I recently had a blast from the past, reflecting on my decade building WatchMojo alongside some of the towering ad technology companies that are now going public
As part of Advertising Week, Axios’ Sara Fischer interviewed me re:
– YouTube vs Facebook in terms of leading video platforms
– Vertical vs Horizontal video
– How big media companies like ViacomCBS, Fox Corporation buying AVOD platforms like Tubi, Pluto TV creates opportunities for startups
– why traditional development is so challenging for digital natives
– Measurement and ad fraud in online advertising. Timely, considering Double Verify’s IPO this week, which took me down memory lane. Here’s the Q&A video, and below it, I flash black to how I first heard of Double Verify a decade ago.
An excerpt from my 3rd book, the 10-Year Overnight Success, where I discuss our short-lived affair with the embeddable video player, aka widget.
Widget: Quality vs. Reach
Many companies had by then mastered syndicated traffic, such as Broadband Enterprises and Alloy Media to name a few. If click-to-play, user-initiated video views are the filet mignon of the video world, in-banner auto-played video on the side of an article is the hamburger. Shockingly some publishers were passing one off as the other to marketers. We would have none of it. But when one of our ad agencies realized that we would not deliver a campaign on time, they and the client welcomed the practice, although we suggested to cut the CPM to reflect the “lower quality” of the placement.
While in L.A. traveling with the Chrysler team, I remember dreaming about the growing revenue we’d earn via the widget. When I’d wake up, however, it was always far less than I’d hoped, but it provided a boost, albeit at very low margins.
We flirted with profitability as a result, but the whole in-banner, auto-play video delivery mechanism seemed off to me. The team I’d built was one that was adept at researching and writing scripts, and then finding footage (either shooting, licensing, or via Fair Use) to match it all together. To pursue the widget strategy, I’d need a publisher support team, sales people, more tech resources and, in the end, not having the proper sales force (we relied on ad networks) we’d be at their mercy. WatchMojo had become a leading producer of premium content, why trade that position to become a peddler of low-quality video inventory via in-banner placement? It made no sense, even if the short-term high from its revenue was addictive.
In December 2010, we finally had revenues over $100,000—pathetic, granted, considering this was our 50th month of operation—but were finally profitable. It’s the objective all startups ought to strive for. Granted online money-losing operations with little to no revenues get acquired for billions and become part of Internet lore, but for me the fact that we became profitable—without any VC funding—was a true highlight in my career.
But we were a pawn of other players in the ad space; we were using ads from Tremor Media, but delivering them via LiveRail’s ad server on third party sites before our content. Tremor also had its own ad server, a rudimentary thing that gave everyone involved nightmares, but naturally they didn’t like us using LiveRail’s ad server (which was light years ahead of Tremor’s). One day in late-December, they cut off our ad fill. I pleaded with Tremor’s CEO Jason Glickman, who agreed to turn the ads back on. We respected each other’s positions. I was relieved.
Writing for TechCrunch and MediaPost had its benefits; even though I’d never use those platforms to settle any beef, people worried about crossing me. I subsequently caught up many times with Glickman and he proved to be a great guy.
I remember sometimes dreaming about finally finding profitability. But even when we succeeded, it came with unwanted headaches.
One day in December of that year, I was leaving New York to return to Montreal and going through airport security at LaGuardia, when Tremor’s reps called me and screamed at me why one of their ads was loading in our player below the fold of some racy site. No matter how much we tried to monitor what publishers did, it was impossible. So we cut off any publisher that misbehaved and told new ones that if one single impression ran in a manner that violated our terms and conditions, we’d not pay them a single penny.
On New Year’s Day, 2011, our ad fill rate (the proportion of ads served against video views) fell off a cliff. I thought it was Tremor cutting me off again. But it turns out that this was just seasonality. It was clear that the widget was a bridge of sorts to get us over a bump, but it wasn’t a sustainable solution even though it was the foundation to many other businesses. As Warren Buffett says, “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”
The tech that enabled them to spot that? Double Verify (which I bought some shares of this week).