There’s The Trade Desk with its successful initial public offering in August, AppNexus with its IPO likely imminent in Q4, Millennial Media nested under AOL and AOL (and Yahoo) nested under Verizon, Neustar planning to split itself in two and the private equity acquisitions of now formerly public companies Sizmek and Marketo.
“At first blush it might look convoluted, but the changes we’re seeing reflect a maturation of the sector,” Kawaja said. “The Trade Desk IPO serves as a beacon, an example of how it’s possible for companies in this space to be both high-growth and highly profitable.”
That combination appeals to a new set of acquirers, including telcos, private equity, mar tech companies and Chinese conglomerates. They’re not necessarily interested in digital media or ad tech, per se, but they’re all beguiled by the notion of doing more with their data, and that’s fueling a lot of the consolidation
“Now, some of the older, more traditional players are coming into this media and tech world and, obviously, it’s a bit too late to build, so they have to buy,” said Jimmy Maymann, AOL’s EVP of content and consumer brands, speaking at an IAB event during Advertising Week. “Verizon did that, and if Disney or Salesforce wants to be in this space, that is what they will have to do.”
And do it they will.
“We have a six- to 24-month advanced look at what’s coming and we think, well, there’s going to be a lot more activity here,” Kawaja said. “It might be contrary to what the average investor still seems to think, but there are interesting companies in this sector and people will make a lot of money.”
The Trade Desk in particular is giving investors like Leo de Luna, managing director of Microsoft Ventures, the fortitude to invest in a space that didn’t previously inspire him with the greatest of confidence.
“It takes exits like that to get folks like us excited about putting money in,” de Luna said at an xAd event in New York City in late September. “What I’m looking for is a defensible business.”
Defensible as in revenue-positive – or at least a plan to get there. Ad tech has been somewhat challenged in that regard.
One reason for that is the working capital issue.
Clients on the brand and agency side generally pay out 90 or 120 days after the fact, sometimes longer, but operating expenses generally need to be paid on a monthly cycle. A lot of companies in the space carry about two months of revenue on their books as receivables, which can be especially daunting in January since Q4 often represents as much as 50% of their annual revenue.
“In its S-1, The Trade Desk actually does a very good job of laying out the working capital challenge, which has been one of the industry’s dirty little secrets,” said Michael Collins, CEO of Adelphic.
In other words, it’s an IPO starting off on the right foot, which dovetails with an overriding trend in the industry right now around greater transparency.
“The market is looking for more transparent models,” Collins said. “Seeing the market properly reward a programmatic ad tech company is great for the industry. It also gives people something they can point to other than Rubicon or TubeMogul, and that should free up capital all the way across both the public markets and the private sector.”
Even more so if AppNexus files for its IPO in Q4 as expected. Existing investors in the sector are watching like hawks.
“That would provide some strong tailwinds for the broader industry,” said Nima Wedlake, an associate and research lead at Thomvest Ventures, a VC firm with investments in a number of ad tech companies, including Apsalar, DataXu and Vungle. “The success of a company like The Trade Desk or AppNexus if it happens is something that’s very, very important to us.”