Zaw Thet is CEO of 4INFO, a mobile advertising technology company.
AdExchanger.com: What do you think is being misunderstood about mobile advertising today?
ZT: I would say there are two key things.
One is the lack of what I would call “traditional” performance dollars - CPA, CPC-type dollars that have long supported online advertising. We all know that the budgets that go into brand are just starting to rival where search advertising is online. But the difference is that mobile devices and tablets [offer something different] than a desktop PC. The typical performance advertising of education, insurance, etc. that you would see online isn't really there in mobile.
The second is the lack of this idea of a universal cookie. We see Apple has moved to eliminate the UDID access for third‑party ad networks. There is a lack of third‑party cookie support on Safari and cookies are perishable on other devices. [In mobile,] there isn't a “gold standard” by which people can either retarget against their own data or use a single data source.
And, lastly, the mobile advertising ecosystem is still so primitive compared to where online is. There aren't four levels, nor need there be just yet, of different supply‑side providers, exchanges, SSPs. That just doesn't exist in mobile. It's still primarily an ad network-driven business.
4INFO has been in the mobile ad network business both in SMS and display. Can you talk a little bit about that?
I'm sure you saw from our history that we started life as an SMS company. As we continued to grow, it became clear to us that extending those capabilities and providing an SMS platform for other publishers was something that was absolutely crucial.
So we extended it. Our current trajectory has been to layer on top of that a very rich and full‑featured display advertising platform and server. The end goal is what we call our AdHaven platform.
It's a verticalization, I guess you could call it, of a mobile advertising technology stack. So it's an ad server. It's a mediation layer. It's an audience management platform. The next logical result would be an exchange. But that will certainly take some time.
What is the hole that still needs to be filled on the sell side?
On the sell side, certainly the big thing is that there is way more supply than there is overall demand. We see this in every industry. There is increasing fragmentation. Publishers get more inventory and all of a sudden what was a hot news app on the iPad becomes one of 100 different news apps on a device –and then the CPM has dropped as your core advertisers can find that same audience cheaper.
So, what our fundamental thesis is, is that there needs to be the ability to - instead of doing site targeting or conceptual targeting - to behavioral and audience target and retarget through the mobile ecosystem.
That hasn't been done to date. That's something on which we are focused.
So how do you classify 4INFO?
The way that we see ourselves is as a platform first and as a network second. There continue to be opportunities for publishers that want a better solution for their sales team to sell. We obviously have that iron in the fire. We've got a huge network, just by nature of all our publisher relationships. I think the latest Nielsen stats have us at 86 million uniques a month. But that's not so meaningful anymore. Everyone has access through mediators.
So, to us it's really about augmenting that ad request with as much relevant data so that an advertiser can find that right user at the right time.
In your mind, what is a mobile display ad exchange versus a PC based display ad exchange – any difference?
I think the biggest core difference is that in a PC‑based exchange, everything is based off of someone's cookie. Someone quickly looks to see who that "user" is based on the cookie data that's available, makes a decision as to what they want to bid for that inventory and then hopefully that inventory is then run with the right campaign.
So that, to me, is at the very basic way an online exchange works. Obviously there is a lot more complexity than that. At the mobile level right now there is not a lot of data that gets passed back and forth. There certainly isn't a substitution for the cookie.
It means that third‑party ad networks - or anyone that wants to bid on inventory - is reduced to relying on the inventory provider to provide first party data or any third party data they have appended.
To me, an exchange is really about two things: easy access to inventory and access to data about the user. For mobile right now it's just access to inventory. There isn't any data.
Where does the SMS ad network fit into your plans?
It's part of the equation. It's obviously not the whole solution. But definitely, when someone wants to come and do a mobile buy, even with 40% Smartphone penetration, there's obviously a huge component of people that still use future phones or non‑data enabled phones. So we see it as part of a “360 buy.” When you come in, you can buy video. You can buy apps. You can buy mobile Web. You can buy SMS. It's not a standalone.
In mobile display ads, is there something that you think can be done for performance advertisers right now – particularly retailers?
I think one of the big things that people see is that obviously purchase history and commerce is definitely different on the phone. I would say more and more folks are starting to actually see tablets as one extension of their strategy and are obviously making their sites with their applications friendlier for purchase.
I think the full loop will obviously happen when phones start to get even more advanced. You’ll see a jump with iPhones integrating into near field communications (NFC) and the device going full-circle to the cash register.
It’s certainly early days, but it doesn't mean that they can't be testing it right now to figure out what works and what doesn't.
How does a company like yours get ready for a more fluid cross channel world if you will?
I think it's going to happen sooner rather than later. We are deep in conversations with online ad exchanges and plugging into them both from a supply and a demand standpoint.
So it's our ability to actually look for our own data, target based on that and extend the reach of our network or anyone that is selling into the network.
Frankly, there is going to be more trial and error this year. As we get into next year, I think that's when you'll start to see more of these partnerships take off and fluorish.
Do you think 4INFO will buy some content?
One of the nice things, at least on the SMS side, has been that we have always owned and operated a property.
People go about acquiring content in a couple of different ways. They either buy content through revenue guarantees or with publishers. So in essence, it's their content. Or they build up at their own stack. It's certainly something we looked at. We did our first acquisition last year with a company called Butter, which didn't have any content per se.
But, it had a great set of relationships with app developers and game developers, where they were deeply integrated all the way down not just to the interstitial ad level, but the ability to put ads into a scoreboard or something of that nature.
So that was one acquisition that we did, which was a content acquisition and we picked up some really interesting inventory. But beyond that we are always looking for the latest and greatest.
What's the status of funding these days? Any plans you can share?
We've raised a decent amount of capital to-date and certainly have a bunch more in the bank. One of the things that we're obviously looking at is a combination of technology plays and hiring new talent. We've got offices now in Boston, New York, Chicago, SF, and now we're just opening up LA.
We're still relatively small and scrappy with about 75 people total. That gives us some flexibility to continue to move nimbly, but we've got a great team in place, as well.
What about international? And, what are the peculiar, mobile challenges with international strategy?
International is a tough one to solve because “A” you've got to have specialty in the market. “B” The performance world is different, right. And it needs to run self serve so people can access when they want to buy. Admob was one of the great examples of having a great self-service platform that a lot of people would use internationally.
I think, today, as you look at the brand dollars, people... There are some great stuff coming out of Europe, but it's certainly not anything that's “ginormous” enough yet for a bunch of US companies to make inroads there.
Japan, obviously, is an interesting opportunity. The rest of Asia. China, obviously we know, are all going to be big, but in the meantime I think most of us have a fair chunk of international inventory. I think up to 30% of our inventory is international. But frankly, on the brand side, you don't know what to do with it. Just being frank.
Any milestones that you'd like to see the company achieve when you look back a year or two from now?
I think the biggest one is figuring out this glorious black hole of how to do online exchanges and platforms integrate into mobile ones. There's a lot of work to be done there - a standardization across the industry of how people treat a mobile user. They can't present a cookie or can't use a cookie is, I think, the biggest problem that the industry as a whole needs to solve.
We're certainly one of many players trying to solve that. Hopefully we're the ones who do it.