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What advertisers want from startups and data

With traditional funding sources such as venture capital and hedge funds reportedly on the wane, startups have never been more likely to be the acquisition target of brands operating in more traditional industry verticals, as they seek to transition with the times, and consumers’ lifestyles.

The thoughts were shared at The Advertising Club of New York's most recent panel debate / The Advertising Club of New York

However, while there is not a shadow of a doubt that digital is at the core of the contemporary society, many brands, agencies and media owners are still uncertain over how best to engage, satisfy and maintain audience attention, especially as media consumption becomes fragmented across any number of screens.

Hence the eagerness to seek the assistance of relatively minor outfits, many of whom provide them with the agility and fresh thinking their established methods of working cannot afford.

The Advertising Club of New York sought to interrogate the thoughts of leading members from each of these sectors by hosting a Shark Tank-style event. Taking place earlier this week, the event – dubbed AdThink – saw representatives of startup outfits AdBrain, Clinch, Crowdly and Social Rank present their vision(s) in five-minute slots with senior executives from brands and the agency sector all on hand to interrogate.

L-R: Gareth Davies (Adbrain), Dan Sullivan (Crowdly),  Megan Collins, Crowdly, Alex Taub (SocialRank), Kasi Islam (SocialRank), Oz Etzioni (Clinch).


Participants treated their pitches like their business counted on it, which made for an informative speed dating-type evening, while panel moderator Gina Waldhorn, president of Quirky, set the scene.

In her opening address Waldhorn explained how tech startups now face a better chance of being bought by more traditional outfits now than ever before, calling out GE as a prime example of such an acquirer.

The five panelists were: John Leeman, a marketing consultant with FTD; San Rahi, global head of development with Sid Lee Studio; Chris Vega, copywriter with BBDO and the winner of The Drum’s forth Young Innovator Award; David Zane, senior director, brand marketing at Nascar; and Kat Shafer, managing director at Erwin Penland.

Identifying overlap

First on the block was Alex Taub, CEO of SocialRank. He explained his business as one that helps brands understand and activate audiences through direct social campaigns and account overlap programs through a data-driven approach that ultimately can help companies spend better and smarter.

Taub pointed out that despite brands building large followings on social media there is a lack of understanding as to whom this audience basically is so they can tailor their activity to segment and address more niche audiences.

For instance, this lets brands understand if their followers also follow direct competitors, as well as de-duplicate their following so they can see who is following them on multiple channels, such as Twitter and Instagram. SocialRank’s pitch to market is helping brands build a “social CRM” data set with brands such as NFL and Converse using the tool. The feedback given was brief but productive, making Taub think about things like protecting the business, growing beyond Twitter and Instagram and focusing on his audience.

Putting data in your creative’s DNA

Oz Etzioni of Clinch took the stage next, explaining the company’s personalized ad experience and cracking the code of personal creative DNA. His company is able to serve ads that aren’t completely data-driven, and individualize the ad experience with millions of creative iterations. He described it as a data-led startup that uses machine learning to let brands deliver dynamic creative based on user behavior, either from scratch or by repurposing existing assets both as a means of retargeting, as well as prospecting.

Assorted panelists asked Etzioni about brand consistency, how the business could move from desktop to mobile and the dynamic nature of the ads served.

Consistent storytelling stories across screens

Gareth Davies, founder and CEO of AdBrain, explained how it works with brands to better understand how it can help brands run better campaigns that sequentially target users across both desktop and mobile screens using demand-side platforms [DSPs] to reduce their customer acquisition costs by 31%.

AdBrain claims it is able to work with media buyers to help them deliver stories across screens by helping them identify audience members and then deliver ads to them across screens with a measured tone. This is performed using an "identity graph" to find a cluster of devices tied to a particular person. Using machine learning to create a data set, it outputs a customer ID map.

Davies went on to describe this leads to benefits such as helping them to increase their brand score, which had the subsequent effect of reducing the cost of their keyword targeting when it comes to bidding against keywords on Google.

With 200 of the 400 of the world’s largest brands have deployed data management platforms to establish and implement a better data-led strategy, yet many need to improve how they reward their media partners, according to Davies.

“Marketers need to look beyond last-click. The irony is that with digital there has never been so much accountability, but ironically there’s also a lot of mis-attribution,” he added.

Dan Sullivan, founder and CEO at Crowdly, presented his company’s latest venture, Clinks, a link-shortener function to give advertisers more value from traffic that it sends to third party sites for the purpose of retargeting users that have visited their site, and then subsequently elsewhere on the web. For instance Ken’s Foods is using it to retarget users that previously engaged with it via web properties such as food blogs.

Is Twitter an effective brand engagement channel?

L-R: Gina Waldhorn (Quirky); Chris Vega (BBDO); John Leeman (consultant with FTD); San Rahi (Sid Lee Studio); Kat Shafer (Erwin Penland); David Zane (Nascar)

After the shark tank was over, the panel reflected on the issues raised, with panel moderator Waldhorn quizzing them on the challenges posed by the fact that with almost a third of all time spent with digital media taken up by social channels. Just how effective a channel could this be for engagement?

Zane talked about the Nascar fans utilizing Twitter the most, even though they are trying to get fans to migrate to other platforms such as Instagram and Facebook Live.

“Twitter is a great resource to tell people what’s happening, but it’s really difficult to have a conversation with them,” he said, pointing out that the audience remains resilient.

"That's where we tried to get them [Facebook Live], as we want to have a two-way conversation and we can do that much more effectively on those platforms than on Twitter," he said.

Rahi went on to explain that Twitter tries to sell itself on mass audience, but that it should be engaging specific audiences more and telling human behavior stories better.

“It does well at what it shouldn’t be selling, and it doesn’t do well at what it should be selling and it does try and sell itself as a broad audience platform, but what it should be doing is proving how it can engage really specific audiences,” he told attendees.

Social engagement and brand safety

Given the open nature of social media, the conversation briefly turned to brand safety, especially given the recent furore over big brands' ads served against controversial content, with Leeman contributing that "you get what you pay for", and that by paying to advertise with premium publishers, you can pay to make sure your content and ads don’t conflict with offensive material. However, with low cost ads served against user generated content, that's not always the case. “The price disparity should reflect that,” he added.

Another question asked what startup adtech trend should fade away. Leeman spun it by hoping for more convergence to create more opportunities, while Shafer is tired of the overuse of buzzwords of VR and AR. Rahi wanted companies to stop saying that programmatic is good for audiences. “It does nothing for audiences,” he said frankly.

Click here for more details of events hosted by The Advertising Club of New York

Additional reporting by Ronan Shields

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