Ad Tech’s Walking Dead Startups (DigiDay Interview)

Chris O’Hara is svp of marketing and sales for Traffiq, a digital media optimization company. He has referred to the clutch of ad tech companies with sizable bank accounts from VC investment, not profits, as the walking dead. O’Hara believes that it’s only a matter of time before a massive fire sale begins in the industry.

Explain the idea of a walking-dead company?

Walking dead companies are venture-funded companies that are sort of stumbling along revenue wise, making enough money to stay afloat or surviving on their financing by having a relatively low burn rate. They’re not going to have a super successful exit anytime in the future. They may be very exciting, innovative companies, but they have a hard time getting VCs pumped up. Venture funds tend to place a lot of bets and hope that they get big wins from a small percentage of them. Like any investment vehicle, a VC’s portfolio has its mix of winners and losers, although the typical VC portfolio tends to be less diversified in terms of its industry focus. When I heard Jon Soberg of Blumberg Capital — it is a backer of Legolas, HootSuite, and DoubleVerify, among others — use the phrase “the walking dead,” it felt extremely appropriate. A lot of companies in the digital display landscape are running out of capital after 3 or 4 years and several rounds of financing—and most of them will exit at low or zero multiple of valuation. Then again, smart investors like Grotech Ventures find a Living Social to invest in every now and again, and that is the kind of deal that can propel the value of an entire portfolio.

 

Are VCs beginning to cool in regards to investing in ad tech and social, in light of the economy?

On the contrary. I think the valuations of LinkedIn, Facebook, and Living Social have the VC community excited, maybe even overexcited, to be honest. The recent Buddy Media announcement is just one example, raising $54 million to plump its valuation to $500 million, and there are sure to more such valuations coming soon. I think what VCs aren’t too excited amount is the amount of companies within the display landscape that are going to flame out, or exit at fire sale prices. Unfortunately, according to Luma Partners banker Terence Kawaja, over half of the 35 deals in the last year didn’t produce a return on capital, and he expects that number to increase over time.

 

What are VCs doing right, or wrong, in ad tech?

If their funds make a decent return on investment, then they aren’t doing anything wrong! It may seem like that to company insiders working for some of the less fortunate companies, but VCs are not in business to keep ad-tech executives in panel discussions at cocktail-soaked industry conferences. They are in business to build companies to sell them, or put them into a public offering. I think certain well-heeled VCs may be making the venture capital business a lot harder by over-inflating the valuations of some of the larger companies in our business, but I think that’s due to the flight of money from increasingly unstable capital markets to other investment vehicles. There is a lot of cash on the sidelines right now, and venture funds are starting to look like a surprisingly safe haven. While that should scare the average investor, it makes for a very fun, frothy environment for ad technology!

 

So how should an investor, in this market, value a Demand Side Platform (DSP) company?

I would give them a 1x-3x valuation, similar to a successful digital media agency — and only if they were showing strong profitability and something unique about their process which was repeatable. The problem with the current landscape is that the excitement has been driven in large part by many of the companies that I have just described — companies with more hype than real technology with a unique IP.

 

What should ad tech Investors look out for?

I think investors have to watch out for a rapidly collapsing landscape, due to the social factor. You have an entire ecosystem built around audience targeting using 3rd party data. The problem? The companies with better and deeper first-party data have a lot more audience — like 750 million profiles for Facebook alone — than all of the companies in our landscape put together. And Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google have just started to define their display advertising strategy. If audience targeting is as easy as it seems to be now, via Facebook, then what is the real value of many of those little logos in the Kawaja map?

 

[This interview was originally published in Digiday on 8/25/11]

Dawn of the Dead

Is Your Ad Technology Company Disruptive, or Just Another Zombie?

AdTech 2011, San Francisco CA – Every year, San Francisco is abuzz with hope and opportunity as thousands of ad technology executives pour into a  few square blocks around the Moscone Center to try and turn technology dreams into riches. On the inside of the convention center, an odd assortment of e-mail and affiliate marketing tools vie for the jaded eyes of direct marketers. On the outside, more seasoned media technology executives find themselves in and out of luncheons and panel discussions, mostly trying to figure out the real time landscape, and the data surrounding it.

There is a lot of high risk venture capital fueling the ad technology business, as a very crowded LUMA map can attest. The Kawaja logo vomit slide never seems to shrink, although the dotted red lines indicating acquisitions appear from time to time. Burst Media is probably getting updated on the map as we speak.  Its recent acquisition by Blinkx at a 1-time gross revenue valuation is a stinging reminder that not all dreams (even those with scale) turn to gold. Despite reaching some 61% of the US Population, Burst lost $3M in its last year as an independent operation.

At the recent AdWeb 3.0 conference, venture investors Josh Stein of Draper Fisher Jurvetson (Glam, Skype, Targetcast, Cafe Mom) and Jon Soberg of Blumberg Capital (Legolas, HootSuite, DoubleVerify) talked about what is getting VCs excited in the space…and those companies that are not. Obviously, mobile is seeing an influx of early stage capital as next generation media technology application development progesses. For Stein, “the engagement in mobile is extreme—you may only be getting 3 minutes [of a consumer’s attention], but it is full engagement.” Video is also an area that will see significant investment capital as more and more video content finds its way onto computer, mobile, and tablet screens. YouTube’s recent moves with “Next” around original content creation were cited as positive developments in the space. Also mentioned was the growing area of social curation of video content (using social media technology to make sense of the potentially thousands of “channels” in the ether).

On the other side, Stein questioned the “long term economics” of Groupon and its many clones and also threw cold water on Foursquare by wondering aloud whether  “checking in” is a “long-term, sustainable” business model.  An audience member inquired whether we are currently “in a bubble” in terms of media technology, but the question was quickly dismissed. Unlike real financial bubbles that sweep up pension funds and real estate, “this bubble will likely pop on VCs…not consumers.” I suppose that is refreshing enough for the average consumer, but it is likely that many of the technology executives at AdTech have the fear of being popped along with their overinflated companies.

Lumascape

The recently updated "Display Lumascape" (as of 6.7.2011)

That leads me to the heart of the conversation: what our venture capital friends think of the crowded ad technology landscape, and their assessment of the companies within it. Jon Soberg seems to think that there are a lot of “walking dead” companies on the LUMA map: those companies that “can get quickly acquired by Google for $10 or $20 million, but don’t move the needle for venture investors.” Looking at the LUMA map, I think it is hard to argue with Jon. There are a lot of hands in the middle of the transaction between advertiser and publisher, and many of the companies therein aren’t adding as much value as they are taking out. The difference between truly valuable and exciting companies can easily be summed up by one word: disruption.  In other words, is your company’s technology doing something completely different and revolutionary, or is your company merely adding another incremental improvement or technology layer on an existing process?

It seems like most companies in the middle of the map are the type of companies that are walking dead. “Nice to have” technology rather than “must have” technology that will drive our business forward. So, what advice does the investment company have for the current companies in the space—and those that are looking to raise capital and jump into the crowded ad technology pool?

  • Disruption: As Soberg points out, “it’s not about shaving at the margins, it’s about disruption.” For Soberg, the value of facilitating real time media trading is interesting, but is being “squished out,” making it entirely possible for companies to “arbitrage themselves out of existence.” For me, this simply means that being a bolt-on technology for media trading is not the path to riches, only the path to a low-value exit. Your technology must create value with your data, rather than simply creating more of it.
  • Publishing: How can technology add value to the media transaction to publishers? This is an area ripe for investment and plenty of high value exit potential. In a world of highly commoditized inventory, where publishers have (foolishly) undervalued and overexposed their inventory, technology has a chance to fix things. How can the recent “app” revolution (where people actually pay for content) “reset” online publishing, and start to create higher value inventory? Glam and Tremor were cited as two companies that “add value in the middle of the transaction.”  Technology that enables publishers to “figure out” mobile and video (rather than just helping them sell more remnant inventory) are going to win.
  • Creative: One quote that struck me was Josh Steins’ excellent observation that “the Madmen [advertising] model wasn’t efficient…but it was profitable.” In other words, much of the magic and creativity in advertising has been replaced by technology, but technology isn’t what makes advertising effective. It’s ideas. Absolut bottles represented in every way possible…subservient chickens…the things which get and keep our attention. Maybe technology will standardize a good part of the transactional process of advertising, but the real winners in the ad tech space will be those technologies that help agencies put their focus back on creativity, rather than figuring out month-end billing and reconciliation.

It’s a crowded landscape out there, and there are many more red dotted lines to be added to the LUMA map. The ones that offer disruptive technology ideas that start returning value back to the advertisers and publishers, and away from the murky middle, will be the ones that avoid death…or “walking death.”\

[This article appeared on 4/28/11 in Business Insider]