MarTech Interview with Justin Choi, President and CEO, Nativo

Justin Choi, President & CEO, Nativo

“As our industry has gotten more automated, we’ve actually seen creativity being sacrificed rather than enhanced — and that’s not the direction this should be going.”

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Tell us about your role and journey into ad technology.

I got one of the first Apple IIGS computers along with a modem when I was 11 years old. I haven’t stopped tinkering since.

In 1998, after graduating from California State Polytechnic University-Pomona, I co-founded Cie Digital Labs (CDL), a corporate innovation partner that creates enterprise apps and technology startup studio that spins our ventures. CDL is still a thriving company today and one that partners with Fortune 1000 brands and promising startups on co-venture deals as well as produces startups of its own.

One such startup is Cie Games, a leading developer of social and mobile racing games, which built one of the largest applications on Facebook and went on to build the No. 1 racing game on mobile. It was acquired in a large exit in 2014.

Another innovative product of Cie Digital Labs was called PostRelease, and it enabled brands to place and measure sponsored posts across multiple blogs simultaneously. By 2012, the industry had started to call this “native advertising,” and we realized we’d already built deep technology for this brand new ad category — way before trend had even been properly named.

Native advertising, we realized, was the way that our industry was, at last, going to be able to bring scale, measurability, and predictability to content marketing. And we further realized there was a deep need within the market for an end-to-end native advertising solution for publishers that enables them to easily activate, deploy and manage native ad placements across all their media properties. In time, PostRelease evolved into Nativo as we looked to fully deliver on that need. Today, the Nativo platform enables the distribution and measurement of branded content cross-publication and cross-device with scale, control and relevancy.

Going back to the roots of my early days with computers, I’m first and foremost a technologist who loves to create software that solves business problems. It’s been an amazing journey thus far, with three companies in different industries, two exits, seven patents, and the opportunity to work alongside hundreds of driven co-workers.

How is the ad industry different than it was a few years ago?

In recent years, our industry has gone down a rabbit hole in pursuit of data and scale. It’s been a rapid evolution from humans to machines deciding where ads run. This has led to both good and bad outcomes for advertisers, publishers and the industry as a whole.

When it comes to the recent evolution, marketers have focused on being early adopters as a means of gaining an advantage over competitors. There have been plenty of important scale and technology shifts within our industry, but as advertisers have arrived at the bottom of the funnel through programmatic pipes, they’ve found that they’ve hit a point of diminishing returns.

It’s a lot like the IT boom of the ‘90s in which the advantage was being the first in your industry to invest in IT systems. Just like no one thinks of IT as an advantage today, we are going to start entering the phase in which marketers have to look elsewhere for their advantage.

For this reason, we’re seeing a recalibration begin to occur in the industry — one where marketers are broadening their focus and paying closer attention to the full breadth of the marketing funnel. That means, at last, getting a better handle on their mid-funnels and how the most important tactics within the mid-funnel — that is, content marketing and native advertising — are helping to influence audiences and convert awareness into action.

This had historically been an accepted blind spot for marketers, but it’s no longer acceptable. Now that the lower funnel has reached a point of diminishing returns, the mid-funnel and its role within the fuller customer journey is starting to get the attention it’s always deserved. This year, Nativo will be deepening its focus on helping brands understand their return on content in this vein.

What is the current state of Media Automation? How does Nativo deliver on its ROI promises?

Automation should be freeing up marketers to do higher-level tasks. But as our industry has gotten more automated, we’ve actually seen creativity being sacrificed rather than enhanced. And that’s not the direction this should be going. So, at Nativo, we’re very focused on ensuring any automated solutions we develop are helping get things back on track by infusing more creativity into advertising, not less.

For example, we recently launched Nativo Performance Optimization (NPO), which is designed to make creative optimization easier and more effective for advertisers’ programmatic campaigns. We know that native ads perform best when you can test a number of variations of multiple assets, but this is nearly impossible to do in traditional DSPs. NPO was built specifically to handle the unique requirements of native execution, and we’ve seen up to 20 percent lift in programmatic performance from NPO-enabled deals.

We believe dynamic creative optimization, done right, is a strong example of how automation can not only free up marketers to focus more on strategy and creative ideas but also deliver better results and better creative experiences to audiences. But it shouldn’t stop there. Automation should discern and deliver the creative that performs best, and then it should go a step further to help marketers understand why a given piece of creative connected with its audience.

It’s this intersection of storytelling and data that is where marketers need to focus their time going forward.

Why is it so important for marketers to gain a better understanding of their efforts throughout the sales and marketing funnel?

Right now, there is a desperate need for marketers to get a better handle on attribution within their mid-funnels — that ever-important zone where content marketing and native advertising reside. As Intel’s Luke Kintigh recently observed in Ad Age, “Without the ability to establish the return on content, marketers risk serious underinvestment in this mid-funnel content. Ultimately, that investment flows into short-sighted bottom-funnel activities that seem more effective only by virtue of their proximity to the conversion.”

These days, marketers are pretty comfortable with the tops and bottoms of their funnels. At the top, there’s the awareness driven by linear TV. Marketers have resigned themselves to metrics like reach and frequency in this arena, largely because they intuitively understand the value of capturing consumer attention through sight, sound, and motion via this well-established medium. Then, on the flipside, there’s the lower funnel where search, display and social reside.

Here’s the thing: You have to create intent, you can’t just capture it. It’s through mid-funnel content marketing efforts that marketers truly create intent. The problem is that they’re completely neglecting the mid-funnel when it comes to their attribution efforts. And if they can’t connect their content marketing efforts to business outcomes, they will never be able to properly optimize their media spends across the full funnel.

Going forward, understanding the role of mid-funnel content marketing activities within the customer journey will be what separates great marketers from average marketers. Given today’s market forces, the importance of the mid-funnel can’t be overstated. At the top of the funnel, where linear TV lives, we see reach declining dramatically. At the bottom of the funnel, with search and social media, we see costs rising dramatically. There’s more competition for today’s consumers than ever before, and the only way marketers can hope to achieve any sort of competitive advantage is to get a holistic view of their marketing funnel and become better at connecting the dots than their competitors.

 How has your technology and business evolved recently, and what further evolutions do you anticipate in the coming year? 

 We’ve had great success in developing technology to help publishers and advertisers improve the performance of native advertising through better targeting and optimization. Now we’re seeing marketers look to leverage that technology to drive similar decisions on their websites. Going forward, it won’t just be ad units that recognize and adapt to the individual. This kind of personalization will be infused into complete online brand experiences.

We need more tools to enable storytelling with data at scale. To enable multi-touch attribution across formats, we need to make the mid-funnel as easy to measure and scale as performance advertising. This will enable brands to be more thoughtful about the entire customer journey, and the side effect will be better ad experiences for consumers. It’s a true win-win. We have to build the tech to get there, and that’s what we are working on.

At Nativo, we’ve blended the automation of programmatic with the impact of content in a way that no one else has. A good example of that is the aforementioned Nativo Performance Optimization, which leverages advanced Machine Learning technology to optimize for engagement and outcomes for all native formats, including branded content. Optimizing native advertising in a dynamic way like this was, until recently, considered too manual of a process to offer programmatically. And now we’re doing it.

Being able to manage campaigns from a single platform makes it easier for brands and agencies to include premium native in their paid media strategies. Therefore, Nativo has continued to open up new programmatic pipes to our unique formats in recent years. These include programmatic integrations with The Trade Desk, Rubicon Project, BidSwitch and others. Our integrations enable direct access to Nativo Premium, a comprehensive catalog of native advertising formats and premium in-feed inventory, as well as our native SSP, nativeRTB, which enables publishers to offer remnant native inventory on an open marketplace via a real-time auction.

Thank you, Justin! Hope to see you back on MarTech Series soon.

Justin is Founder and CEO of Nativo, Board Member of Titan School Solutions and Co-Founder and Head of Product Strategy at Cie.

nativo logo

Nativo empowers brands and publishers with the world’s most advanced technology for content. For brands, Nativo enables storytelling at scale with the largest native reach and reveals insights that unlock return-on-content. For publishers, Nativo enriches monetization with the most comprehensive platform for next-generation ad formats and breakthrough technology for accelerated webpages. Nativo’s mission is to equip advertising for the age of content, improving the web experience and creating meaningful connections for today’s digital consumer.

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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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