There are many differences between programmatic buying in China versus the United States. Among them is that companies in the United States are often very focused, creating more fragmentation than you see in China.
iClick Interactive, a DSP in China, sees itself as a unified platform that offers advertisers support throughout many phases of the digital media buying process, including search, display, mobile and video.
"In China, programmatic contributes less than 2% to 3% of the whole digital media buying, compared to the United States where it's maybe 20% to 25%," Sammy Hsieh, CEO of iClick, told AdExchanger. "Advertisers in China won't just allocate 2% to 3% alone to another agency to get them on that platform. Because of that, we have a more holistic distribution. We can see the consumer journey instead of just helping the advertisers to do just one thing."
The company, with six offices throughout Asia and more than 300 on staff, is headquartered in Beijing and works with ecommerce, travel and financial brands, among others. And, with teams launching in London, New York and San Francisco, the company is working to bring its knowledge of the Asia market to Western countries.
AdExchanger spoke to Hsieh about how U.S.-based companies can move into the China market, data management in the region and plans for iClick's expansion.
AdExchanger: Tell me about iClick. What exactly do you offer clients?
SAMMY HSIEH: We work to position iClick as a unified platform to simplify the whole complicated media buying process in China. We aggregate the inventory on the search side, with Baidu, the largest search engine in China; 360; Google and other small players. Then we are connected with the RTB exchanges. The second thing we help advertisers to solve is the data. After we collect all this data, our data team will do some segmentation: search behavior, browsing behavior, and because we also help advertisers to do their search engine marketing, we also collect the transactional data.
The third thing we offer is account services, because many advertisers don't know how to kick-start a programmatic media campaign in China. We have services staff in six countries in Asia helping advertisers to set up their campaigns.
AdExchanger: iClick was founded in 2009. Can you tell us more about your funding and revenue at this point, five years in? Where are you working to grow?
In terms of funding, our first investor was Sumitomo, a Japanese firm, and our second investors were Bertelsmann, from Germany, and SSG Capital. In the past five years, we've continued to invest in our technology and our data, and also expanding our territory. Now, we cover six countries and we're also just starting to enter into the U.S. market.
Because we are still a private company, we cannot disclose the numbers at the moment. I can tell you the number of advertisers we work with is growing, and also our revenue is growing. We have experienced exponential, three-digit growth in the past four years.
AdExchanger: Where are you looking to expand and grow now? You're starting teams in New York, London and San Francisco, right?
In the past couple quarters, we have seen brands from Asia, the United States and Europe; everyone wants to get a share of the business in China, especially as ecommerce is growing.
In San Francisco, we just set up the sales team and now we have seven people in the United States and in Europe. Our account servicing team is based in Beijing, because once you get the client, you have to localize their strategy. At that point, we work as a team to serve all those global accounts, together with the U.S. team on the front line and also the back end in our Beijing offices.
AdExchanger: Who do you consider your competitors?
I would say that our competitors are in two classes. One would be advertisers—they're still using the agencies and the traditional method of digital media buying. By allocating their budget according to the market share, they just buy the inventory from the publishers in China; this is the traditional model.
The second competitive area is the ad tech players in the United States, because in China, advertising technology is still a very new concept. Some of the advertising technology players, they are trying to enter into the Asia and China market, but I see that they're not exactly providing the same services as us.
As you know, the advertising space in the United States is very crowded. Advertising technology players are just doing, for example, the re-targeting, or just the display, or just the search optimization. But for iClick, we are providing clients with a unified platform. So there's some competition, but I would say that they're not exactly doing the same thing in our part of the world.
AdExchanger: How are data management platforms doing in China?
That's definitely a potential area for growth. When you launch a programmatic media buy for the client without any data to start, it takes a really long data collection period for your algorithm and the machine to learn.
Data is also important in cross screen advertising. Advertisers would like to track users from mobile to the web. How can you identify the same users? That's why we are developing a digital fingerprint, so we're not using cookie data, and we can store this profile, and do more predictions, like how likely it is that this user is going to the web and how likely it is the same person on mobile. Everyone wants to know this equation!
AdExchanger: What advice do you have for U.S. and European ad tech players as they try to enter the Chinese market?
The first thing is they need to find a partner who really understands the space, because after combining the technology and algorithm, you still need the local expertise to help you to launch a campaign.
Then the second thing is, they need to find partners who can get access to all the inventory in China. Once you get the inventory, then you can use the data technology to learn more about your target audience. Without data, without knowing the audience, that's very difficult for a foreign company to understand the market.
The third part would be the transparency, because programmatic media buying is all about optimization, and optimization is an ongoing process. You need to have all the real-time data, and the dashboard, which can help you to keep optimizing. The market, the landscape, and the audience all change so fast. That's why you have to do optimization as an ongoing exercise.
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