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Unruly boss says Tremor takeover puts it 'on steroids' to compete in video marketplace


By John McCarthy, Opinion editor

January 6, 2020 | 5 min read

Unruly's sale to Tremor International has put the video advertising firm "on steroids" according to its chief executive, Norm Johnston, who told The Drum of his plans to apply its creative brain to its new owner's connected TV (CTV) and in-app advertising formats.

News Corp has announced a provisional sale of Unruly for a fraction of the £115m it paid in 2015 (£58m in cash and a further £56m payable if certain performance conditions were met). It accepted a deal comprising a 6.91% stake in Tremor and a guarantee of £30m in revenue. The Murdoch-owned media giant had been courting buyers for Unruly for months, largely as a means of generating capital and simplifying its business.

Unruly was founded in 2006 and styles itself as a brand-safe video advertising marketplace. It handles the outstream video inventory of more than 50 News Corp titles (largely exclusive) and an additional 2,000 direct publisher integrations. Its data informs video ads and delivers them into the body text, videos and pages of media partners. This attracted the attention of the news giant four years ago, and now its products and relationships have caught the eye of San Francisco-based adtech firm Tremor International.

Johnston spoke up Unruly's analytics product, UnrulyEQ, which is informed by more than a decade of consumer advertising data, as part of its appeal to Tremor. This trove of consumer surveys and facial recognition data theoretically helps it develop ad formats and creative that is optimised for viewers.

He said: "One of the biggest pain points in the industry is the lack of good creativity and assets. What makes this compelling and is the ability to apply the data not just to our current formats but also Tremor’s in CTV, OTT, TV and in-app.”

With the rise of programmatic and the dominance of the Facebook-Google duopoly, the digital advertising market has become a fierce battle for market share. Before this deal, Unruly claimed to reach 1.2bn viewers. But with this deal pushing it into new formats, the revised figure will be higher.

Johnston said: “It is such a competitive environment. This helps us scale and offer more to advertisers faster than we could.” The group, he claims, now boasts “more ad formats than anyone”. Backed by its bedrock of data and Tremor’s work with Alphonso and Nielsen.

“We are very excited about CTV, our partners spend a lot on video and TV," Johnston added. "We can capture more of that as we already work with them in video.”

Tremor now takes over from Unruly as the official outstream video supplier to News Corp, a relationship which will be helmed by News UK chief executive Rebekah Brooks who is joining the Tremor board to oversee progress. “It’s a win-win for everyone,” Johnston said. “The strategic partnership with News Corp carries on… but now we can scale faster.”

Over the next 18 months, the biggest challenge for Johnston will be to quickly integrate Unruly's 250 staff with the “nimble” US-based Tremor. Unruly has experience of navigating acquisition from its News Corp buyout, and Tremor’s been a keen acquirer since its 2007 founding.

“We need to quickly realise all the benefits. We are quite confident we can do that pretty rapidly. Tremor has always been about speed from day one.”

In the last year, Tremor has launched a bespoke creative studio and made strides into CTV, merging its products with RhythmOne’s YuMe

On position for the future, Johnston said: “Advertisers want scaled solutions where they can drive better ethical advertising across geographies. They want something that delivers on brand safety, privacy and ethics. Whether we complement or serve as an alternative to the duopoly, we will now be on steroids.”

Cadi Jones, commercial director EMEA of adtech in-housing firm Beeswax, described Unruly as one of the few go-to places to access premium quality video inventory, largely through its exclusive media partnerships and sentiment analysis tools. It is primed to benefit from “significant and sustained growth" in video advertising, in particular CTV through its recently-partnered Telaria and Rubicon.

Its access to premium supply and quality content will catch the eye of advertisers, according to Jones.

“In more expensive media like video, where brands are no longer prepared to pay a premium for unknown quality, Unruly’s emotional analysis product will also help in this regard as third party data becomes less available at scale," she said. "Brands need to turn to reliable data sources, moving away from extensively modelled data.”

Unruly’s acquisition by a digital tech company that operates in the same space is a “good fit”, Jones concluded.

The history of Tremor International

2007: Founded as Marimedia

2014: Acquired Taptica

2015: Takes Tapitica name and focus

2015: Acquired AreaOne

2017: Acquired Tremor Video (now Telaria, a leading CTV SSP)

2017: Acquired AdInnovation

2019: Acquired RhythmOne

2019: Renamed as Tremor International

2020: Acquired Unruly, sold stake to News Corp

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