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The Foundations of Process Optimization

Published: November 4, 2013

Author: Gordon Khoo

I’m a process and efficiency fiend.  I like words like “optimization,” “automation,” and “execution.”  I hate things that are too manual, too time-consuming, and too tedious.  Bill Gates once said, “I choose a lazy person to do a hard job, because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”  I’m lazy.
Our blog editor, knowing this, asked me to write something about “process optimization.”  Awesome—my favorite topic!  I gave some thought to what specifically I could write about.  Then I realized I couldn’t.
Why not?  Throughout my experience, I’ve found that it’s far less effective to focus on a specific task than to share the building blocks of the task.  Teach a person to fish instead of giving them one.  I’ve also found that there’s much to be learned about efficient execution from cooking, so with that let’s enter the kitchen.
Boiling water: When cooking, this task is very much preparatory.  It usually takes awhile and requires no engagement once initiated, so to save time it’s best to do this first and while you wait for it to reach a boil, you do everything else you need to do like chop, cut, peel.  There are a number of daily motions for a marketer that fit this criteria; some that come to mind are getting recent changes in AWE, BAE, and the like; syncing changes; or entering a lot of data and waiting for Excel to process it.  Do these tasks first, and then tackle whatever else you have next.
Use recipes: When a dish turns out really well, someone “templatizes” it by making a recipe.  Then others can quickly and easily replicate the dish by following the process, without the initial hassle of experimentation, mistakes, and unusable results.  If you have a report that needs to be updated frequently (client reports, ad testing, etc.), you’ve probably gone the extra mile to make it a visual masterpiece.  Why not templatize this as well?  Then each week all that needs to be done is dumping in the data straight as it comes from AdWords, Bing, etc. and your report will take a fraction of the time it used to.  To do so, instead of simply having one sheet with your static data values well formatted, create two sheets: one client-facing sheet (the well-formatted one) and one “raw data” sheet that remains hidden.  Then simply have the client-facing sheet reference your “raw data” sheet, and so any time you need to update the report you simply copy and paste new data into your “raw data” sheet and barely touch the client-facing one!
This isn’t limited to just reports, either.  Any repeated task can usually benefit from a template of some sort: keyword and ad upload sheets always require the same columns, so create a blank template (or even a macro) for this so you don’t have to populate it each time.
Use the right tools: You wouldn’t use a hammer to slice, so why use the AW UI when you can use AWE?  AWE is a very powerful tool that can save you lots of time, but that’s usually a given.  On top of AWE, there’s something to be said for using the correct “tool” or formula in Excel to manipulate large data quickly and easily.  The IF() function is one of my favorites, especially when used in conjunction with other formulas.  You simply provide it a condition, and if this condition is met/true it will return one value, if it’s unmet/false it will return another.  Its syntax is:
=IF(condition,value if true,value if false)
A simple use-case would be to check if a cell’s value is greater or less than another value:
=IF(A3>5,”Greater”,”Less than”)
This would then check the value in A3 and if its value is greater than 5, the formula will return “Greater”, and if it’s less than 5 it will return “Less than”.  Another use-case is when you get a report with the date in the same column as non-date values (usually if you segment your data by conversion action name, or get data from other providers like Siebel) and you need to parse out the date quickly into its own column:
IF statement 1
Here, the date is in the same column as ad group name but I want to associate the date with each ad group name in column A as a line-item.  Instead of filtering this column for all the date values and manually copy pasting them to column A, I parse out the date with an IF() statement:
Here, I am using the ISNUMBER() function—which simply checks if a cell’s value is a number or not—within the IF().  By using these two together, this formula is checking if the cell diagonally to the right (B2) is a number; if it is a number (if this is true), it will pull that number; if (B2) is not a number (if this is false), it will pull in the cell above instead (A2).  The logic behind this is because you want to just write this formula once and send it down the range, you want it to continually check if the date changes, and when it does use that date in column A, and as long as the value is not a date but an ad group name, it’ll use the date in the cell above it:
So you can see that in B4, it’s still checking the cell diagonally to the right (B3), and since this time it is not a number (so it evaluates to false), it pulls in A3’s value instead of B3.  Then in A25 you can see that B24 is a number so it pulls in that value instead of using A24.  Excel can be very powerful once you start mixing and matching formulas, the point being not to pigeonhole any one tool (or in this case formula) to perform one strict function.  Learn how the tool works, and once you do that you can apply it in creative ways people probably have never thought of!
Of course this frame of mind extends far beyond just number crunching and ads management.  Knowledge is only useful insofar as you know how to apply it: knowledge is knowing tomato is a fruit, wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.  You can know about every search lever out there, but if you don’t know which ones to pull and when, they’ll do you no good.  But break something down to its core tenets and learn how to mold them to your use and the possibilities are endless.  With that I leave you with one last cooking-related nugget of wisdom from Ferran Adria, widely considered one of the best chefs in the world:
“We didn’t create dishes.  We create preparations to create many dishes…We are going to create preparations and from those preparations many dishes may be created, and this is really a change of paradigm.”

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