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August 21, 2019, Article

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Quantum leap – why this theoretical physicist now works in martech

This article originally appeared in The Nurture Issue.

Ever thought of making a career change? Anna Grodecka-Grad did – from a tenured position in quantum physics to scalable programmatic advertising. Now, she holds a suite of skills of which other executives could only dream.

There is a very specific kind of person in this world, and they are few and far between. The kind who appear as though everything comes to them without effort, like life has predetermined a winning path for them. Anna Grodecka-Grad is one such person. Except she’s not. What you don’t see when Grodecka-Grad makes her career – spanning science, technology, mathematics, programmatic and executive relations – look easy is a long-crafted and ferocious appetite for knowledge, an impregnable drive for improvement and the tenacity and grit required to get there.

In her past life, Grodecka-Grad spent her time publishing papers titled ‘Indirect spin dephasing via charge-state decoherence in optical control schemes in quantum dots’ and ‘Influence of acoustic phonons on the optical control of quantum dots driven by adiabatic rapid passage’. With a PhD in theoretical quantum physics and close to a decade studying and teaching in tertiary academia, she decided it was time for a seachange.

In 2013, Grodecka-Grad began her new professional journey with martech, programmatic and data management company MediaMath. Today she is responsible for clients’ activation onboarding, ongoing services, consulting and support, custom solutions and integration as chief services officer.

Marketing caught up with Grodecka-Grad to discuss her views on the future of work in the marketing technology and programmatic landscape, the changing role of data within complex organisations and how she translates the skills brought from theoretical physics to our industry.

Josh Loh: How do you see work in the programmatic world evolving over the next five to ten years? Is there a limit to the role automation can play in programmatic or will we see a full lights-out operation one day?

Anna Grodecka-Grad 150 BWAnna Grodecka-Grad, chief services officer at MediaMath:Whether it be in programmatic, digital, advertising, marketing – we talk a lot about technology, but we don’t talk that much about talent, actually. We see a lot of stuff in the press around machine learning, AI, automation and standardisation, and I think as we evolve technology in the way we work, the jobs and the talent that is associated with these technology offerings is also going to evolve. The talent today and tomorrow is going to be the same. The way we’re going to be doing these jobs is going to be different. Some of them are going to disappear or transition into different roles. We may need less specialisation in one area, but then more specialisation in other areas.

If I were to answer that question in one sentence: I see talent and people in advertising and programmatic changing their jobs from being media doers and media execution teams into more of a consulting team – more of a media consultancy approaches.

The way things are being done at the moment; it’s still manual. That programmatic promise to automating everything is not there yet – the technology is complex, but there are a lot of different tasks to fulfil, and a lot of manual work that needs to be done. A lot of it is data collection and rationalisation of different data sources, but you still also have reporting and insights. That manual stuff is going to disappear.

There are certain jobs – think about ad trafficking – where some level of reporting, when we have to merge many different sources of reporting, are done in Excel and other formats. Believe it or not, those jobs still exist, but I think these are the ones that are going to disappear.

Technology applications in the programmatic landscape are going through a perpetual state of change – we’re seeing media giants like Google shift its auctioning model from second- to first-price. How does this impact the philosophy of a programmatic role?

The answer to that question is probably different if you’re a part of the world guns like Google, Facebook and Amazon. It’s different if you are part of an independent and transparent technology company like we are. It also depends on if you are working for the demand-side or supply-side.

We have to be ready to respond to any changes that any of the huge players, any of the public players, are making. Our philosophy is always to put the customer first, and by customer, I don’t mean our clients necessarily. Of course, we are very client-centric, but it’s also thinking about the person in front of the screen, and making sure that we are able to provide an independent platform and service that’s executed in a transparent way. We still are linked to Google Exchange and the way it runs its inventory, so of course if Google makes any changes, moving from second-price auction to first-price auction, we need to very quickly adapt with our technology, with our optimisation algorithm and in the way that we make decisions on behalf of our clients.

So there is an ongoing product roadmapping. We can set our roadmap for a year, but we constantly have to look at what other changes there are in the industry and adopt accordingly.

How is the role of data within the marketing function evolving? Has its trajectory been impacted by the public’s recent concern for data privacy and transparency?

As you say, the only constant in this industry is change. And it’s funny, whenever we think about our talent or hiring, we are always very open about the fact that this is an ever-changing industry – roles are changing, technology is changing – this is an industry for agile and nimble people that thrive in change. That’s the similarity between my previous life in academia and now – always learning, always evolving. And it’s sometimes hard to also find talent that likes keeping up everything.

The other point is the data privacy. MediaMath is a global company, and our tech and teams are designed to be deployed globally. So whenever there are new data policies, like GDPR for example, we want to make sure that we are always respecting the customer, and that we are thinking customer-first.

Believe it or not, there is such a thing as negative marketing. You can actually harm your brand and make your customer exhausted when there’s just too much. Think of any website, YouTube, even the games on your phone; how often are you seeing five of the same ads at the same time? It just becomes annoying. So it’s important to make sure that we’re not sharing the data that customers don’t want shared, not storing cookies they don’t want stored.

Some people like targeted advertising, but some don’t, and some don’t want to see any advertising at all. Our approach has always been customer-centric, always acknowledging and respecting the customer.

We have a really strong team, and we’ve invested a lot into our teams to make sure we’re ahead of it; to always have our technology ready whenever there’s another 25 May with GDPR rolling out. Making sure the tech is ready, that we make the right adjustments to the way we store colleague’s data and the way we report analytics on it. We also have our teams trained so they are fully educated and aware of our strategy and any data privacy related initiatives.

What spurred you to move from theoretical physics to marketing?

I’ve always been a very curious person, always wanting to learn, always reading a lot of books. That’s kind of what drove me into physics in general. I actually started out studying mathematics, but it was too theoretical for me, too slow in a sense. Then I switched to physics, and I was actually doing my masters degree in physics in the engineering department. That was very heavy on technology and engineering. And I was always very interested in electronics and newer technologies and so on; so when I did my PhD I was working with nanotechnology companies building quantum computers with quantum dots – very little physical systems that could act in a quantum way.

Then I was on the theoretical part, I was actually coding for 10-plus years myself and running simulations, but always really close with the experimental teams tech companies.

The reason I made that switch: at some point it became more paperwork and less of the research and the doing. The more senior you are in academia, the more it just becomes admin. I was looking for a job where I would still be doing, where I would still be close to clients and the technology we were building. That’s how I ended up here.

How did you find the transition? Have you found many of the skills transferable?

It was actually much easier than I had anticipated. Both jobs are very collaborative. Project management and being able to explain very complicated things in a simple language – you see that in both worlds. It’s so funny because at some points in academia when you want to do different research projects, you start with writing a proposal, then you have to go and pitch it to a committee or submit it somewhere, then you have to discuss it and then you get it or don’t get it. After that you have to set up a team, activate and deliver. Sound familiar?

I found, actually, more similarities than I was expecting. And it also helps that – though I haven’t coded for a few years – I can still read the code, understand JavaScript and understand how the internet works. Part of my teams are software developers – very technical, very analytical – there’s a lot of data scientists on my team too. Having those technical skills helps me get the credibility and understanding of what our team is handling.

I work really closely with our chief product officer, chief technology officer and head of engineering, and these conversations tend to be very technical. So that helps me, understanding algorithms, understanding how you create a data workflow.

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