Interview with Nikos Acuña, Chief Visionary, Sizmek

Nikos Acuña
Nikos Acuña

“Ideal customers can be defined not just by those who purchase the most, but if they have the potential of becoming brand advocates.”

Tell us about your role at Sizmek and how you got here. What inspired to be a part of an adtech platform?

I’m Sizmek’s chief visionary, a role in which I serve as lead evangelist and spokesperson for the company. In addition to helping agencies and brands develop innovative strategies to impact their business, I am also our resident futurist. My journey took me from broadcast media to interactive, into the startup world and big data, and into programmatic strategy and products at Rocket Fuel, to managing its AI media innovation lab. Having a passion for discovering underlying trends at the intersection of data, technology, and customer experiences that shape our industry ultimately brought me to where I am now. More broadly, being involved with adtech now allows me to educate audiences internationally about how technology transforms our lives, and how brands can help to design a better world.

How is the advertising ecosystem different today from when you first started here?

Having started my career in digital in 1998, I’m somewhat of a digital dinosaur. With the advent of API integrations across publisher sites, ad exchanges, programmatic, the explosion of mobility, and the inherent big data deluge that results from digital platform innovation, tools that structure new knowledge and insights, in real-time were inevitable. This is compounded by the accelerating pace of computation, which enables image capture, video posts, snapping stories, the democratization of media, and tools that fuel the age of personal brands — all contribute to the complex ecosystem as it exists today.

What does your ‘Ideal Customer’ Profile look like? How do you build your audience segments?

Through AI platforms available today, marketers can focus on audiences that are and could be their most valuable customers. Audience segments comprised of millions of potential attributes can be combined across broad data sets — which poses both a challenge and an opportunity. Marketers need to be smarter about how to reach these new audiences. Ideal customers can be defined not just by those who purchase the most, but if they have the potential of becoming brand advocates. AI enables the ability to score opportunities, attributes, and audiences appropriately, and lets marketers make decisions in real-time that impacts business and enhances the customer experience at an unfathomable scale no human can achieve.

What are your predictions on Programmatic Advertising shaping up with the greater maturity of DMPs and contextual analytics?

Platforms, solutions, and data accessibility are in a volatile state right now, given the worldwide sensitivity around how customer data is being used. Therefore DMPs and customer intelligence platforms will continue to evolve,  adapting to the data available for targeting, insights, and decisioning. Marketers will continue to integrate data, activate across environments, and build platforms that derive insights from all these activities. My prediction is that as traditional advertising continues to decline, the convergence of digital and physical experiences, virtual and augmented platforms, will build value around the customer. While the customer benefits, greater challenges will arise for brands seeking to engage with them.

Tell us about your AI Lab? How does it help to have an in-house data science team?

Prior to my new role at Sizmek, I was managing director of Rocket Fuel Institute, a research entity dedicated to the transformative field of artificial intelligence in digital marketing. We conducted research to drive the adoption and commercialization of AI technologies for marketing and customer experience transformation. Our goals were to: 1) be a leading center for AI marketing research; 2) discover the underlying patterns that enhance customer experiences; and 3) explore how digital trends impact business transformation. This mission still holds true for what I aim to achieve in my current role.

What are the major pain points for advertisers and publishers in leveraging audience data and viewability metrics for better targeting?

For leveraging audience data, it’s always about aggregating user data into unified profiles across systems, while also understanding how this data changes over time. This is why AI is critical in helping facilitate automated “learning” that can improve over time. When it comes to viewability, standardization and measurement will always be a challenge.

What startups are you watching/keen on right now?

I have my eyes on certain innovators aiming to build an ecosystem with higher integrity through blockchain. Some startups include AdEx, Nyiax, Adchain, Envision and similar companies leveraging blockchain for more responsible open transactions, attention tokens, and anonymous user data keychains.

What marketing and sales automation tools and technologies do you use?

We’re a Salesforce/Marketo shop, but we also use our own platform for data insights and decisioning.

Could you tell us about a standout digital campaign in your career? 

For a leading retailer, we used AI to integrate their first-party data into our models, seeding that data to see how it performs on retargeting campaigns. We also evaluated these model features against third-party data and found that the first-party data performed 4x better. This was an innovative campaign where machine learning combined with human intuition to create a new kind of augmented intelligence — one that delivered better results and enhanced customer experiences.

How do you prepare for an AI-centric world as a visionary leader?

The best way to prepare is to understand Ray Kurzweil’s 100-year version of Moore’s Law — what he calls the Law of Accelerating Returns. By understanding humanity’s capacity to compute, and the implications it presents, you can stage new innovations and educate the world on how to be more responsible technologists.

How do you inspire your people to work with technology?

I focus on the symbiosis between people and machines, inspiring people to become ‘transhuman’ by augmenting their own capabilities through tools and ideas. This is the main theme I explore in my new series.

One word that best describes how you work.

Connectionist.

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?

Adobe creative cloud.

What’s your smartest work related shortcut or productivity hack?

Incubation time — stepping away from the task at hand to take a walk, work out, look at art — it’s when the lightbulb moment will come naturally. Also being aware of the ebb and flow of your own creativity, knowing when to plow through against the current, and when to go just go with the flow.

What are you currently reading?

I still like books, but have about a thousand titles on my iPad. I’m currently reading Michio Kaku’s The Future of the Mind, Geoffrey West’s Scale, Steven Johnson’s Emergence, and What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Chance favors the connected mind.

Something you do better than others – the secret of your success?

Producing artful, bleeding-edge content at a prolific scale.

Tag the one person from the industry whose answers to these questions you would love to read:

Rishad Tobbacowala.

Thank you Nikos! That was fun and hope to see you back on MarTech Series soon.

Nikos is a design-thinking marketing technology executive, futurist, and award-winning author with 20 years of experience in product development, AI-powered marketing, and operations management. He is an expert in building teams and scaling cross-functional organizations and a polymath in AI, predictive analytics, and machine intelligence platforms.

sizmek logo
Sizmek is the world’s largest independent buy-side advertising platform that creates impressions that inspire. In the digital world, creating impressions that inspire is vital to fostering relationships of trust with agencies and brand as well as building meaningful, long-lasting relationships with customers. Sizmek provides powerful, integrated solutions that enable data, creative, and media to work together for optimal campaign performance across the entire customer journey. Our AI-driven decisioning engine can identify robust insights within data across the five key dimensions of predictive marketing—campaigns, consumers, context, creative, and cost. We bring all the elements of our clients’ media plans together in one place to gain better understanding for more meaningful relationships, make every moment of interaction matter, and drive more value across the entire plan. Sizmek operates its platform in more than 70 countries, with local offices in many countries providing award-winning service throughout the Americas, EMEA, and APAC, and connecting more than 20,000 advertisers and 3,600 agencies to audiences around the world.

The MTS Martech Interview Series is a fun Q&A style chat which we really enjoy doing with martech leaders. With inspiration from Lifehacker’s How I work interviews, the MarTech Series Interviews follows a two part format On Marketing Technology, and This Is How I Work. The format was chosen because when we decided to start an interview series with the biggest and brightest minds in martech – we wanted to get insight into two areas … one – their ideas on marketing tech and two – insights into the philosophy and methods that make these leaders tick.

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