Rick Abell, Founder, Ad Ambience
Rick Abell is Founder and CEO of Ad Ambience.
For those who don't know anything about you or your work, can you provide a bit of background?
I got my start in digital marketing and advertising back in the early 2000s. Fresh out of college, I had this engineering degree, but wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do with it. But this whole "internet" thing seemed to be taking off, so I figured that might be a good place to try. And I knew nothing about advertising at all, let alone digital advertising and the economy of the internet. But it seemed interesting, so why not?
My path started at Advertising.com where I was on the demand side of the advertising equation, meaning I worked closely with brands looking to advertise online to sell their products or create awareness of their offering.
In 2010, I moved to the other side of the advertising equation, where I worked at a firm helping publishers monetize their websites. Now I was seeing first-hand some of the unique challenges websites faced in making money, and the trade-offs they have to make between revenue and user experience.
In 2021, I made the leap to join a digital advertising education start-up with a friend of mine. That was an amazing learning experience, and gave me a new window into where the industry was experiencing some gaps in terms of knowledge and available solutions for brands.
20+ years later, I still find the digital ad industry interesting and exciting because it's always changing and there's so much we haven't figured out yet. And that's why late last year, I founded my own startup, Ad Ambience - to help brands cut through the digital ad clutter, cut out legacy approaches and metrics that don't work, and take their brand awareness to the next level.
Was any one person who was instrumental in helping you get from where you started out, to where you are now?
I have to mention the founders of Advertising.com, Scott and John Ferber. They really built something magical there which almost spoiled me since it was my first job out of college. They hired so many bright and innovative people, and then created an awesome environment for them to thrive, from empowerment even for junior roles, to encouraging open discussion, offering great career growth and just making a fun cultural atmosphere that everyone loved. No wonder the company was such an early industry titan in the space.
Is there a particular piece of advice you were given in the early days of your business journey that you still benefit from today?
If you don't know something, ask. Sounds obvious enough, but many times in career settings, we don't want to appear that we don't know something, especially if it feels like we "should know this by now." But not being afraid to ask those questions, no matter how "dumb" they may feel, greatly accelerates learning. I also find it lowers that guard for everyone else in the room/meeting/training so that they will do the same. It's cliche, but if you have the question, someone else probably does too. All of this makes for a super vibrant discussion.
What is the most important lesson you've learned about leadership in your business journey so far?
I'll come back to the idea of "empowerment." You can hire the best and brightest, but if you don't place your trust in them and give them the opportunity to innovate, experiment, and fail, you are selling both of yourselves short. The "letting them fail" part is really the key there. Many organizations think or claim they empower their people, but they put protections in place that stop people well short of the process where they can fail, learn from their failings, adapt their approach, and then try again.
What are the top three things you wish you'd known when you were just starting out?
Do the work to maintain your relationships, the most effective sellers solve problems for clients, and put learning into action as soon as you can.
1. The value of building and maintaining relationships. Starting out, I was way too focused on myself: learning, achieving, hitting my goals and moving my career forward. I met so many awesome people, and I think I did develop some great rapport and relationships with my coworkers in each given role. But when I moved on, whether it was to a higher position, new department, or new org entirely, I didn't do a great job at all of maintaining those relationships. That's definitely a regret that I'm working on fixing these days.
2. This one's somewhat adjacent, but I never gave proper credit to Sales as an essential function. For too long, I had the engineering and product mindset of "if you build a great product, they will come." But really I had the wrong impression of the true role of effective selling. It's not about convincing someone to buy something, or taking them out to a nice steak dinner. It's about understanding someone else's problems and challenges, really putting yourself in their shoes. And then working with them to help them find a solution to that problem. There's way more engineering required in an effective Sales relationship than I originally realized!
3. I love reading and learning. If you want to stay on top of your current industry's news and trends, hear about cool new tools, watch tutorials, or read the latest case studies, there is never a shortage of information available. With me being a first-time founder, there's a million things I don't know, from accounting to law to website creation and even to areas of digital advertising that have always been adjacent to my roles and responsibilities. I can easily find myself going down the rabbit hole, reading article after article and watching video after video. I find I am most productive when I pair learning with doing. If I'm learning something new, try to put it immediately into action while or right after learning it. That can either be doing the thing, or if nothing else, writing a blog or social media post talking about the thing I just learned.
In your experience, what is the most effective way to build a strong network of mentors and advisors to guide you in your business endeavors?
Stay in touch! After we leave any environment, be it a job, or even a city, school or volunteer experience, we always say "stay in touch" or "you can reach me here." But it's really easy to not follow through on that. To grow your network, you have to make it a conscious effort (at least for me - maybe for some, it's effortless!)
How do you determine when it's time to pivot, and what factors should you consider in making that decision?
It's easy to wait for the perfect moment, but that perfect moment often never arrives. For me, the best time to pivot is when you are no longer learning, building new skills, or facing challenges that make you uncomfortable from time to time. I always want to feel I'm growing as a person professionally but personally as well.
How do you stay motivated and inspired during the business cycle of ups and downs?
I think it's usually good to have as many irons in the fire as possible. Things you're passionate about, enjoy doing, or are striving for. This of course can be your professional career, but it can also be hobbies, family, non-profit involvement, community engagement, friends, exercise, etc. We're all busy, so you will never have enough time, but diversified interests can give you more opportunities for wins, even if they are small things that bring a smile to your face. And if you are facing some challenges in one area, having other passions you're involved with may help give you a positive outlet to help pull you through.
Looking back, what one thing would you do differently if you could start your journey over again?
I think I would have tried to participate in more of our team's external sales conversations, especially those with our top sellers. Seeing how they work with clients to understand client challenges, and ultimately how they can help solve real problems, would have been incredibly valuable.