Demand Side Platform (DSP) · Digital Display · Digital Media Ecosystem · Online Media · Real Time Bidding (RTB) · TRAFFIQ

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]

Data Management Platform · demand side platform · Demand Side Platform (DSP) · Digital Display · Digital Media Ecosystem · DMP · Online Media · Real Time Bidding (RTB)

Digiday:Daily Interview (Repost)

The right exit?

During the past year, the number of tech companies has exploded. There are some 245 logos on the (in)famous Luma Partners slide. Some of those have been acquired, but many have not and, in the eyes of several observers, are more features of products than standalone companies. In an economic downturn, with its focus on wringing efficiency, how many will be able to argue for a small slice of ad buys?

“People are all talking about the Luma slide,” said Tom Deierlein, managing director of Tagman, an ad technologies firm. “And they all want to pat themselves on the back and say, ‘Yeah, we made the Luma slide!’ If you go back to the original presentation of the slide, the point is that the industry is too cluttered. Too many people have their hands out, and there are not enough dollars to support all of the companies, and all of the tollbooths being put up. There is not enough money to support the ad ecosystem.”

Deierlein’s sentiments are echoed by analysts within and outside of the ad technology industry. The ad technology herd will “absolutely” be thinned, according to Erin Hunter, evp of media at Comscore. The proliferation of ad technology companies, some offering little or no transparency on their operations, won’t continue in an economy where brands want results, not simply assurances, according to Hunter.

“Brands want to know that there is a human on the other side of that impression,” said Hunter. She believes that advertisers will soon start to demand a system of “checks and balances” that will make ad technologies back up their product stack with verifiable results. Those firms not able to illustrate their value with transparency will eventually implode. At the end of the day, with the dizzying array of ad technologies, from DSPs to DMPs to SSPs to AMPs, there is still the question of what value each player is bringing to the table.

“When everyone has access to the same tools, there tends to be little differentiation and, consequently, value in an industry,” said Chris O’Hara, svp of marketing for Traffiq, an ad technologies firm. “Ad tech provides a highly robust example of this. Take DSPs and agency trading desks, for example. Everyone buys the same exact inventory from Google, Right Media, Microsoft, OpenX, PubMatic, Admeld and Rubicon, for example, and uses data that spring from the same sources such as IXI, Experian, Acxiom, etc. It’s extremely simple to get access to technology that enables you to leverage those things. So, what makes the companies that do real-time bidding valuable? They don’t own the inventory or the data. Many of them use the same machine-learning algorithms licensed by IPonWeb to drive optimization, and most deploy a roomful of smart account managers to help their clients manage and optimize their campaigns. As an investor, what value do you ascribe to those companies?”

And then there’s the simple fact of M&A: that there aren’t enough chairs to go around. There’s clearly the need for consolidation — Google’s vp of display advertising Neal Mohan regularly stresses this — but it’s hard to find a home for all those logos on the Luma chart.“Is there an explosion in the number of ad tech companies? Yes. Is that going to continue? No,” said venture capitalist Mark Suster in a recent Digiday interview. “In a bull market the number of startups in a category multiplies by as much as ten, and then when the markets collapse then they consolidate or shut down, and that is normal.”

The problem isn’t simply a general me-too mentality among startups, according to Deierlein. It’s that many companies bring nothing new to the table, often because they aren’t expected to. Companies are forgetting the history of the technology markets, Deierlein believes, and so many companies are simply plunging headlong into a complicated market without assessing whether or not their business model is an improvement on what is commonly offered in the “already cluttered ecosystem.”

“The clutter has come from the amount of money to be made in the ad technologies industry,” said Josh Kraft, marketing director for data analytics firm InfiniteGraph. “Eventually we will see companies being pruned, in a sense. Companies will have to back up their claims with actual client references. It requires a significant capabilities with data to compete, survive and thrive now.”

[This post appeared in DigiDay:Daily on 8/16/2011]

Advertising Agencies · Demand Side Platform (DSP) · Digital Display · Digital Media Ecosystem · Marketing · Media Buying · Media Planning · Online Media · Real Time Bidding (RTB) · Remnant Monetization

Ecosystemopoly

LUMA Partners amusing “Adtechopoly” game

DIGIDAY: Target, New York, 5 May 2011 – If you work for one of the companies within the famed Kawaja logo vomit map, the only place to be today is at DigiDay Target. The event, in which every single presentation referenced or displayed the famous slide in question, is the nexus point for ad technology executives, publishers, advertisers, and investors looking to understand—and profit from—an increasingly volatile industry.

“The Ecosystem Map is a DR game” – Terence Kawaja, LUMA Partners

From the top down, the digital display advertising ecosystem map may actually look like a Chinese menu from which large, SaaS model companies can select best-of-breed players to consume. Over the coming months and years, most of the companies within the map will either become profitable or (better yet for the acquirer) battered down in valuation, and subject to an exit scenario. The slightly profitable ones will become features of larger platforms. The fun new twist on the LUMA map is the recently unveiled “Adtechopoly,” in which companies appear as Monopoly board game properties, and the players traversing the board are Google, Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft, IBM, and Adobe.

Most properties will leverage themselves and go bankrupt (do not pass go, do not collect $200M exit). Many will be acquired, and few will exist as independent businesses. So, what is the prognosis? Here is what I heard this morning:

—  Bubble: What bubble? Just because VCs are pouring lots of risk capital into questionable businesses, doesn’t mean we have a bubble. After all, a VC has to have a fairly low success rate to return value to investors. Unfortunately, according to Kawaja, “over half of the 35 deals in the last year didn’t produce a return on capital.” Kawaja expects that number to increase over time. But bubble? Not really. According to Kawaja, based on 2007 levels, multiples are not nearly where they were, so “it doesn’t feel like a bubble” to him. Unfortunately, it may feel that way for many of the ad technology folks in the room.

—  Who’s going to Take Over: The general consensus has been that Google is going to own most of the decent technology powering the advertising ecosystem, but Kawaja admits to “spending lots of time with IBM, SAP, Adobe, and Oracle.” For big SaaS companies, advertising is just one more industry to power with technology. That being said, “there are some really cool companies trying to piece together a stack” that will aggregate and organize the disparate technologies in the space.

—  Agencies: The holding companies on the new Ad Monopoly map cleverly appear as the railroads. Big, entrenched, and monopolistic, holding companies continue to command the lion’s share of advertiser budgets, but struggle to continue to be relevant to their clients. Agency trading desks were somewhat derided for having nothing more than “pretty logos,” instead of pure play technologies. Clients are looking to their agencies to be system integrators, and evaluate and deploy new technologies on their behalf but…they are agencies. In other words, agencies are not the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “systems integration.” Companies like SAP are. When the SAPs of the world are in the game, and having “big company to big company” process discussions with advertisers, do you think Omnicom will not be in the room? Me neither. As Kawaja correctly notes, “inertia is the agencies’ friend” but things are moving pretty quickly.

—  Remarketing: As for this highly popular and effective part of the ecosystem, “these companies only work because of failure.” In other words, according to Kawaja, remarketing to consumers only has to occur because advertiser sites are so non-engaging that the marketer has to pay (again) to bring that consumer back to the site. As advertisers work with their technology and agency partners to build more compelling online experiences, this need will shrink. For me, these companies suggest more of a feature, than a business onto themselves.

—  Where’s the Beef? For Kawaja, “the meat in the sandwich is the intelligence layer.” If we believe that advertising will continue to be more science than art going forward, the companies that win will be those that build the engines that decide “if this, then that” and create performance. Right now, the technologies in the industry are focused on direct response advertising, which provides a hyper intense proving ground for the technologies that purport to inject performance into campaigns, and get data insight out of them. The future, however, will depend on how those technologies adapt to the premium brand advertiser.

—  Creative: There’s been a lot of talk about the need to transfer the rich experience of magazine reading (beautiful photos and design) to cluttered online pages, filled with flashing, annoying, interruptive ads. Project Devil is leading the way in bringing an “engaging, beautiful” experience online, so look for more entrants who can migrate truly interactive (rich media and video) experiences online at scale.

I will have more to come on a very exciting and high quality seminar…including what seems like some virulent industry backlash on 3rd party data and RTB players.  For now, industry players should spruce their properties up as the players warm the dice in their hands, and get ready to traverse the board. The moves your ad technology company makes in the next few months may make the difference between being located at Boardwalk…or Baltic Avenue.

[This post was referenced on the 5/10/11 edition of AdExchanger and published in  Business Insider]

PS: Does anyone else find it hilarious that AOL is the dog?