Insider’s View: Ad Tech & MarTech Q&A with Alex Wheldon [Part 2]


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For this week’s installment of Insider’s View, we caught up with Alex Wheldon, Chief Marketing Officer at Smarkets, an online betting exchange that offers a secure and transparent platform for trading on sporting, political and current affairs events.

Alex is a three-time entrepreneur and marketer in the Ad Tech, fintech, and consumer technology sectors and is also an active early-stage investor in Europe and North America. We dug in to get his take on the Ad Tech and MarTech landscape and where he sees things heading. You can connect with Alex on LinkedIn or Twitter.

1. Can you tell us a little bit more about your expertise in the Ad Tech/MarTech industry?

I was the founder and CEO of Kanary, one of Europe’s first DMP/DSP integrated platforms. We were acquired by Gravity4 in 2014. I’m now on the buy-side, where I’m CMO at London-based Smarkets. I get to put my Ad Tech/MarTech experience to work on the broader marketing level.

2. What specifically does your company do, and how does it fit into the larger digital marketing picture?

Smarkets is one of the world’s largest betting exchanges with over 100,000 customers. Customers bet around £2 billion per year with us, and we’re growing extremely fast, circa 400% per year. For us, I’d like to think that we’re at the very forefront of Ad Tech/MarTech; figuring out the next steps on how innovate the client experience. We try to have an open dialogue with vendors and pass down insights we have found, and the challenges that we’re facing. We actively try to communicate issues that will help drive innovation within the industry.

3. What types of technology platforms (data analytics, media buying, etc.) do you use every day to meet your job demands?

Our stack is probably more custom than most organizations as we’re generally an engineering company filled with talent similar to a lot of Ad Tech companies: quants, data science teams, and a heavy focus on python and erlang. Consequently, we like to build stuff ourselves. We’re quite heavy on the data side, as we’re moving to a more personalized client experience, whether that’s in our ATL or BTL spend, or within the platform itself.

We rely on GA for our web analytics and Google Tag Manager for the obvious. We typically use whatever ad server is available via the trading desks to save costs. We decided to build what I saw as the most important pieces to the business ourselves: platform business intelligence, attribution systems, and journey management tools.

We started with our own custom BI platform using elasticsearch that sits on top of a Postgres-XL cluster to give insights on platform behavior and allows us to slice and dice customer segments in real-time; but from there we rely on some heavy-duty infrastructure to power the automation and machine learning jobs to improve message delivery/timings, and even markets we want to offer to customers at any given time. It’s a pseudo-DMP. We are reviewing vendors for a few other top of funnel activities, but the only other vendor we rely on at the moment is Income Access for our affiliate management.

4. What do you see as the single most disruptive force coming to the world of Ad Tech/MarTech?

I think, depending on how world events play out over the next little while, privacy and data practices globally will have huge impact on the ecosystem as we know it today. Platforms and publishers are already beginning to see the effects of this, and I think it will continue.

5. What are in your opinion the biggest challenges that the Ad Tech/MarTech industry face?

I feel like I’m repeating the 2013 version of myself, but fraud is insane. The guys from (now Doubleclick) did a great job on proving that fraud can be tackled, but I think that the most recent and damning report from Facebook and the Atlas team shows that not much has been done to protect buyers, especially in the RTB space. I mean, they purportedly dumped 75% of their inventory to safeguard buyers, which is not good. It’s a very difficult problem, and people will always find ways to go about defrauding advertisers of their budgets, but it’s critical that there is a united front to tackle the issue.

The second challenge I see is that as ecommerce platforms become more and more complex, we will see the “amazonization” of B2C platforms and that may cannibalize a lot of existing vendors. I believe the impetus will be on the advertisers themselves to be powering the dynamic and personalized elements of marketing messages, with their own technology/products, where first-party data is safely locked away. This, I think will squeeze out third-party providers as we see them today.

Don’t get me wrong, there will always be third-party providers so long as we have an open internet model, but their role will change and evolve over the coming months/years. I think we’re already seeing this happen as some vendors move to things such as “identification models” as a SaaS service, like Drawbridge.

6. There are thousands of companies in the Ad Tech/MarTech industry and the whole ecosystem gets more complex every year. Do you have any recommendations for marketers how to navigate this space and choose the right vendors?

Pick your battles. There are things you should build and things you should buy, and these decisions are in a constant state of flux depending on the business, the business model, customer base, etc.

For us, at Smarkets, it’s easier to contemplate building things because of our resources, the nature of our customer base, the market conditions, etc, but that does not mean that I would do the same thing for, say, an automotive company. It’s super critical to play your cards right at the infrastructure level to get the edge needed to perform. These days, highly specialized vendors, like Clearcode, can help build these complex solutions as needed if your core business does not have a heavy emphasis on technology.

Insider’s View is a Q&A series where leaders at brands, agencies and tech companies opine about their use of Ad Tech & MarTech today and what’s to come.

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