Story of the Dancing Unicorn: the reality of a UA Manager

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I’ve led the development, planning, and execution of UA strategies for multiple game franchises. €32m in profitable ad spend, 35 game launches, and 10 years of drudgery later, I am here running my consultancy. My career wasn’t always rosy – I’ve dealt with a lot of bullshit from the pace of digital marketing and the wild west of the gaming industry.

But the unicorn is a mythical creature, joyous, pompous, and shits glitter. It’s a combination of the majesty of a horse, the wonder of a narwhal, and a bit of UA magic. There’s a reason angel investors are obsessed with the rocketship and unicorn emojis – because it represents something special and out of the ordinary. 

That’s why I draw a comparison between unicorns and successful UA managers. It’s one thing to be good at digital marketing – and another to truly be successful in mobile gaming. 

It’s adapt or die. 

In this article, I’m going to share with you my real-life experiences and stories (aka Diary of a Dancing Unicorn) that paint a vivid picture of my career. Let’s hope it doesn’t scare you 😉

Keep reading the tips to improve your UA. Simple, practical & efficient! That’s it, no bullshit! No fluff intro, straight to the point. 

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Why is being a UA manager hard…if at all?

The Mobile User Acquisition manager’s job is to make gaming companies a lot of money by driving installs. If you’re good, your salary has no bounds. And if you’re average, you can probably have a steady job for a few months before you hop to another (turnover is very high for this job) and it can be pure chaos sometimes. Here’s an example of one of my calls this past year:

Today was a good day!
Hey hey, long time no see. Could we jump on a call ASAP? We have new UA activities, but we don’t have the internal team to do it. And we would like you to manage it.

Sure thing, let’s discuss.

We have a client with solitaire games. We manage affiliate marketing and other stuff for them. They just approached us to take over the UA as well. Obviously we agreed, because we can’t lose this client.

Alright, how many games?

All of them. They have 3 games right now.

How can you say yes to 3 games, when you don’t have the UA team? 😀

Again, we can’t lose this one. It’s super important, so we will do whatever it takes to keep them. Can you do it for us?

Okay then. I can definitely help. Here is the pricing. Let’s kick it off.

Oh, but we have really small margins on this one. Can you give us a discount?

huh? You don’t have internal team, you approached me, you want me to start ASAP and when I said yes, you ask me for a discount?

(3 weeks passed)

Hey! So we decided to start hiring internally. Thanks a lot.

Today was a good day!

Yeah, most people don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. But that’s okay! 

The good news is that phones, apps, and games rule the world, so while the job market is plenty, a true unicorn requires you to be both knowledgeable about the industry and a practitioner (more on this later).

The truth is – the job is difficult and changes so quickly. Whatever worked yesterday won’t work today. Here are a few high-level challenges you may face:

  • Working with fragmented data
  • Ensuring your data is trustworthy
  • Managing upwards and effectively reporting
  • Ad creative production (resources, scheduling, ideation)
  • Navigating quickly changing post-IDFA rules 
  • Optimizing and testing the SKAN conversion schema

bla bla bla, obviously much more .. 

Attributes of a Dancing Unicorn 

There is no strict career path in this space, and there must be a balance between learned skill and natural creativity. Because of its ambiguity, I noticed a pattern…

Today was a good day!
It’s really great to see companies hiring advisors.

In my opinion, advisors should demonstrate knowledge and skills that can help companies improve & grow. This requires a certain level of experience.

Seeing companies hiring advisors with very little to none UA experiences in their 4 years career with zero global launched games is definitely very funny brave.

But who am I to judge?
Today was a good day!

Here are some of the real attributes that’ll make you a unicorn. 

Follow the money

Unicorns go with the tools and partners that have the highest returns. UA managers are at the mercy of whatever Facebook, Google, or Apple decides to do with their products. Don’t get romantic about certain strategies, just stick to testing your hypothesis and using the tools that work for you right now. Check out the latest tips for killer UA ops to know what’s going on!

Today was a good day.

My dancing friend! Why are you sharing so much insights on your blog & podcast? You should monetise this and keep it after a paywall!

Huh? Why?

What do you mean why? To earn more money and to be rich.

Dude, seriously? Why everybody only cares about money? This is ridiculous. I don’t give a fuck about money. It was never my motivation anyway. We are working in the industry where people actually help each other, this is my way of helping. When I was young, nobody was here to help me and I just want to change it.

Hmm. Okay, but you can help and earn money from it.

Sure, but I would rather do it this way. It’s more natural for me.

Okay, we will find someone else to work with on the monetized content.

Be my guest! Enjoy

Today was a good day.

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Tech savvy

It’s not enough to read the news about the mobile space – it takes time and practice to read between the lines (or the headlines). It’s almost all PR anyway. I’m sure you’re able to relate to this diary entry I wrote about the terrible content out there:

Today was a good day!

Casually listening to an interview. The host asks questions about different KPIs, how the guest uses them and what else he/she measures. 

The answer was just great:

blablbalblablablablbalblbalblalballablb, 4 minutes of bullshit talking about how measuring KPIs is important (no shit sherlock!) ending with simple I am sorry this is a broad question I can’t answer easily.

What the actual fuck?!

Why being on a podcast or show when you don’t answer properly, straight to the point, adding value, no bullshit. Why?

Unbelievable! Immediately turned off the podcast after this answer.


Today was a good day!

It’s important to know the actual impact of major changes in the ecosystem, and the best way to form your own perspective is by reading tactical pieces by experts, joining communities, and listening to podcasts. 

That is only one part of it. You also need to have your boots on the ground, do the real work, test it out yourself, and spend a significant amount of money (hopefully not your own). The ability to think critically is vastly underrated and fucking hard to find these days.

Here are a few resources you should check out to get started:

  1. MobileDevMemo.com
  2. Deconcstructoroffun.com
  3. Quantmar.com
  4. two & a half gamers podcast (of course)
  5. My Brutally Honest newsletter (of course)

Skeptically creative

Gaming ads are…unique (for lack of a better word). Your creativity needs to be balanced with skepticism. You need to come up with new ideas but also be ready to challenge every belief you hold, because at the end of the day, the numbers never lie. Being skeptical means you’re asking the hard-hitting questions that’ll keep you on your toes and take your campaigns to the next level.

These questions can include:

  • What is the timespan of our LTV model? Is it 30, 60, 90 days?
  • What is the reasoning using CPM bidding vs CPI bidding for this campaign?
  • What major changes are coming that may impact our weekly spend?
  • How often should we review our campaign budgets? How many meetings do we need? How often and with whom?
  • What channels aren’t hitting the benchmarks? Why? Should I pause them or optimize?
  • Which channels are bringing in the highest quality of users. Why?
  • What successful ads can we replicate?
  • What are impactful tests we can run?

Watch out – there are too many bullshitters in the industry too. Asking good questions is the best way to sniff them out. Here’s how one of my interviews went:

Today was a good day.

Hey! Let’s have a call. My very good friend recommended you as an UA expert. Would love to chat more.

Sure, let’s do it.

Nice to meet you! How would you structure the launch of the game? What strategy would you use to grow our community? What is your creative approach? Tell me step by step.

Whoah. Wait a minute! These are very specific questions. Honestly? I have no idea yet. I need to sit down, think and then I can come up with a strategy.

Okay, but tell me how you do this for other games.

I am sorry, I can’t do that. It’s under NDA. I have some case studies online, I will share those, if you want.

You know. I am trying to find out if you are a good or bad UA manager. That’s why I am asking these questions.

?????

So, can you tell me how you would grow a community for our game?

Dude, wait a second. These are questions I answer after I sit down and think. I don’t create strategies on the first call.

But, how should I know if I want to work with you?

Well, I didn’t say I want to work with you in the first place.

Wait, what do you mean?

Exactly what I said. I don’t work with everybody.

Today was a good day.

Resilient

The uncertainty isn’t for everyone. If you’re not willing to evolve and look at the changing ecosystem as an exciting challenge, maybe it’s time to consider a career in accounting. To be a dancing unicorn, you have to be resilient and perform well under pressure. A dash of optimism goes a long way.

Glories of a UA Manager

Why is a UA manager job…important, so hard, so stressful, so expensive, and so bad? While Google has a point, it’s not all doom and gloom. Yes the job is a combination of all those, but the rewards at the end of the day are worth it. 

Even through the anxiety of not burning cash and being able to sit through an hour of interrogation of why we just spent an extra $50,000 on a failed campaign. The CEO then will ask me to put together a list of all the campaign changes in his email by 7AM. Fortunately enough, days like these are over. I only work with nice people these days!

The road to becoming a dancing unicorn is a journey, and you’re pioneering into new territory everyday. This means that your merit will speak for itself. If you’re good, the results will prove it – regardless of your education, background, or age. And you will earn your keep.

That’s the draw. More often than not, you’ll get to work on really awesome games with really great companies and amazing people!

Yes, the job is hard as fuck…

But you’ll love it. Every day is a challenge and you’ll constantly challenge yourself to become a better marketer, advertiser, and entrepreneur. And I am loving the journey so far. I will be writing more bullshit-free newsletters, recording more podcasts, and writing more articles like these, so stay tuned for more content. 

On that note, I’ll leave you with one last story:

Today was a good day.

Hey, you! It’s been a while. I see you are doing so well. Writing articles, producing podcasts, and content all over the place. Great job! There is only one thing that really hurts you and drags you down.

Really? What’s that?

Your sarcastic and ironic comments on LinkedIn. That shit really hurts your brand. You should stop doing that. It doesn’t get you anywhere.

Well, it got me to the Sarcasm World Championship in Peru in 2014.

Really?

No.

See? You should definitely stop.

How about, no?.. thanks.

Today was a good day.

Life is hard. Enjoy it! 

Oh wow! You made it until here! You must be very engaged. I like that type of players.. Ehm, people!

Please share this article with your industry friends. It would mean a world to me. 

Also, subscribe to my newsletter. It’s so honest it might actually annoy you. If you are easily annoyed, please don’t subscribe. 

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