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Must Ad Tech Margins Fall? One Analyst Says No

pivotal-brianThe conventional wisdom on ad tech margins is that lucrative markups naturally compress over time due to a variety of factors, including competition for media impressions, which drives up the cost of impressions.

But some companies, most notably Rocket Fuel, seem to have defied that logic.

The programmatic ad platform, which went public last fall, has enjoyed steady margin growth for at least the last five quarters. In Q3 2012 its revenue ex-media cost margins were 54%, and rose to 58% by Q4 2013.

By comparison, digital ad platform Criteo's margins were around 40% for the first half of 2013. That's down from around 42% for full-year 2012.

Does this foreshadow the younger Rocket Fuel’s future? In a Friday research note, Pivotal Research analyst Brian Wieser said he doesn’t believe margins inevitably fall.

"Interestingly, lighter competitor margins [e.g. Criteo] amplify concerns among investors that margins must inevitably fall at Rocket Fuel, which is not necessarily the case at all," Wieser wrote. "Any given ad network can find pockets of inventory that are under-appreciated by other networks, including those with more data (such as Google's GDN) for many different reasons."


How Mobile Ad Net Orange Advertising Built A Programmatic Channel

orange-liquidmHundreds of mobile ad networks are working on a transition to programmatic trading.

One of them is Orange Advertising, a unit of European wireless carrier Orange. Last year, the company realized it needed an answer to the impression-buying trend, and began evaluating ad tech partners to support a nascent trading desk. It ultimately settled on an vendor-neutral approach that included buying through companies like LiquidM, AppNexus, StrikeAd, and AdMarvel.

"We wanted to be technology agnostic. We didn't want to build just one platform," said Giuliano Stiglitz, CEO of Orange Advertising Americas. The company is focused on developing a programmatic strategy focused on Latin America, and in Stiglitz words, is "building a state-of-the-art trading desk in Colombia using the best U.S. technologies."

According to Stiglitz, there are three areas where mobile buying and optimization platforms can set themselves apart. First is inventory. ("Most have overlap; that 10 to 20% that don't overlap can really make a difference.") Second is optimization functionality. Third is revenue model.

One of Orange Advertising's partners, LiquidM, has sought to differentiate on the latter. The company charges a flat software licensing fee, starting at $12,000 a month and capped for most customers at $69,000, and takes no percentage on total media transacted. It offers a pilot program allowing would-be customers to test the platform before committing. Twelve customers are in pilot mode; six are full-fledged subscribers.


Millennial Media Has Strong Q4 But Warns Of ‘Turbulence’ Ahead

michael-barrettIn its Q4 earnings call Wednesday, mobile ad network Millennial Media revealed it had netted $109.5 million in the fourth quarter, up from $75.9 million in Q4 2012 (a 44% increase).

Total revenue for 2013 increased 41.6% from $241.3 million in 2012 to $341.8 million last year. Despite a strong end to the year, however, the company also warned investors to expect some “turbulence” in following quarters.

The company notably reported a loss of $3.7 million, or 4 cents a share, for Q4, compared with a prior year profit of $2.6 million, or 3 cents a share. Millennial provided a lowered outlook for Q1, with revenue forecasts ranging between $72 million and $76 million, which it attributed to reduced spending from brand advertisers and other seasonal factors.

Newly appointed CEO Michael Barrett said the company is betting big on programmatic buying, an increasingly prominent part of Millennial’s offerings. “The rise of programmatic buying is happening at a fast pace in the mobile ad industry and the company sits in a premium position to bring that demand to its platform,” he said during the earnings call. (more…)

Conversant (Formerly ValueClick) On The Uptick For Now

conversantFollowing a rough year, Conversant – the ad-tech company formerly known as ad network ValueClick – had what CEO John Giuliani described in the company’s quarterly call as a “solid Q4 to close out the year.” Read the release.

The company on Tuesday announced 2013 Q4 revenue of $176.4 million, a 6% increase from the same period last year ($166.6 million). This brings its 2013 annual earnings to $573.1 million, a recovery of sorts.

“We didn’t expect to go backwards last year,” Giuliani said. “We did, but we pulled out of that and we continue to perform better and better. Clearly our work isn’t done yet, but our goal is to produce a unified, differentiated offering and we believe we are well on our way.”

The company’s down period occurred largely because of declines in its once-core display ad business (which Conversant calls “insertion order-driven display business"). This area continues to decrease. However to stabilize itself, Conversant changed the way it segments its lines of business, distinguishing affiliate marketing revenue (from its Commission Junction unit) from media revenue. Media revenue lumps together the company’s various CRM, mobile, video and cross-channel technologies business along with its traditional display business.


ValueClick Becomes 'Conversant,' Seeks To Align Tech Assets

conversantValueClick’s gradual transformation from an ad network 15 years ago to an ad-tech provider  – focused on ad personalization and decisioning – entered a new phase Monday when it rebranded as Conversant.

The name, said CEO John Giuliani, represents the consolidation of the different technological components the company has assembled over the last several years.

“We’re perceived as individual business units, at least from a customer side,” Giuliani said. “And investors look at us as a bunch of different assets but aren’t sure how they fit together. In a year, we want customers to understand where we are in a single roof, and investors to understand how those assets work together more cleanly, and how that offers differentiation and utility.”

The feeling among these parties, he said, was that ValueClick’s “assets had become greater than the sum of its parts.”

ValueClick’s transformation includes the divestiture of its owned and operated (O&O) sites on Jan. 16. “That was the last divestiture we needed to move our assets to a place where they can all come together,” Giuliani said.


Xaxis Buys Dutch Ad Net BannerConnect

xaxis-bannerconnectWPP Group's addressable media unit, Xaxis, has acquired Netherlands-based BannerConnect, a 10-year-old company that evolved from its roots as a traditional publisher network to embrace the exchange-buying trend.

BannerConnect has headquarters in Sittard and satellite offices in London and Amsterdam. In addition to bringing on the 40 employees in those locations, Xaxis gets technologies for digital campaign optimization and visualization. The suite, called Bright, will be rolled out in other markets where Xaxis operates.

"BannerConnect is a very tenured company in the programmatic media buying space," said Xaxis CEO Brian Lesser. "Our strategy has always been to acquire companies that enable our overall strategy: new products, new markets, new sales channels and scale." 

Terms of the deal weren't disclosed. According to WPP, BannerConnect's 2013 revenues were $5.8 million (€4.3 million) and its gross assets at the end of the year were $11.2 million (€8.3 million)


Rocket Fuel's Q3: Margins Edge Toward 60%

George John, CEO, RocketfuelRocket Fuel is sitting pretty in its first quarterly earnings report since going public in September.

The company saw Q3 top-line revenue growth of 132%. Its customer base reached 938, up from 406 in the third quarter of 2012, and headcount grew to 552 – about on par with AppNexus. Press release.

Impressive as those stats may be to Rocket Fuel's investors, they're nothing compared to its margins – which jumped from an already robust 54% one year ago to 58% for the just-ended period.

Management sought to downplay the increase, which comes as some other ad-tech players feel pressure on margins. (Criteo's margin, for example, was 42% last year, according to its F1 filing, but only 40% so far in 2013.)

"We do not expect revenue less media costs to improve or even maintain current levels," said Rocket Fuel CFO Peter Bardwick. He said Q4 will likely see higher media costs, as a result of higher advertiser demand during the holidays.


ValueClick Will Sell O&O Sites, Roll Out DSP

vclk-no-o-oValueClick will sell a bunch of websites as it pours all efforts into upgrading its wheezing display ad infrastructure. The company is also building a DSP, despite earlier claims that clients "wouldn't move to a DSP; there's not enough richness and personalization."

On the block are Investopedia, PriceRunner,, SymptomFind and No word yet on the timeline for unloading these properties, which collectively delivered $28.9 million in Q3 revenues.

"Our planned O&O divestment is an example of our focus on driving the integration process forward and gaining further synergies from our core assets," CEO John Giuliani told investors on the company's Q3 earnings call today.

That integration includes closer alignment between the Dotomi retargeting business and ValueClick's traditional display ad network.  More on that in a moment.


Four Questions For Rocket Fuel Post-IPO

Bill WiseAdExchanger asked industry leader and Mediaocean CEO Bill Wise his "take" on today's Initial Public Offering (IPO) for real-time ad platform and services company, Rocket Fuel.

The IPO netted Rocket Fuel $116 million and valued the company at approximately $1.8 billion at market close (stock quote).

Bill Wise:

On Rocket Fuel doubling and worth nearly 2 billion... HOLY $$$$$$HIT!!!

The big questions for them are:

  1. Can they continue their revenue growth while maintaining gross margin levels? Criteo had "rocket" growth, only to slow down and now their margins are mid 30's.
  2. Can they grow without adding labor and salespeople? They need to add true recurring revenue, more SaaS-like.
  3. Can they break through the billion dollar billings glass ceiling? This will require them to solve for attribution, global scalability, and policing bad traffic-- all which has haunted ad networks for years.
  4. Can they leverage this amazing market cap multiple to consolidate the space... And, in return, diversify their business?


Real-Time Ad Network Rocket Fuel IPO Nears $1 Billion Valuation

ipo-tremorReal-time ad platform Rocket Fuel amended its S-1 Registration statement (see it) to go public and revealed how much it will raise and how much it will be worth should all go according to plan.

The answer according to NASDAQ: "$102 million by offering 4.0 million shares at a price range of $24 to $27. At the midpoint of the proposed range, Rocket Fuel would command a fully diluted market value of $981 million."

A source noted that the valuation above may be a bit high. While eventually, Rocket Fuel might sell close to 4 million shares, the IPO calls for just under 3.5 million to be sold. Multiply that number by the mid-point price of $25.5 per share, and the valuation looks more like $828 million, not $981 million.