MarTech Interview with John Nardone, CEO at Flashtalking

MarTech Interview with John Nardone, CEO at Flashtalking

“Trust is at a premium now — trust with your consumer, trust with your vendor – and this comes into play when you’re handling data at the scale that you are in today’s digital economy.”

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Journey into Tech

As the industry has continued to evolve, and you think about your journey into Technology, any new reflections on the role you have played? What inspires you most in your role at Flashtalking?

The only constant in a technology-based business is change, and I have always loved that simple fact. What makes the constant evolution exciting is that it is happening on two related fronts at all times.

First, there’s the evolution of the technology directly benefiting or impacting the consumer. As one example, our lives are becoming more and more “mobile enabled” – so not only how we live but how we experience media and advertising every single day is defined by mobile…not just the device itself…but the fact that we are mobile.

The second front for change is how Advertising Technology itself continues to evolve. Just over the past two years, this has everything to do with data. As a result, we now have the discussion of privacy that swirls at the intersection of these two evolving fronts. The consumer has technology in their pocket AND data is now increasingly defining their experience.

So, we are always looking at how consumer data is being leveraged in the advertising tech, and the societal, legal and regulatory implications of that — resulting in a constantly evolving, extremely dynamic landscape to navigate. For some people, it’s incredibly disconcerting.

If you don’t like that constant change, AdTech is not the business for you. Personally, I find these foundational changes invigorating. I’m as excited today about what we do, the challenges that we face and the opportunities for advertisers as I was 20 years ago when all this craziness started.

How has Flashtalking evolved in the way that the company helps businesses achieve success using online advertising technology solutions?

A lot has happened in the last year. As Personalization has become increasingly important to market leading advertisers, and its role as a communication framework has been validated through research and testing, we’ve all embraced the fact that this is something that really moves the needle in terms of engaging consumer attention. Personalization works. That’s a fact.

Marketers now look to expand their personalization strategies that they’ve executed on the open web into more channels. So there’s both more demand for personalization in Video, which we’re doing more and more of these days, as well as to push those personalization strategies into the social channels.

And of course, YouTube provides an interesting crossover in personalizing both video and social in that respect. We’re really excited about the investments that Flashtalking has made in order to meet that challenge. We’re going to be rolling out our solution for social integration early in 2020, as we always evolve to meet the market.

Also highly important to note is the way that marketers are consuming marketing services. There’s this massive, accelerating trend of in-housing or in-sourcing where marketers are taking more and more of the responsibility for building and executing Digital Marketing campaigns in-house – not just digital, but all Marketing campaigns.

That shift has presented new demands and challenges, but also opportunities. It has defined how we’ve gone to market. We’ve developed a very strong strategy competency to help brands build organizational capabilities around personalization, and we’ve built a workshopping methodology to help accelerate the client’s ability to execute.

This trend has also put a higher premium on our foundational creative tools, so we’ve made deep investments into our Ad Studio product that came to us as part of the merge with Spongecell. We’ve made it much easier for brands, who are trying to do things in house, to be able to build their own ads without coding expertise. Tools of this sort makes in-house set-up more accessible and less expensive, because it no longer requires specialized technology skills to execute.

The underpinning of all this is our training and certification program. Earlier this year we launched Flashtalking Campus, providing organized instruction and a thorough curriculum to help digital marketers advance their knowledge and develop proficiency in the Flashtalking platform to accomplish their campaign goals.

So if you think about how those pieces interlock, a desire to enable the use of personalization in more channels, and the desire to bring more of the process in-house, you see a demand for better and broader tools — but also the knowledge and know-how to actually apply these tools. That cross-roads is where we continue to evolve and deliver.

Technology and Partnerships

Tell us more about your Flashtalking Partnership Program. What does it take to be part of this elite community of partners?

As the last independent ad serving platform in the industry, outside Google, Facebook and Amazon, we have a responsibility to underpin the independent AdTech ecosystem, and to ensure that an independent alternative is still viable. We provide for those clients who choose not to center their AdTech stack on one of the walled gardens the ability to easily connect the independent components of their choosing, with the ad server as a final point of contact with the end consumer. Even just from a trafficking standpoint, the ad server provides this unique opportunity, if you will, to plug into the various parts of the ad tech stack both operationally and from a data standpoint.

We treat this opportunity as an obligation and our pledge to an independent ecosystem. This is important because brands increasingly recognize that there’s a big trade-off in terms of ownership of their data and the inflexibility that they have using the Google platform. This choice effectively precludes the advertiser from a lot of other partners that they may otherwise want to use. It’s become a big decision for clients to assemble and operate an independent stack or go all in on Google.

The partnership program grew out of that recognition, with a mission to provide an open framework consisting of APIs, that plug into data partners—the DSPs, DMPs and Analytic solutions—in a way that binds those together from a workflow and a data standpoint. This approach also creates a more seamless experience for marketers who want to make the choice to assemble an independent stack.

Flashtalking has essentially rebuilt our entire platform to be based on public-facing APIs and to create the endpoints that allow for easy integration with partners and to document those endpoints. The response has been phenomenal, as all of the major buying platforms and DMPs, along with all of the leading verification partners in the industry, have signaled their eagerness and willingness to complete the development work on their side, to make those technological connections happen very, very quickly. We are scaling rapidly and strategically with this high level of buy-in across the ecosystem.

We’re engaged with at least a dozen leading AdTech platforms right now in the integration process at various stages. On principal, we are looking for partners who share the same views on putting the interest of clients absolutely first. Underneath that is a willingness to share and move the data in a way that benefits the client, because in our view the client owns their data and we’re acting as an agent of the client in order to affect their goals. The companies who share those views are the natural partners for us in the ecosystem. The shared ethos is that we’re here to serve the client and the client’s interest in a financially viable way, not the other way around.

When you look back into the outgoing decade, which online advertising platforms and tools do you really miss having, or working with?

Honestly, it’s pretty straightforward and has to do with total creativity. I miss the old Yahoo. Yahoo today is not what it was years ago. The old Yahoo was a company that you could really collaborate with. Even when they were really big, they weren’t this rigid, restrictive kind of entity the way that Google has become. The mantra was – let’s do cool stuff for clients. And the Tableau was huge. I desperately miss that. There isn’t anybody to partner within the ecosystem today in the way you could partner with Yahoo in their heyday.

What drives the current competition in the ‘Digital Advertising Economy’? What lessons did you learn from your journey in ad technology? What advice would you give to new players in the space, as far as building a healthy business operation – and one that serves its clients and partners well?

The easy answer that most people would reach for is the technology. It’s advertising tech and that you compete on technology. But I would actually say that’s not really true. I think that the competition today runs on data: who has it, who wants it, and who owns it. And then the other side of the discussion is service and trust. If data is the oil of ad tech today, then trust is the turbo charging of the engine.

Trust is at such a premium now — trust with your consumer, trust with your vendor – and this comes into play when you’re handling data and customer data and first-party data at the scale that you are in today’s digital economy. Trust becomes such an important lubricant to the whole process.

So, I would argue that it’s not tech. It’s data and trust, because those are the things that drive the ecosystem now, or lack of trust, if you’re looking at the other side of it. I’ve been involved with the ANA Trust Summit. This topic has risen to such an issue that the ANA has a whole initiative around it with dozens of marketers engaged. We are looking at the question of how we rekindle an atmosphere and a foundation of trust for our working relationships in AdTech, because trust is so broken that it’s inhibiting our ability to get stuff done.

Once trust is broken it’s very, very hard to regain it. That’s kind of where we sit as an industry right now. Fixing this is no easy challenge. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle very easily.

As far as a healthy business in AdTech, the first thing is having real clarity on the competitive space that you want to go after. You cannot be successful being all things to all people. You have to decide the battlefield on which you want to engage, and be really thoughtful and specific about that. For us at Flashtalking it has been sophisticated data-driven advertisers that we are going after. We are not going after the long tail. We are not going after folks who are four rungs down on the adoption curve of data-driven advertising. We are going for the sophisticated advertisers who aspire to being more sophisticated. We understand what they need and what they’re not getting in the marketplace.

We’ve additionally been very methodical in terms of how we build out industry verticals, because we recognize that the needs of CPG couldn’t be more different than the needs of Auto, which couldn’t be more different than the needs of Financial Services marketers.

The next thing I’d say is that if you are in ad tech, you’re in a place where the world changes constantly underneath you. So you must innovate, innovate, innovate — and innovate. Innovation should be what you eat, drink, breathe and sleep. And finally, you have to be incredibly financially disciplined. This industry created a lot of bad habits in the go-go early days. Massive venture capital fueled this, and that had people behave and begin to think that the financial wells were limitless — that you could get big despite losing money continually, and that somehow that was okay. Those days are over.

Business fundamentals and business reality have reasserted themselves even in ad tech, and the companies that have really strong financial discipline are the ones who will survive and thrive. It’s easy to say the words, but financial discipline means making hard choices. Saying no or choosing not to pursue the next perceived opportunity is a very hard thing to do for folks in a competitive environment, based on an assessment of the financial implications of it in the short to medium term. But that’s the discipline you need to operate, scale and thrive.

Organization Building

Tell us how you work with technology. What Marketing, Sales and Messaging tools do you use for your business? How are these reflected in your solutions for your clients and partners?

The tools that we use reflect our collaborative approach, not just how we operate internally, but how we work with clients. It’s less about how this technology influences the product as more about how it influences the experience consumers have around the product.

We are a company that uses both Slack and Video conferencing extensively. We use Asana for Project Management. We use Zendesk as our corporate Knowledge Base. But the point is that all of this reflects an underlying reality that what we do is complicated and requires connectivity. There’s a lot of people involved, and so communication and organization of that communication is critical. That extends to the way we interact with our clients and creating shared communication spaces with them and well organized protocols for how we communicate through our ticketing systems.

We recognize that our clients live in a world of complexity and that we have to be able to help them through that by providing open collaborative communication, in a highly organized way. Our online knowledge base, account structure and training program reflect these efforts. So I think that how we operate internally colors how we operate externally in that respect.

Tell us something that fascinates you the most in building and working in an open work place at Flashtalking. What are your thoughts about embracing inclusion and diversity?

As a global company, we operate across continents and interact with all kinds of different cultures and people from around the world. I think that reach instills a sense that we’re all different and we all work together. There are those funny and unfunny moments where culture and language create miscommunications. There are lots of lessons there, and as a team we commit to working at it constantly, understanding collectively that we can’t take communication for granted. There’s an old saying that the US and England are two cultures separated by a common language, two different cultures separated by a common language.

It’s sometimes nuanced, but you begin to acquire a real appreciation for the different ways that people interpret things, the ways that they communicate, what’s socially acceptable, what’s considered rude versus polite from one geographic, cultural group or community to the next.

This generally creates, in a very positive way, a heightened sense of making sure we’re really listening to each other. In the rare instances when there’s a conflict between two Flashtalking employees or one group is struggling with another, my answer is, “Have you gotten out of the online mediums? Have you had a one-on-one conversation and really listened to what the other person is trying to say—not necessarily what they are saying?” I think that lesson really travels across geographical, racial, cultural, lifestyle diversity, and you learn how to listen. I think we’re better at it than most at Flashtalking, because of the growing, intricate international nature of the company.

How are such inclusive workplaces perceived by your customers and partners?

What I just described really comes across for our clients and partners. It comes across in the way that communicate, collaborate, partner and generally engage – as well as in our work together for our clients and with our partners.

Insights and Predictions

Can you pinpoint one epic moment from the decade (2011-2019) that changed your outlook on the tech landscape?

Aside from the debut of the iPhone, the moment for me was the rise of Facebook and the realization that it was more than just the next MySpace – that its rise was completely transformative, not just for media and advertising, but for our society at large. That transformative arc has been fascinating to follow and has had unimaginable implications across the entire ecosystem. Bad actors aside, of which there are certainly plenty, the advent of Facebook has changed the way we communicate across time, space and tribes. And for those of us focused deeply and daily on data-driven marketing, personalization at scale and all related innovation for our clients, Facebook keeps us on our game, and that’s always a good thing. In return, as an industry we have to hold Facebook to a high standard and insist they do everything in their power to be a responsible actor.

What are your predictions for your industry and technology markets for 2020-2024?

I predict that the CCPA privacy legislation won’t have nearly as much impact as people believe in the short term, and will have far more impact than people realize in the long term. I think the backlash, if you will, to the big platforms at least, will become more organized and more vocal, both in the Marketing industry, but more importantly again in society, where you’re going to see much more talk of regulation. You’re going to see continued talk of breaking up these big companies.

And you’re going to see consumers taking more control over their data, and being much more thoughtful about what they do online. I think by the end of four years you’re going to see things change a fair bit. It’s almost like CCPA. As the first legislation, it sets the ball in motion, but has a long way to go to get down the bowling alley and knock over the pins.

At some point, there needs to be national legislation. State by state is untenable. Everybody, including the states, agree with that, but the current situation with this administration makes it completely impossible to talk about any kind of federal regulation right now. It’s certainly going to be something that the next administration is going to have to deal with. And then once you have federal statutes on the books, I think that’s where the changes begin to accelerate more.

What startups in the technology industry are you watching keenly right now? I am watching mParticle and Voicea.

Voicea is a virtual Digital Assistant platform that works on your cell phone and essentially can take notes for you, set up meetings, do follow-ups. It’s Artificial Intelligence applied to how can you be more productive as a business executive. It’s so cool to see the original BlueKai team do something innovative and entrepreneurial in a completely different area than the ad tech space that they came out of. That always fascinates me when I see entrepreneurs who are entrepreneurial in a bunch of different fields. I follow mParticle because they are leading the way in burgeoning Customer Data Platform space, doing many of the things we set out to do with [x+1], but we were too far ahead of the market. mParticle is making cross-platform activation of diverse first-party data a reality.

Tag the one person (or more) in the industry whose answers to these questions you would love to read:

Bill Wise  because he is sure to be insightful AND entertaining.

Ari Lewine because I think he is one of the young stars of our industry and I always learn from his perspective.

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

John Nardone is a first-generation ad tech pioneer serving as a founding board member of the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB). Throughout his career he earned recognition within the advertising community for his ground-breaking work at Pepsi, Modem Media and Marketing Management Analytics (MMA).

At MMA, he had a hand in establishing marketing mix modeling, illustrating his long-standing advocacy for marketing accountability. As CEO at [x+1], through its acquisition by Rocket Fuel, Nardone helped transform that business into a top-rated data management platform (DMP). Rocket Fuel acquired [x+1] for $230M in 2014. It was while running [x+1] that Nardone became a client of Flashtalking, and learned firsthand of its power as the art and science behind the perfect message. During his tenure as CEO of Flashtalking, John oversaw the merger of Flashtalking and Spongecell, who shared a vision of the future of data-driven creative.

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Flashtalking is the leading global independent primary ad server and analytics technology company. We use data to personalize advertising in real-time, independently analyze its effectiveness and enable optimization that drives better engagement and return on spend for sophisticated global brands.

Our platform leads the market with innovative products and services to ensure creative relevance and actionable insights across channels and formats, powered by unique cookieless tracking, data orchestration and algorithmic multi-touch attribution. We support clients at the crossroads where data, personalized creative and unbiased measurement intersect with expertise, service and a deep partner ecosystem to drive successful digital marketing.

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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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