With New Hire For TellApart, CEO McFarland Sees Company Milestone

Josh McFarlandDisplay ad retargeter TellApart continues to grow its footprint among ecommerce publishers. CEO Josh McFarland recently discussed his company’s momentum and industry trends. Though he demurred on the subject of revenues, McFarland offered an optimistic outlook on his company and the industry at large in a Q&A with AdExchanger.

AdExchanger: Can you talk a bit about your announcement today (see release) regarding the hiring of former Criteo vp of sales John Kelly as well as the growth of your team?

JOSH MCFARLAND: We’re growing our go-to-market teams heavily right now, and that’s helping us turbo-charge the product and engineering-centric organization for which we’ve been known.  This process began with our new COO, Tom Cheli, who took Quinstreet from 20 people to a public company with over $400M in annual revenue.  And John’s role is key to further accelerating our success.  He’s an industry veteran who has participated in its evolution, from AOL to Yahoo to the early days of personalized retargeting.  I feel like we’re at a stage where the company is able to stand on the shoulders of giants – and not just because John is 6’7″.

TellApart is commonly thought of as a ‘retargeter’ – is that how you see your company today?  How do you differentiate from Criteo and Dotomi, for example?

TellApart has always been a platform for customer data where we layer on predictive analytics to help commerce clients ‘tell apart’ their high value prospects from the rest.  Where the rubber meets the road today is through retargeted display ads that are backed by a click-to-conversion business model — yet also come with full “Conversion Lift Studies” to prove the overall incremental value.

There are many differentiators that can be found in the preceding statements:  custom client-specific models, a user-centric focus on conversions not clicks, full lift measurement and a transparent business model where we don’t make money unless our clients do.  Oh, and unbeatable performance at scale, in that we’ve never lost a head-to-head challenge against any competitor.

You’re the only Facebook Exchange beta partner amongst your competitors.  Is that an additional differentiator?

I can confirm that we are a beta partner, but I can’t say much more than that other than to give the entire Facebook team a standing ovation for their work.  I personally know it will be a game changer.

You’re an ex-Googler, of course. Do you think display is effectively wrapped up by Google?  What’s your take?

Had you asked me this a year ago, I would have said that was the prevailing wind — that Google would only widen its lead in almost every dimension of display advertising, from premium publisher tools to the Doubleclick Ad Exchange.  But quite literally in the last three months, huge shifts have occurred where now Yahoo is re-emerging as a serious second (their inventory is still hands-down the highest performing), and Facebook has done an incredible job with the architecture of FBX.  Throughout the industry, the primary players are investing heavily in RTB and their audience targeting strategies, and that spells good things for the entire industry.  Credible competition breeds innovation.

What about moving beyond direct response and into brand advertising? Why not target brand goals?

We do, but with a must have:  an objective function.  That’s a nerdy way of saying, “Give us a tangible goal and we’ll optimize to it,” and that’s what our technology is built to do.  We aggressively support top-of-funnel campaigns for our largest clients with our Audience Targeting application:  seasonal & co-op funded promotions, lapsed buyer reactivation, cross-sell/up-sell and new-to-file.  Outside of that, you won’t see us going into pure brand advertising any time soon, because it’s just not in our DNA.

Your piece on challenges you saw with view through conversions ruffled a few feathers a couple of years ago.  Are you any closer to saying that “view throughs” are acceptable?

Our view on view throughs is unchanged:  the concept is a tool that can be used for good or evil, and it’s only under the supervision of a scientifically valid A:B lift test that clients can keep their vendors honest.  We’ve stayed true to the line we first drew in the sand; our clients only pay for post-click transactions because they’re transparent and can’t be gamed.  No view through cookie stuffing, no click fraud, no risk.  With average user click through rates that routinely exceed 10%, we are big believers in the power of the click conversion.

That being said, we know views have value and we help our clients measure that value.  To use an analogy, although you can’t see the wind, you can measure it.  But if you can look out your window and see the trees rustling, you’ve got both an obvious leading indicator and scientific proof from your anemometer.  Clicks are this leading indicator;  if your campaign is getting clicks that convert, then you know those ads were seen, well-timed, compelling and powerful.  Provided the rest of the impressions were delivered in a similar matter, you can rest assured the measured view through value is real.

Tellapart has been relatively quiet in the press in the past year? Why?

We’ve definitely been quieter in the ad technology arena than our competitors.  Part of that is owed to our focus as a customer data platform (you’ll see us making plenty of noise in retail circles!), and part of it is because we focus on letting our results speak for themselves and that frees up time to accomplish a lot more with 40 folks than others can with 400+.

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  1. Pradeep Javangula

    It would be useful to know what the conversion attribution methodology is that is adopted by clients when using Tell Apart.

  2. Hi Pradeep — by and large, our clients have standardized on A:B testing methodologies to prove the incremental lift from their various marketing channels, including TellApart-driven retargeting. In the absence of multi-variate weighted attribution models (read: econometric unicorns), the ability to simply prove total bang-for-the-buck is what’s important.

    Happy to discuss more any time: josh-at-tellapart