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Why This Marketing VP Left Wendy’s To Join A Location Data Vendor

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Brandon Rhoten, CMO, GroundTruth

Tracking real-world behavior is a top priority for marketers, according to Brandon Rhoten, CMO of GroundTruth.

It’s not a surprising take from the chief marketing officer of a location data-based advertising platform.

Before joining GroundTruth in September, he spent three years as global CMO of Potbelly, one year as global CMO of Papa Johns and six years as VP and head of advertising, media and digital marketing at Wendy’s. (Fun fact: Rhoten was responsible for hiring the person behind Wendy’s snarky Twitter persona.)

Although online search activity can be a strong indicator of what users are looking for, Rhoten said, intent doesn’t always translate into action.

“I search for yachts sometimes, and that doesn’t mean I’m planning to buy a yacht anytime soon,” he said. “But when someone actually shows up at a place and purchases something, that’s very meaningful.”

Rhoten first came across GroundTruth back before its rebrand from xAd in 2017, when he was still on the buy side and using the company’s location data software for his brands. After leaving Potbelly in 2021, Rhoten did some consulting work, including acting as an advisor for GroundTruth before taking on the CMO job.

Rhoten spoke with AdExchanger.

AdExchanger: Why jump from the brand side to ad tech?

BRANDON RHOTEN: I’ve probably spent somewhere between $5 billion and $6 billion in media during my career and I’ve worked with a lot of media partners. One of the most frustrating things about being a CMO is proving that there’s a correlation between your media spend and outcomes.

I wanted to do something that could make a difference for marketers looking to have a reasonable conversation with their CFO and CEO about the impact that marketing makes in an organization. The CFO and the CEO don’t want to hear about impressions and reach – they want something tangible.

In your experience, do CFOs typically dismiss softer marketing metrics out of hand?

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It’s a spectrum, but broadly speaking … yes. Think about it from the CFO’s perspective. They could be allocating resources for people, acquisitions, tools, software, training, and you’re coming to them and saying you want budget so you can get more likes or an uptick in brand awareness.

And then there’s the challenge of proving incrementality.

We used to joke at Papa Johns that snow was “liquid gold” because, when it snows, pizza sales go nuts. You have a bad winter and sales go up by low single digits, just like that. And who takes credit for that happening? Everybody. Or everybody tries to.

You can do MTA and MMM – you can have attribution models out the wazoo – to try and understand cause and effect, but you usually just end up with correlation. I wanted to go to a place where I could help marketers see a cleaner connection between their ads and the results.

But what’s it like being the CMO of a location data company, considering all the regulatory scrutiny of location tracking? Location data isn’t just considered sensitive; it’s politicized.

What I’d say is that we’re growing beyond the idea of location data to be more about real-world behavior. Location is important, but purchase data, auto telematics, any data source that speaks to the fact that I’m physically doing a thing or interacting with retailers in a meaningful way is where the real value is.

But as we expand beyond location data, we also need to build technologies that allow us to be privacy compliant.

And how do you do that?

One example is on-device technology so that your data never leaves your device. Basically, your device decides which ads you’re served, and the person remains anonymous. They don’t have to give up their location data to a corporation, but they can still receive relevant advertising.

Products have to strike a balance between privacy and addressability. That’s the sort of technology that will start to become standard over the next 10 years.

What’s your take on the FTC’s lawsuit against Kochava in August for allegedly selling sensitive geolocation data?

The details matter. It matters how you extract data, what you do with it, whether you resell it and how. I think the government is testing the boundaries of what is legally OK, and Kochava has become their poster child.

But then again, I think it’s clear that a lot of people in government don’t understand how technology works. That becomes evident when you hear the sort of questions that companies like Meta and Google or whoever it might be get when they’re called to testify in front of Congress. It shocks me every time. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

For more articles featuring Brandon Rhoten, click here.

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