ALC may be one of the biggest first-party data companies you’ve never heard of – but that’s about to change.
Founded in 1978 as the American List Counsel, ALC started life as a provider of data services to direct marketers, which back then primarily meant developing customized consumer data files to support postal campaigns.
But last November, CIP Capital acquired ALC and appointed former Acxiom co-president Rick Erwin as CEO to accelerate a new vision centered on the intersection of identity data and digital marketing.
“When people talk about data in advertising, they’re mostly talking about advertising impressions and panel data – and we think that is a missed opportunity,” Erwin said. “It’s still just too hard in many applications to access people-based data affordably and safely with a form of identity attached to it.”
In plain English: Clients want to do more with their data – second-party, third-party and, most of all, first-party – and ALC wants to become their go-to partner.
But, Erwin said ALC isn’t looking for a suitor. In fact, it’s feeling a bit acquisitive itself. Late last year, for example, ALC subsidiary IDify, which helps marketers activate first-party data, acquired the assets of Qualia, a provider of cross-device graph technology.
“We’re focused on building a company that can solve the sort of problems that brands and partners haven’t been able to solve affordably in the past,” Erwin said. “That’s what’s occupying my mind 25 hours a day – and getting acquired is completely absent from my thinking.”
AdExchanger spoke with Erwin.
AdExchanger: You’ve personally got a long history in the data space, with executive roles at Acxiom, Experian and RR Donnelley back in the day. Why join ALC?
RICK ERWIN: Every marketing campaign, every marketing decision and advertising impression should be touching people-based data in some way, shape or form, even if it’s just as a confirmatory step or to optimize a decision you already made.
But that is not happening today, because of economic, technical, service-related and social barriers. Our vision is to break down those barriers so that it’s extremely easy, safe and affordable to use identity data everywhere it can be used.
To do that, you need the architecture to quickly ingest any form of people-based data or identifier, to resolve identity, affix any relevant first-, second- or third-party attributes to it and then send it on its way, and all in a cost-effective manner.
And ALC has the architecture?
Forty years ago, data monetization was about helping direct marketers acquire and retain customers using noncompetitive data that was relevant to or predictive of response. This evolved into helping brands use the right combination of other first-party data sources to do the same. These two offerings together carried ALC through a lot of growth and into the last 10 years. Then we began to extend those very same solutions into multichannel and digital media applications.
Is that where the business is headed? The answer is yes, but with an asterisk, which is that there is so much more still to do.
What are some examples of this in practice?
We might help retailers participate in a new form of media, like OTT, using PII customer IDs. To do that, they need an IP address attached to a customer ID. Sounds simple, but when they go to the marketplace, the companies who say they can do it often have a laborious and clunky process.
We can also help clients identify the traffic visiting their sites by connecting anonymous online visitors to whatever corresponding third-party data set the client chooses. They can’t see who the visitors are, but they can get the third-party data they’re accustomed to working with attached to identifiers and use it to create different site experiences for different customers.
The possibilities are endless.
Who are you like? I’d like to put you guys in a convenient bucket.
There are plenty of other well-known companies that help brands acquire more customers and monetize their traditional offline data.
But when you think about our future direction and our focus on people-based data, I’d challenge anyone to find a company that’s exactly like us. It’s not like others couldn’t play here, too, I just don’t see it happening at other companies with a competitive model to ours.
What’s your take on all agencies talking more about first-party data and actually buying data companies – a smart move?
I think these are great moves, and I’m gratified to see it happening. The largest brands in the world are telling their agencies that this is how they want to think about the relationship they have with their customers.
At the same time, so many categories of fast-moving consumer goods are rapidly migrating their businesses to the DTC model or else they’re being disrupted by upstart companies. This is all happening because the world is waking up to the importance of first-party data.
These major acquisitions – Merkle, Acxiom and Epsilon/Conversant – reflect an understanding of this dynamic.
What challenges do IPG, Publicis and Dentsu face in taking full advantage of their multibillion-dollar acquisitions?
One of the biggest considerations is whether the business model of the company being acquired is different from the company that’s doing the acquiring.
If that’s the case, there could be different economic and strategic drivers, different standards and norms, and blending together is a challenge. These integrations don’t happen by themselves.
But this is also one of those situations where the opportunity is open ended. These companies currently serve some of the best and largest brands in the world, and they’re all just beginning to scratch the surface of what they can do to improve using customer data.
Speaking of acquisitions, what type of companies is ALC looking to buy?
We’re interested in companies that possess unique forms of identity connected to attributes that we could use to help clients extend insights about their customers, prospects and visitors. We’re looking at companies that have permissible ways of collecting anonymized identities and using them to help brands make better decisions.
The privacy landscape is changing, additional laws are coming on the books in the United States. How does ALC approach consumer privacy and protection?
We have established privacy and security policies and processes to protect our clients' data and ensure that our solutions are engineered with consumer privacy at the core.
This interview has been edited.