The Ad Technology Industry Is Full Of Walking Dead Companies

Every year, San Francisco is abuzz with hope and opportunity as thousands of ad technology executives pour into a few square blocks around the Moscone Center to try and turn technology dreams into riches. On the inside of the convention center, an odd assortment of e-mail and affiliate marketing tools vie for the jaded eyes of direct marketers. On the outside, more seasoned media technology executives find themselves in and out of luncheons and panel discussions, mostly trying to figure out the real time landscape, and the data surrounding it.
There is a lot of high-risk venture capital fueling the ad technology business, as a very crowded LUMA map can attest. The Kawaja logo vomit slide never seems to shrink, although the dotted red lines indicating acquisitions appear from time to time. Burst Media is probably getting updated on the map as we speak.  Its recent acquisition by Blinkx at a 1-time gross revenue valuation is a stinging reminder that not all dreams (even those with scale) turn to gold. Despite reaching some 61% of the US Population, Burst lost $3M in its last year as an independent operation.
At the recent AdWeb 3.0 conference, venture investors Josh Stein of Draper Fisher Jurvetson (Glam, Skype, Baidu, Targetcast, Cafe Mom) and Jon Soberg of Blumberg Capital (Legolas, HootSuite, DoubleVerify) talked about what is getting VCs excited in the space…and those companies that are not. Obviously, mobile is seeing an influx of early stage capital as the stage is just being said for next generation media technology applications.
For Stein, “the engagement in mobile is extreme—you may only be getting 3 minutes [of a consumer’s attention], but its full engagement.” Video is also an area that will see significant investment capital as more and more video content finds its way onto other screens. YouTube’s recent moves with “Next” around original content creation were cited as positive. Also mentioned was the growing area of social curation of video content (using social media technology to make sense of the potentially thousands of “channels” in the ether).
On the other side, Stein questioned the “long term economics” of Groupon and its many clones and also wondered aloud whether “’checking in’ is a long-term, sustainable” business model.  An audience member also inquired whether we are currently “in a bubble” in terms of media technology, but the question was quickly dismissed. Unlike real financial bubbles that sweep up pension funds and real estate, “this bubble will likely pop on VCs…not consumers.” I suppose that is refreshing enough for the average consumer, but for many of the technology executives at AdTech, I think there is significant fear of being popped along with their companies.
That leads me to the heart of the conversation: what our venture capital friends thought of the crowded ad technology landscape, and their assessment of the companies within it. Jon Soberg seems to think that there are a lot of “walking dead” companies on the LUMA map: those companies that “can get quickly acquired by Google for $10 or $20 million, but don’t move the needle for venture investors.” Looking at the LUMA map, I think it is hard to argue with Jon.
There are a lot of hands in the middle of the transaction between advertiser and publisher, and many of the companies therein aren’t adding as much value as they are taking out. The difference between truly valuable and exciting companies can easily be summed up by one word: disruption. In other words, is your company’s technology doing something completely different and revolutionary, or is your company merely adding another incremental improvement or technology layer on an existing process?
It seems like most companies in the middle of the map are the type of companies that are walking dead. “Nice to have” technology rather than “must have” technology that will drive our business forward. So, what advice does the investment company have for the current companies in the space—and those that are looking to raise capital and jump into the crowded ad technology pool?
n  Disruption: As Soberg points out, “it’s not about shaving at the margins, it’s about disruption.” For Soberg, the value of facilitating real time media trading is interesting, but is being “squished out,” making it entirely possible for companies to “arbitrage themselves out of existence.” For me, this simply means that being a bolt-on technology for media trading is not the path to riches, only the path to a low-value exit. Your technology must create value with your data, rather than simply creating more of it.
n  Publishing:  How can technology add value to the media transaction to publishers? This is an area ripe for investment and plenty of high value exit potential. In a world of highly commoditized inventory, where publishers have (foolishly) undervalued and overexposed their inventory, technology has a chance to fix things. How can the recent “app” revolution (where people actually pay for content) “reset” online publishing, and start to create higher value inventory? Glam and Tremor were cited as two companies that “add value in the middle of the transaction.”  Technology that enables publishers to “figure out” mobile and video (rather than just helping them sell more remnant inventory) are going to win.
n  Creative: One quote that struck me was Josh Steins’ excellent observation that “the Madmen [advertising] model wasn’t efficient…but it was profitable.” In other words, much of the magic and creativity in advertising has been replaced by technology, but technology isn’t what makes advertising effective. It’s ideas. Absolut bottles represented in every way possible…subservient chickens…the things which get and keep our attention. Maybe technology will standardize a good part of the transactional process of advertising, but the real winners in the ad tech space will be those technologies that help agencies put their focus back on creativity, rather than figuring out month-end billing and reconciliation.
It’s a crowded landscape out there, and there are many more red dotted lines to be added to the LUMA map. The ones that offer disruptive technology ideas that start returning value back to the advertisers and publishers, and away from the murky middle, will be the ones that avoid death…or “walking death.”
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