Sizmek CEO on the Rocket Fuel merger, AI and fighting Google

Mark Grether, CEO Sizmek
Mark Grether, CEO Sizmek

The head of the digital advertising company spoke to Computerworld UK about its recent merger with Rocket Fuel, the importance of AI and how to fight off Google

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Sizmek acquired Rocket Fuel in September last year in a $125 million deal, bringing together two big players in the digital advertising space.

In a nutshell Rocket Fuel uses artificial intelligence to optimise ad campaigns and Sizmek offers tools for buying and targeting ads.

Now that the dust has settled on the acquisition, Computerworld UK sat down with Mark Grether, CEO at Sizmek last week to chat about his plans for the future of the newly merged company.

As Grether puts it: "We merged both businesses into Sizmek which allowed us to create the largest independent buy-side stack in the world."

One thing Grether was clear on was the end of the Rocket Fuel brand. "We basically came together and created this new corporate narrative and strategy and then integrated the teams into one organisation, with one global leadership team and one product and engineering organisation under the Sizmek brand name," he said. "The Rocket Fuel brand name is gone."

Rocket Fuel had established itself as a leader in the demand side platform (DSP) market since being founded in 2008 by a group of ex-Yahoo employees. It went public in 2013 and hit a peak stock value of $59.95. However the company was embroiled in a bot traffic fraud scandal, where ads were being served on fake websites, which it struggled to fully bounce back from.

AI

So now that the company has settled around the Sizmek brand, how does Grether align the various products, service and capabilities of the two companies?

"The thinking for us was how can we now better leverage our ad serving capabilities? How can we better leverage the data we have?" he asks.

Grether says that advertisers have been "loud and clear" in their demand for an alternative to the Google stack or a patchwork of point solutions. They want "simplicity, control and transparency" according to Grether.

"So we had a strong ad server and went looking for the best DSP in the market," he explains. "I was quite familiar with the DSP space so for me it was quite easy to say we need to acquire Rocket Fuel and the main reason was the AI. It turned out that the AI of Rocket Fuel is really superior."

The key when it comes to bringing AI to its clients for Grether is in augmenting human traders.

"Now we said let's combine the best of both worlds to use the AI not as an automation tool but as a recommendation tool, a recommendation engine," he says.

"Let's use the AI to make recommendations of how programmatic campaigns could be optimised so that the traders still have full control over campaign execution and get smarter from the insights we generate with the AI. That's how we have repositioned the AI in our platform since we acquired Rocket Fuel."

In terms of practically bringing the technology together since the acquisition, Sizmek executives have been busy travelling between Rocket Fuel's offices in Silicon Valley and its engineering hub in Israel to help them align.

"We are finishing now the work of aligning the user experience of the platform, so that if you use the DSP or the ad server it looks and feels the same," Grether says. "In time we also have re-ramped the data infrastructure backbone."

Fighting Google

The acquisition puts the stamp on a major consolidation in the adtech space that might well prove necessary when it comes to fighting off the monopolistic power of Google and Facebook in the digital ad world.

"We are now considered as the only alternative to the Google stack," Grether says, "which is what clients were asking for."

"They want to decrease their dependency on Google so they really appreciated the fact that we have merged.

"They have finally understood that Google is a media company not a technology company. If you use a Google-owned technology it is not objective, it is designed to ensure that more money goes on Google media. Therefore you want to minimise the use of such technology because it is not aligned with your own KPIs."

Transparency

The key for Grether is transparency. "Let's open up the kimono, open up the black box and give them access in a transparent fashion to the AI. So that's what we did," he says.

Practically this comes down to two elements, opening up its AI to show how it performs and impacts campaign performance, and transparency when it comes to price.

For pricing specifically Grether is introducing a clear rate card for clients. "It's really a SaaS model, so here's the technology and depending on what features you use, and it's your choice what your agency or brand would like to use," he says.

Grether identifies transparency and GDPR as the two biggest themes for the industry in 2018. "I do hope that both will push out the black sheep and therefore we will have a more sustainable industry going forward that will attract more money and will grow," he says.

Grether also takes an optimistic view of GDPR.

"I think a post GDPR-world will spotlight what AI is real and what is more marketing as the less data there is available, the more the AI will need to do the heavy lifting and will or won't show an impact on campaign performance," he says. "That's an opportunity for us to shine, because the platform is real."

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