Verizon Ventures Invests $5.5M In Qualia, Talks Buying Into Ad Tech In An Unforgiving Climate

MarkSmithThe telco industry’s obsession with ad tech shows no sign of slowing down and Verizon’s corporate venture arm is the latest accelerant.

Verizon Ventures has invested $5.5 million in Qualia, a company focused on mining intent data, and which recently merged with cross-device tool BlueCava. The Series B round included support from S3 Ventures.

It’s only the latest example of ad tech and the telco industry coming together. As a carrier, Verizon, was responsible for the $4.4 billion acquisition of AOL in 2015. Norwegian carrier Telenor paid $360 million for cross-device tool Tapad in early February. Previously, SingTel acquired Amobee and Telstra/Ooyala bought Videoplaza.

These deals reflect the telcos’ desire for more cross-screen data and an exploration of new services (and alternative revenue streams) beyond mobile subscriptions.

Mark Smith, executive director of Verizon Ventures, spoke with AdExchanger about the Qualia investment and the life cycle of an investment in a pressured public-market setting.

AdExchanger: Why did you invest in Qualia?

MARK SMITH: We were [early stage investors] in Qualia before it was Qualia. They’ve been scrappy and have pivoted a couple of times to get their business model in line with where the market was moving. They listen to a lot of unique signals, which help them determine consumer intent. They themselves had already begun to marry that data up with cross-device data from BlueCava when that vendor relationship started early in 2015. 

Being able to take intent data and on a real time basis look at where those consumers are going across screens is vital, because no action today is done in isolation. Combined, they’re addressing how you can begin to piece together a story around ad decisioning and provide attribution about how a [mobile] exposure contributed to a sale or other action.

What other sectors or categories interest Verizon Ventures besides ad tech?

There are a lot of very large companies now that are delivering comprehensive marketing cloud services, but they’ve cobbled together a lot of individual components in a one-stop shop. A couple of very successful companies offering that including Adobe, Oracle, IBM. But there are always people who will leave Adobe or Oracle and start another company that’s addressing this specific niche very well.

What piques investor interest?

We’re looking at the startups who come back with more efficient, more effective ways of delivering value. And even though we’ve [seen] valuations in the public market that have been trashed, I think successful CMOs and CEOs will continue to invest more each year in software tools to mine their existing data sets and new data sources to find new potential customers. Or to understand what are the elements of a compelling message that can be used to activate media buying or to follow customers through their entire journey and deliver better experiences.

There are many ways to pursue data-driven marketing both on the programmatic side and through campaign-based marketing. [But] data-driven decision-making is also a very big concept and theme. Understanding things that really inform our product decisions and pricing, or what does our audience look like? These are what companies struggle with everyday to remain competitive.

What’s one of the biggest trends you’ve seen in the public markets that’s affecting early-stage investment in startups?

Public market valuations for pure-play ad tech companies have cratered, as have a lot of SaaS-driven software businesses, no question about it. I believe that is also affecting the later-stage investment climate in the venture realm, but also earlier (and seed stage) financing. The other dynamic that’s played out over several years has been the growth and dominance of Facebook and Google.

Do you expect telco investment in ad tech to continue, given the challenges faced by mid-stage startups?

Yes, the trend will continue. Verizon’s acquisition of AOL and additional media assets following that has been driven by our desire to get into services that ride on top of our networks and take advantages of the trends that are already happening in customer behavior. So we’ve got these great devices that are in our customers’ hands and they can deliver so much utility and content and we see the usage on our networks, but we know they’re also using other networks. We want to be part of that activity not just as a network operator, but in the applications of services layer.

What does the life cycle of an investment look like?

We take a board observer position with all of our investments. We get a regular update through that setting, but we’re also in constant contact with our portfolio company CEOs on a regular basis seeking advice, seeking opportunities within Verizon or, “Have you seen this type of situation before?” We have to be careful about how we share learnings because you cannot share proprietary or competitive information between portfolio companies, but we often foster settings for our portfolio companies to meet with each other when we think they have opportunities to work together.

How do you determine the success of an investment? Is acquisition the end goal among portfolio companies – as with ActionX, which sold to Xaxis?

We do invest for strategic return as well as financial return. In most cases, it’s very easy to determine what the financial return is. It’s a little bit harder sometimes to draw bright lines to the strategic value, but we work very hard to make sure all our portfolio companies have a great chance to work with Verizon and we plug them in wherever we can and give them as much guidance as we can on how to work with Verizon. We don’t require it, we don’t want to force anybody into an unnatural relationship, but we want to make sure the relationship is mutually beneficial.

Do you see Verizon Ventures as a largely standalone entity within the broader Verizon org chart?

I’m a finance guy who tries to be a problem solver. But I talk to entrepreneurs everyday and I sit in an office surrounded by software developers, engineers and data scientists right within the product organization. We’re not in corporate finance. We’re talking to the people every day who are building our services, so it’s quite natural. Through that interaction, we come to understand their needs and trends impacting the industry today. So one of my better sources of deal opportunities are referrals internally from our product team.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


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