Why This Ad Ops Firm Never Makes a Mistake

AutonomyWorks Gives Jobs to Autistic Adults, Allows Shops to Outsource Tasks While Also Doing Good for Others

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AutonomyWorks founder David Friedman with his son Matthew
AutonomyWorks founder David Friedman with his son Matthew Credit: Saverio Truglia for Advertising Age

Twenty-somethings sit in swivel chairs, typing as they gaze at computer monitors perched on matching desks. Their work is repetitive, requires precision and must be done quickly. They quietly churn out reports. And they are happy.

For many junior-level associates in media and agency roles, completing tasks including trafficking reports and quality-assurance checks can be monotonous and tiresome. For associates at AutonomyWorks, doing such jobs is a chance to excel in the working world, a goal that often seems unattainable. Most of the team here is on the autistic spectrum.

David Friedman started AutonomyWorks in late 2012 as he pondered what kind of future was in store for his then-teenage son, who has autism. Mr. Friedman, who had worked in advertising and marketing for years, knew there was plenty of advertising operations work that might appeal to people on the autistic spectrum, who often prefer repetitive tasks. That wasn't the case among his coworkers during 11 years at Razorfish.

"There wasn't enough beer, pizza and Cubs tickets in the world to keep them interested in that work for long periods of time," Mr. Friedman said, recalling the young staffers at the interactive agency.

For some, AutonomyWorks is a first job or a gig while pursuing a college degree. Some associates said it is the first time they truly enjoy the work they do.

"We are capable of these jobs just as much as everybody else, if not more," said Daniel Ray, 21, who has been at AutonomyWorks for seven months. "I enjoy constant, repetitive work. I love that type of work because it keeps me in a good rhythm, and I enjoy that."

Associates have a variety of talents. Colin Lacina, 23, said he had limited knowledge of Excel when he joined in 2015. After some training from a former associate and on his own, he gracefully handles thousands of lines of data in spreadsheets and is considered an Excel whiz at the office.

"I feel both respected and supported, which is sort of a tough balance for places to maintain, but I definitely feel that here," Mr. Lacina said.

Sending process work to AutonomyWorks gives agencies and marketers the chance to move their own teams onto work that is more strategic. At ad tech firm Centro, reports for digital campaigns and screenshots of digital ads used to take up to 20% of entry-level workers' time, according to Scott Neslund, exec VP-client services. Now AutonomyWorks handles those tasks, giving media associates more time to do research and possibly bring more insights to a client's media buy, or to improve their accuracy by spending more time on other tasks.

"It was actually a problem for us to retain people at certain levels because the work wasn't entirely what they expected," said Mr. Neslund. "Associates feel like their jobs have pivoted more to what they want it to be versus what it had to be."

Both he and Christine Bensen, senior VP-media of digital marketing agency iCrossing, said their companies are proud of outsourcing some business to AutonomyWorks. Along with getting good results, they feel like they are making a difference in people's lives.

AutonomyWorks handles trafficking for iCrossing. When the agency's junior-level staff did the same work, there might be five errors a month, Ms. Bensen recalled.

"There's a lot of potential for human error and they simply don't make human errors. They are so detail oriented and focused on the work that we have literally not had a single error in two years," she said of the team at AutonomyWorks.

Now, iCrossing has eliminated junior-level trafficking jobs and instead hires for roles such as media planners. Plus, it is starting to have AutonomyWorks handle some of its reporting work.

Digital ad ops makes up about half of the business at AutonomyWorks, followed by reporting and content work. In 2014, the company went from having three clients to a dozen. In 2015, it doubled its business by doing more work for existing clients, and again ended the year with 12 of them. While it was not profitable in 2015, it has been so far this year.

Mr. Friedman, who counts former employer Razorfish as a client, has ambitions to grow the staff in the Chicago area from about 25 to 50 or 100. That would mean finding more room, as the current space in suburban Downers Grove, Ill., won't fit too many more.

Plus, after primarily handling work for agencies and marketers, he thinks there could be business to win from publishers. There is also the possibility of expanding into other cities.

AutonomyWorks finds staff through the Illinois Department of Human Services' Division of Rehabilitation Services. Associates average 22 to 26 hours a week, depending on client demand and the staff's abilities. Hourly wages start at the $8.25 state minimum and rise based on skills.

Mr. Friedman's son Matthew is now 21 and said he likes doing computer work at AutonomyWorks, where he has been for a little more than a year. He also takes classes at the College of DuPage.

"Speaking as a father, it's been unbelievably great for him," Mr. Friedman said.

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