George John, co-founder of ad network/programmatic media platform Rocket Fuel, has vacated his CEO position. Board member Monte Zweben will temporarily step into his place as the company searches for John’s successor. Read the release.
“The company’s evolution over the last couple of years put it in a different operating regime, which requires a different type of CEO than the founder-visionary,” John told AdExchanger.
Since its explosive IPO in 2013, Rocket Fuel has seen its fortunes shift – in its recent quarterly earnings call with analysts, management declined to give earnings guidance and announced a new push for profitability.
“As a public company, we have a new set of requirements with a new set of constituencies,” John said. “And that’s going to require us to drive ourselves toward profitability and operational excellence.”
Even during the company’s initial success, as revenues surged, Rocket Fuel focused on top-line growth. John said in retrospect it would have been beneficial to instill a culture, even during flush times, focused on driving profitability.
For now, that’s Zweben’s purview.
“I’m going to take a little time with the team here digging deep into our operational processes and deciding exactly those changes in the coming weeks that are necessary for us to drive ourselves to profitability,” he said.
The advertising culture in which Rocket Fuel initially thrived has in recent years changed. Agencies and marketers want transparency from their media partners – which typically includes factors like how consumer segments are defined and the price paid for media.
But Rocket Fuel’s initial value proposition wasn’t built to accommodate these demands: It was an ad network (or managed service) that claimed to use automation, "artificial intelligence" and machine learning to optimize media buying.
John is aware that industry insiders accused Rocket Fuel of being a black box. Even without CEO duties, he’ll serve as chairman of the board and is pushing back on that perception.
“We’re not a black box,” he said. “We’re happy to give insights.”
Rocket Fuel’s purchase last August of self-serve DSP/DMP hybrid [x+1] gave the company an opportunity to add a new dimension to its managed service model.
“We’re going to provide the technology the way the marketer or agency would like to receive it,” said Zweben. “So if the marketer would like to self-serve, we have solutions for them to take advantage of our great optimization technology. If they’d like a full managed-service solution, we can provide that too.”
It will be important for potential clients to latch onto this messaging, especially as Rocket Fuel seeks to better its relationships with agencies – many of whom have deals with preferred vendors.
“We recognize it makes sense for agencies to develop relations with a few key partners, and historically we haven’t invested in becoming one of those,” John said, adding that Rocket Fuel was initially built to win in a “Darwinian arena” where if it performed better than its competitors, it would get more customers.
But this isn’t the case where vendor ties take precedence.
“We’ve talked about formulating an agency relations team at Rocket Fuel, focused on the more senior folks in an agency,” John said. Those discussions are ongoing, and future success could very well hinge on Rocket Fuel’s ability to redefine itself among potential clients and partners.