Xaxis global president on AI and why he made the leap into programmatic from Yahoo

Nicolas Bidon, global president of Xaxis

Once misunderstood, programmatic, the art of using machines to buy ads, is now becoming more prevalent in the advertising industry.

Last year, 73 per cent of advertisers’ total budgets were spent on programmatic and this number is only expected to rise this year. For Nicolas Bidon, global president of Xaxis, the reach of programmatic extends far beyond what most brands and agencies might expect.

“It frees up time for people in [brands and] agencies to focus more on the creative story they want to tell to these different audiences. It takes away some of the tedious work of trafficking campaigns and trying to do a bit of guesswork as well - going from media planning to audience planning. That's the best way I would describe it.”

Xaxis is a huge player in the programmatic space. Launched only six years ago, by WPP and GroupM, the digital media platform’s technology allows advertisers to target specific audiences across multiple digital platforms. But while the company has enjoyed tremendous growth – the ride has been far from easy says Bidon. In addition to dealing with the increasing headcount, Xaxis has been busy with a few notable acquisitions. The company welcomed native advertising company Plista into the Xaxis family and most recently, digital retail media expert Triad Retail Media.

Bidon says that Xaxis solves the marketing challenge of having an “integrated approach to marketing communications” by making the complicated consumer journey easier to understand.

But with many programmatic offerings in the marketplace what makes Xaxis unique? Bidon says Xaxis differentiates itself by using a special technology called the “singular ID” which builds “the full picture of the person behind the ID”. This means Xaxis can understand the “personality and inclinations of the people behind the screens” to then match them with relevant ads.

“That ID is part of our proprietary data management platform and audience engine, our own technology we invested tens of millions in over the years which really builds that full picture of the person behind the ID. We have a wealth of data from working for some of the largest advertisers in the world.”

Where it gets interesting is programing algorithms to optimise the way marketers buy media to deliver specific outcomes, says Bidon. Something that has the potential to be a huge time-saver for busy marketers.

“We optimise those campaigns manually but also rely on our predictive AI engine called Co-Pilot which basically takes all these data points and writes custom algorithms to optimise the media buy versus a specific objective. Very few of our competitors do this,” he adds.

Never fall behind – lessons from Yahoo

Bidon says Xaxis prides itself on being a real differentiator in the programmatic space – but his time at Yahoo also taught him how important it is to always stay ahead of the curve, given that at the time of his tenure the company was facing some tumultuous times.

“How much time do you have?” he laughs when asked about his five and half years spent at the company.

Yahoo may have been struggling to keep up with rivals Google and Facebook, but it was here that Bidon created “customised experiences for big advertisers” by selling “multi-million dollar campaigns for very large advertisers”. Despite Yahoo’s prominence in the programmatic space, Bidon had his eye on the bigger prize – something which influenced his eventual move to Xaxis.

“I saw this trend eight years ago and even more feel the case now that everything that can be traded by a machine eventually will. And while Yahoo was a big player in this space, all things considered the reach of Yahoo was still fairly small compared to the vast audience that can be accessed programmatically. For me the chance of working with the largest media group in the world to build their programmatic offering and their tech stack was very attractive.”

He left Yahoo in 2012 – the same year Marissa Mayer was appointed as Yahoo’s CEO to reinvigorate interest in Yahoo’s products and to bring it back up to the heights it once enjoyed. Now Yahoo’s internet and media businesses will be sold to Verizon for $4.8 billion – something which Mayer contends is a good outcome for the company.

When asked what might have contributed to Yahoo’s downfall, Bidon says hindsight is a wonderful thing. But he says Yahoo did make one very wrong move.

“Yahoo had its own search engine and at some point, decided to put Google's search engine on its own page. Yahoo was the biggest destination on the internet at that time with the largest audience online. By putting Google on its home page, it let Google refine its algorithm and get a lot of data. I think that contributed in making Google much stronger much faster.

“People forget that Yahoo tried to buy Google. In our digital business, it’s all about scale and with data, you improve your product, you improve your results and experiences for the consumer and if you fall behind it’s hard to catch up with the leaders.”

The future

On a personal level, Bidon says it was refreshing to move from Yahoo’s culture of “top-down, ‘You do as I tell you’ environment to Xaxis’ more “decentralised and empowered culture”. But he admits that Yahoo and Xaxis share the “same digital and entrepreneurial spirit”.

Going forward, Bidon says Xaxis will continue to invest heavily in AI – as that’s where he sees the most potential. “If you see what IBM's doing with Watson and what others are doing, it’s a trend we are going to see in the industry for years to come.”

But Bidon says there is still more to come from AR too.

“My son is fanatical about Pokémon Go. We will see more holograms and images which for advertising, will be quite interesting.”

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