting strategies you think could be effective?
I think we’re still figuring it out. I wouldn’t say we have all the answers. But one of the questions we’re asking is, which of our customers do we think are going to be successful in a post-COVID world? Also, what things would they be willing to try that they perhaps wouldn’t have previously?
We don’t know what the post-COVID world is going to look like, but it’s interesting to think about the new habits that people are forming now. I’m getting used to buying 90 percent of the things I need on Amazon. I’m also getting used to cooking from home regularly. These behaviors probably aren’t going to change back again rapidly.
“We don’t know what the post-COVID world is going to look like, but it’s interesting to think about the new habits that people are forming now. These behaviors probably aren’t going to change back again rapidly.”
So how do we help restaurants adapt to a world where people aren’t eating out? What about commercial real estate developers who are struggling as a result of the rise of remote work? People aren’t going to offices or restaurants, but maybe there are other ways they can reconfigure their properties.
Being able to give insights into consumer behavior and say, “Hey, here’s what’s actually happening in the post-COVID world,” will help businesses get their infrastructure set up to be able to understand what people are doing and how behavior is changing. It will help them take advantage of this new reality. Some companies won’t survive, but a lot of companies are going to survive and adapt. Helping them adapt is the most important thing we can do.