Based in San Francisco, Ari Stein is a people person whose love of relationship-building brought him to digital advertising more than 10 years ago. It wasn’t until 2015, however, that he stepped into a programmatic advertising role for music streaming service Pandora. In 2019, SiriusXM acquired Pandora, eventually merging it with Stitcher, forming partnerships with the likes of SoundCloud, and emerging as SXM Media.
With a background in sales and programmatic, Ari has much wisdom to share on a range of topics—from the rise of programmatic guaranteed to how salespeople can weather a turbulent market in 2023. Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.
What’s one thing that surprises you about the industry today?
Programmatic guaranteed. As programmatic advertising becomes increasingly mainstream, we’re starting to see more and more people who are getting into it, and the newer advertisers don’t have the same background or experience that we do.
I think there are two things that are driving that on the client side. One is that there are certain players in the space who are focusing on different values for programmatic that happen to align with the way they’re set up to drive revenue. The other is that they want the benefits of targeting and managing everything through a single space, but they want the security blanket of having a “fully guaranteed” opportunity.
What advice would you give other salespeople heading into 2023?
We’re looking at a rough year. People are getting cut left and right, recession fears are causing everything to slow down. That’s not been bad for programmatic in the past. When people want control and want to put their budgets up fast, programmatic is an easy way to do that, because you’re controlling from the buy side. But in general, we know budgets are down, there’s fear in the marketplace, and companies might not spend what they’re used to spending. Like Dodgers fans used to say, “There’s always next year.” Everything is cyclical. The money will come back; prepare yourself and be ready to collect it when it does.
How important is education to your sales team, so they can navigate relationships and make the right recommendations?
Education matters a lot. We have 450 salespeople at this company doing different things. For my team, our mission is to be out there marketing to folks with knowledge that underpins the philosophies that we believe in—like transparency, choice, efficiency, and value. That’s what ultimately serves our clients in the programmatic space.
To keep everyone smart on these topics, we keep up with major trades, we make decks, and we hold internal training sessions. Sometimes I host meetings with 100 people, sometimes it is just one-on-one to make sure the information is landing well with people. I think having these open, educational relationships is so important. There’s this misconception that programmatic doesn’t need people—but I think we need people more than ever.
Why are people so important in programmatic?
Programmatic is complicated, it’s fast moving, and every buyer, seller, and campaign is different. One of the reasons we’re so big on education is because being able to see the bigger picture is important. Understanding the macro is essential to approaching this stuff intelligently. If the buyer comes to you and asks for programmatic guaranteed, but that might not be the best way to run things, it doesn’t mean that ask doesn’t matter. You have to be able to see beyond the ask to understand their goal. You have to stretch your mind around the fact that there’s an ideal and then there’s reality, and those things don’t always align. With education, that’s easier to navigate.
What developments are you excited about in digital advertising?
The areas I’m paying closest attention to are data and measurement. Around data, it’s interesting to see how everyone is approaching the problem from a unique perspective, and I’m really paying close attention to where the privacy vs. value debate lands.
In terms of measurement, it’s just always going to be relevant. One of my colleagues always says, “Money follows measurement,” and since we’re opening up into new sectors like podcasting where measurement is problematic, it’s a complicated space that needs a smart solution. I want to see what startups are developing to bring value in terms of measurement to those new channels.
If you weren’t in digital advertising, what would you be doing?
Well, I’ve always known I was a nerd, but only recently did I discover how big of a nerd I am. Once I got a small amount of extra money to throw into the stock market, I became fascinated by it. I think there’s a world where I would’ve really enjoyed being an investor—maybe a personal investor or something like that.
Alternatively, the reason I love what I do now has nothing to do with advertising or tech; it’s because I love people. I’m an extrovert. I’m in sales because I love interacting with people, meeting people, developing relationships. I’ve always had this notion that if I were independently wealthy and I didn’t worry about losing money in the business, I’d have a sports bar.
What team would be playing at your sports bar?
I like to joke that I’m an amateur ornithologist, because it would be the Philadelphia Eagles or the St. Louis Cardinals.
Any parting wisdom?
Stay curious. That’s how you stay ahead of the game—and it’s a lot more fun that way, too.