25 February 2020

In plain English: What does a trader do?

By Nick Hill - regional director, trading and client services, MiQ

A blog series explaining some of the concepts, processes and technologies we need to do our jobs - in plain English. 

“What do you actually do?”

I’ve been a programmatic trader for the last six and a half years, and in that time this question has arisen on a number of occasions with family and friends. So, here’s my attempt to explain, as simply as possible...

The background

There are some things you need to know before we get into the thick of it (I’m also going to be generalising for ease):

  1. Almost every ad that you see on the internet was chosen specifically for you.
  2. In most instances there are a number of different advertisers who want to show you their ad. So, in the milliseconds while your webpage is loading, an auction takes place between these advertisers. Whoever is willing to pay the most gets to show you their ad.
  3. Billions of these auctions take place every day, so it’s impractical for a human to physically bid to show you an ad. Instead, computers do the bidding in an automated way. This is called programmatic buying.
  4. Cookies (crumbs of data all over the web that ‘remember’ your behaviour) mean advertisers can see if a visitor to their website has previously been shown one of their ads.

(Note: Cookies may well soon be a thing of the past. But that doesn’t mean the end of targeted internet advertising. Read our blog post all about it). 

Where do traders come in?

Traders are the people who instruct the computer how to bid in the auctions. Tech platforms provide traders with a myriad of options on the parameters they can choose for those instructions. For instance, I can make an instruction like:

“Whenever a user appears on a mobile device, on, between 9am and 10am, in London bid £1. Keep bidding until we’ve spent £100, then stop.” 

We would refer to this as a campaign strategy. It is one of the many ways in which the ads (in digital advertising they are referred to as ‘impressions’) can be bought for this campaign.

So, an advertiser gives a trader the budget, timeframes, and a brief - for example, £1,000 to be spent next month targeting families interested in holidays. The trader will then set up a number of strategies that achieve that aim and provide the advertiser with £1,000 worth of display ads. 

Is it as simple as that?

Unfortunately, not. Advertisers don’t want to spend just for the sake of it. They want to get results. And those results will vary by advertiser and by campaign. 

Each campaign comes with a KPI or goal in mind. To use the above example, the advertiser probably wants the people who see the adverts to book holidays for their families. 

So the money the trader is spending comes with a target, for instance, we expect at least 20 holiday bookings for the campaign. That would mean that for the £1,000 spent, the advertiser doesn’t want it to cost more than £50 per holiday booked. We would call this the CPA goal (cost per acquisition or action).

Once the trader has set up their campaign strategies, they can use cookies (see above) to work out which strategies are resulting in people booking holidays, and to what degree. Their aim is now to continually tweak the strategy to reduce the CPA. We call this optimising.

Optimising means adding new strategies based on what works the best. For instance, only targeting one website that works really well and bidding more to show adverts there. It also means removing wasteful spending, for instance not serving ads at certain times of day that we can see aren’t working well or to users displaying certain online behaviours that mean we don’t think they’re likely to buy a holiday.

It wouldn’t be unusual for a campaign to have dozens of strategies - I remember one particularly painful campaign with over 1,000 strategies - so it’s the trader’s job to determine what they are and to optimise them to meet the client’s goal. (And to make sure we outperform our competitors who are trying to do the same thing.)

What makes a great Trader?

There are a few qualities that make for great Traders (and one big misconception).

Misconception first: You need a maths degree or similar to be a trader.

The reality is I’ve never used advanced calculus when trading a campaign. It really doesn’t matter if you dropped maths at the earliest opportunity and never went to uni. You can still be a great trader. That said, you do need to feel comfortable with numbers. There’s a fairly constant stream of arithmetic and that’s daunting for some people. But if numbers don’t scare you, you’ll be fine.

Other qualities that make for great traders... 

Conscientiousness and diligence are hugely important. It’s a job where you spend a lot of real money (which is also not your own money). Mistakes will be costly, so we look for people with high levels of attention to detail and consequently lower error rates. We also look for resilience, because eventually everyone does make a costly mistake so you need to be able to bounce back quickly.

The job requires making hundreds of optimisations to campaigns per week, so we look for decisiveness. There isn’t time to go back and forth on one decision for several days. 

And we always look for people who display innovation in their work, and who will push the boundaries of what we can do. We’re proud to be at the forefront of programmatic and we can only stay there because we have great traders who want to stay ahead of the curve.

We also want traders to be chock-a-block full of drive. Without that, nothing gets done. The autonomy of the job absolutely requires it.

Lastly, there’s the unquantifiable X-factor. A great trader looks beyond the numbers. They find establishing the ‘what’ easy, and are always striving to find the ‘why’. They are using the data around them to search for answers, sometimes to a question that the advertiser hasn’t even asked yet. 

A good trader hits CPA targets. A great trader can give an advertiser the insights that help drive their whole marketing and their business strategy forward.

At MiQ, we aim for great. 

For more information on how you can start working with our world class trading team contact

If you would like to find out more about trading roles at MiQ, check out our careers page