Chris Mejia is President and CEO of ADSOVO and Contextual Media Group, makers of SureSafe.
AdExchanger.com: First, a bit of background, how are ADSOVO and Contextual Media Group connected? How did the company begin overall?
CM: Yes, there seems to be quite a bit of confusion in the market about this connection, so I’m happy to clarify… ADSOVO Inc. is the parent company of Contextual Media Group, Inc. (CMG)—our subsidiary company dedicated to semantic and contextual technology solutions for the online advertising industry.
CMG was originally formed as a joint-venture company, to bring a 15-year competency and experience in real-time Internet filtering to online advertising. In 1994-95, CMG’s founders virtually invented the field of “Nanny Filtering” (preventing children from viewing objectionable content online). To give you some context here, Yahoo! was founded in 1995 and Google was not even a dream at that point—yet our scientists were busy working on the first algorithms to reliably find and filter adult and other objectionable content found on the Internet.
In September 2009, we unveiled SureSafe to the world at ad:tech London—a first critical step in validating our assumptions about the adverting market’s need for our solution. There on a shoestring budget, in the smallest stall available (right next to the men’s restroom in fact!), we brought SureSafe to life, allowing show-goers to walk right up and type in any URL, to see for themselves if it worked. By the end of the two-day show, we were literally overwhelmed by the size of the crowd jockeying around our stand to see a live demo—it was in that “Eureka” moment that we knew we were on to something special… at least in the UK. After validating the UK and European markets for our brand-safety solution, in November 2009 we exhibited SureSafe at ad:tech NY—further validating the same advertiser-driven brand-safety requirements we had previously qualified in the UK and Europe.
What problem is SureSafe trying to solve today?
At a high level, SureSafe categorizes content and protects brands in real-time, allowing advertisers to safely extend their reach into the mid and long-tail publishing segments.
The Internet is the only media where content verification is humanly impossible. While there are over 7-billion websites globally (more websites than people), brand advertisers are monetizing only a few thousand of those today. Until SureSafe, there has been no reliable way for humans to track and categorize the Web’s ever changing content in real-time. As such, advertisers fearing misplacement of their brands next to objectionable and brand-damaging content, have resulted to “white listing” more manageable subsets of the Internet (human “vetted” lists of only a few thousand websites)—a practice that is limiting and unreliable.
SureSafe is a trust-broker for the online advertising industry: our real-time semantic and contextual engine checks webpage content (at the page level) right before ads are placed. With SureSafe, brand ads are displayed only on brand-safe websites. Brands are protected, so brand advertisers increase spend and reach. Advertisers reach and win more customers—on mid to long-tail websites previously considered a risky bet.
How do you differentiate from some of the others in the verification space such as AdSafe, AdXpose and DoubleVerify? Are you concerned you are late to the game?
We don’t think we are late to the game—our solution has been filtering content on the Internet for 15-years. Based on our experience, we know it’s relatively easy to achieve 80% reliability in identifying brand damaging content (and perhaps a couple of our competitors have achieved 80% reliability?). However, achieving the last 20% of reliability [which is absolutely necessary to solve this problem], and doing so in real-time, is a much tougher nut to crack…
SureSafe has evolved over 15-years—leveraging an intelligent system design that learns, based on years of data collection, to solve the brand-safety problem. Today, while others are struggling to offer single services or features related to brand safety, we are leveraging our 15-year head start to address brand safety at every point along the online advertising value chain: for advertisers, agencies, ad networks, ad exchanges and publishers. Rather than rushing to market with half-cocked “solutions,” we have focused our efforts on creating a true platform, which works. SureSafe offers multiple services, designed to meet various industry needs, all powered by one tried and proven engine.
Do you have a media business, too? Do you think a company can provide media and data services simultaneously without running the risk of a conflict of interest?
Our primary business is to develop and license value added technologies that empower online advertising. As a small part of our operation, ADSOVO runs the TrustedPublisher Network—a supply side network that provides a “home” to smaller publishers who publish quality brand-safe content. To ensure brand-safety on the TrustedPublisher Network, sites are crawled regularly, but at random intervals, using PubScan. As this network focuses on the supply side, and primarily aggregates smaller websites (sites that most other networks wouldn’t normally work with due to ROI concerns around the costs associated with human vetting of content), we haven’t experienced a conflict of interest. In fact, we are able to deliver real added value to other networks that are eager to access this fresh source of vetted brand-safe content. There has been a good bit of interest from networks that want to offer the same service and aggregate their own TrustedPublisher Networks. To that end, we have recently started work on a white label solution for networks.
It’s also important to understand real-world logistics and operations with regards to the integration of our services running interconnected with 3rd-party technologies (i.e. ad serving, ad exchanges, RTB, etc.). Operating the TrustedPublisher Network gives us that real-world experience and know-how, allowing us to test and improve our services in a live ad-serving environment. In short, ADSOVO is always CMG’s first alpha customer and first beta customer to test new services, features and service enhancements.
Who is the target market for SureSafe?
SureSafe addresses brand safety at every point along the online advertising value chain, for advertisers, agencies, ad networks, ad exchanges and publishers. We have built multiple value added services that leverage our proven content filtering engine.
How does pricing work for ADSOVO’s risk management platform?
I believe that affordable pricing leads to early and rapid market adoption. We have already announced pricing for SureSafeAudit and SureSafeSync for as low as 1-cent CPM, in volume (based on billions of impressions per month). To our knowledge, nothing on the market comes close to offering the same level of protection, commercial scalability and brand confidence at such an affordable price. Our market-based pricing represents an important investment in this industry—brand safety should not only be affordable to the largest players. In fact, the largest players will benefit when the entire ecosystem adopts brand safety solutions.
Previous to founding ADSOVO and CMG, I ran a large ad network. From my experience there, I know that brand-safety solutions costing more than 1-cent CPM will not attain wide market adoption. In order for the market to thrive, industry-wide adoption of brand safety solutions must ensue. So by offering affordable, market-priced solutions, we are encouraging rapid and wide adoption.
Publishers often want to prevent channel conflict when selling their non-guaranteed inventory, as you know. What’s your view on your company’s responsibility for respecting a publisher’s need to remain anonymous when selling through an ad network or exchange, for example?
Clearly advertisers are demanding more transparency. Brand advertisers, who represent over 90% of the dollars spent in Display today, need to ensure that their brands are not appearing next to disparaging and brand-damaging content. Unfortunately the industry has not done a great job of protecting brands historically—hence the inception of content vetting and validation services like ours. At the end of the day, advertisers are the customers—they are the ones paying the bills. So I think their needs must be met in order to ensure a healthy business ecosystem. When brands are satisfied, spending will increase and publishers win.
In 2007, we saw brand spending in Display decrease dramatically from the previous year. A lot of people attributed this decline in Display spending to the “overall economic situation” of 2007—but I think that’s bologna. During the same period, we saw Search advertising increase (Search is not as brand sensitive as Display, as brands are not displayed next to published content in Search). And history has proven that during economic downturns, there should be an increase in the most economical forms of advertising, not a decrease… I believe that the 2007-08 decline in Display spending (and the stagnancy ever since) was directly attributable to brand advertisers’ uncertainty regarding placement. The resultant and now common practice of “white listing” (which started to become popular in 2007-08) has dramatically decreased the amount of deliverable impressions for Display—limiting reach to just a few thousand websites globally (while there are millions, if not billions of quality brand-safe websites in the world). And its not that brand advertisers don’t want to reach their consumers in the mid and long-tail—they do, but as an industry, we must ensure brands’ wellbeing before we can unlock this inventory.
Our solutions empower both advertisers and publishers, and it should be noted that we never participate in the business relationship between buyer and seller. However, we have seen that those publishers who vet their content using our service attract brand dollars with higher eCPMs. In large part, publishers who don’t differentiate their brand-safe content from the rest are considered a risky bet to brand campaign managers. As such, these publishers are ending up with “bottom of the barrel” ads—mostly CPA ads that yield much lower eCPMs. So you see, it’s really up to the publisher to decide: “What kind of advertiser do I want to attract?” If the answer is premium brand advertisers who pay on a guaranteed CPM, then clearly publishers have to satisfy those customers.
How many employees do you have today? Who are your investors? Any plans for additional funding?
ADSOVO and CMG are privately held companies based in San Francisco. Originally funded by a French-based venture capital firm, we are generating revenue today. There are 12 full-time staff and various part-time people working on SureSafe today; and that number is growing monthly. We believe in smart growth—as such, we didn’t start hiring sales and marketing staff before our products were market-ready (so if you hadn’t heard of us until now, maybe that’s why). As we are now ready to engage the market, we have begun discussions with various Silicon Valley investors.
A year from now, what milestones would you like to have seen the company accomplish?
A year from now SureSafe should be recognized as the leading brand-safety and content verification solution on the market. I’m also confident that CommonThreads, our semantic and contextual ad-targeting platform, will be in commercial release. While today we are primarily focused on the US and UK markets, as brand safety is a global issue, over the next year, I think you will see us start to respond to strong market demands in Europe, Asia and South America.