Pattison Media is one of Canada’s premier radio and television companies - serving the needs of listeners, viewers, advertisers, and communities throughout British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.
We invited Dan Rua. He is the CEO of Admiral. Previously, Dan spent decades in venture capital - mostly with media publishers.
One of the companies he backed was Grooveshark - a music streaming service. This is when he noticed that music enthusiasts were some of the early AdBlock adopters.
This led him to invest more into the problem and ultimately create Admiral to help publishers strengthen their relationship with visitors.
Here are some highlights from the episode:
“They essentially have put out ad blockers that by default opt you into seeing ads - which are kind of controversial in the category. You're marketing an ad blocker that by default shows you ads.” – Dan Rua
“Some publishers are all about subscribers. But at best, you’re going to hit 5%-10% of your users as subscribers. That means 90%-95% of your visitors are not paying subscribers. So, if you have blinders on about turning everyone to a subscriber - you're actually going to screw some things up with the other 90%-95%.” – Dan Rua
“When we get deprecation of third-party cookies and we get into a world of seller-defined audiences or some sort of audiences grouping defined by publishers.” – Dan Rua
“Your happiness. Your feeling of progress is defined by whether you are progressing the customer. Is the customer better off - both at a company level and the individual champion that you're working with? Are they a hero in their organization?” – Dan Rua
Rob: Hey everybody, it's Rob with AdButler here. Welcome back to another episode of AdTech Unscripted. Today I'm joined by Dan. He's the founder and CEO of Admiral. Previously, Dan, you spent decades in venture capital - mostly with media publishers. Which, I guess, led you to create Admiral and help media publishers. So, Dan, welcome! Excited to have you. Before we get into all of the questions I'm going to throw at you. Maybe you want to quickly introduce yourself and tell everybody about who you are and how you got to where you are today.
Dan: I'm excited to be here. You did a great summary there. You know my background, early on - I was a computer engineering graduate. And a part of the apple 2 generation. So just really fired up about startups and how Apple is created.
I ended up going to work with one of Apple's arch-enemies IBM in the early days and how to learn from a blue chip, then got excited about startups and venture capital and did grad school and actually went into venture capital and launched a couple of funds.
There's a west coast fund called Draper Fisher Jurvetson that we launched. On the East Coast, there is about one company. Then I built enough a track record of my own to launch a third fund focused mostly on the southeast US. And did another 10 companies there.
In the process, we were backing a bunch of software and media companies and one of the last companies I backed was called Grooveshark - the music streaming space and so it was a media publisher. It was an ad-supported / subscription-supported - really the pioneer of music streaming. But we stumbled onto something there because music enthusiasts were some of their earliest AdBlock adopters.
Adblock is just the tip of the spear of this broader kind of privacy, user empowerment wave that's bulldozing through the category and so when we sold off Grooveshark to the labels, we actually spun the product team out to create admiral to help all publishers - build relationships with their visitors and ultimately you know figure out the right value exchanges for a sustainable internet.
Rob: That's awesome. I was an avid fan of Grooveshark, back in the days. So it's super interesting to have you on the show because I had no idea you were involved with it.
Dan: I've really lucked into it. It's interesting. The music revolution is actually analogous to some of the stuff that's going on in media publishing. So I put the first money into Napster which was like the first book in the music revolution.
And then the other book-in was Grooveshark. And in between those two it was, you know, almost a couple decades of the music industry coming to terms with how users wanted to consume music and it took the labels a long time to figure that out. They lost revenue in the process. And ultimately got back around to it with streaming (Spotify).
Publishers, whether they realize it or not, are going through the same sort of cycle with users, and privacy, and adlocking, and kind of the revolution that users again are trying to take the internet where they want it to go how they want to consume and publishers ultimately have to kind of get ahead of that curve instead of playing ketchup. And hopefully it doesn't take publishers a decade plus, the way it took the music labels.
Rob: Yeah, yeah, hopefully not. It's interesting. You say that adlock is definitely, you know, AdButler, being an ad server, it's definitely something we deal with here all the time. You know people bring that up to us “40% of our users are getting blocked by ad blocker and we're charging CPMs, so we're losing revenue” things like that. There's definitely some technical workarounds that people can do with server-side ad injection and things like that.
But how does Admiral kind of fit into the picture? What do you guys offer? You know in terms of being able to help publishers recapture some of that lost revenue that is lost to ad blockers.
Dan: We started out like any good startup, we had kind of a fairly narrow MVP in the early days and that MVP product was really just size and solve ad block losses. Adlock is one of those things that also blocks your data calls. They can screw up your Google analytics, it screws up ComScore and Nielsen and other things.
So step one was just to help people realize that their normal dashboards aren't even showing them an accurate picture of what's going on. We had this free tag. We said listen, stick this tag on your site and we'll immediately tell you how much you're losing to addlock whether you do anything with us or not. You should at least understand the implications, then if you want to get some of that revenue back we can help you do it.
But we kind of came at it a little differently than the rest of the market. So as you mentioned there was definitely a group of players that were trying to sneak ads past the blockers or circumvent the blockers.
Dan: There's another group that was trying a different way to sneak ads past the blockers. Essentially what they've done is put the acceptable ads moniker on it. But they essentially have put out ad blockers that by default opt you into seeing ads which are kind of controversial in the category. You're marketing an ad blocker that by default shows you ads. That's a different way of sneaking ads past the blockers but we went a different direction. We said, you know, what's the root cause of the problem here?
What we came away with was, as an industry, for a couple of decades, publishers didn't need any sort of relationship with their visitors. So they just attach ads to the content and if the content's good enough, they have a business - as a result, you don't have a relationship. So each side can abuse the relationship, right?
Publishers may abuse the relationship with a bad ad experience and users may abuse it with ad blockers and other things. So, we say, well, wait a minute this isn't just about ad blocks. Ad blocking is just a symptom of the lack of relationship between publisher and visitor.
And so when we look at you know whether it's ad blockers or data blockers or now what's coming with the death of the cookie and GDPR and CCPA - those are all the same wave.
And that same wave goes back to this idea that publishers, who create relationships with their visitors, are going to separate themselves from publishers, who don't, over the next decade. So we ultimately built a platform - first that MVP was the size and solve ad block losses - but it's grown into this bigger thing that we call visitor relationship management which is how do you help publishers create 1 to 1 visitor relationships and first-party data and relationships with their visitors.
Rob: There's a lot to unpack there and I'm gonna go back - maybe 4 or 5 sentences - to this idea of acceptable ads. It's always been one of these things on the back of my mind - there are certain ad blockers that exist in the market where you can essentially pay to get your ads still seen, right? And it's always like - is that really ad blocking - the way you expect ad blocking to work like.
I can get myself whitelisted and it's an acceptable ad and now it's getting past the Ad Blockers. So at some point, I felt like certain ad blockers went from having a very good mission and a hand and pure heart thing - “let’s stop ads”. And then they saw a revenue opportunity.
They're like well you know what we can make money on this by letting people whitelist themselves and paying us a bunch of money, right? What are your thoughts on that whole acceptable ad? I'm not trying to trash talk by any means because in some regards it works really well. But what are your thoughts on Acceptable ads and the ability for people to get past ad blockers by paying the ad block company, right? What are your thoughts on them?
Dan: I think there's been an evolution, at least, the messaging of it. Eyeo - the largest AdBlock company out there kind of tried to get smarter at how they market, what they're doing. When they first came out with it, Randall Rothenberg, from IAB, was on the record saying this is an extortion business model. right? This is what you know? They tapped the publisher on the shoulder and said “hey you know if you cut us in on the action. We'll let some of your ads show.”
Rob: That's what I was referring to, I just didn't want to say it.
Dan: Take away all the marketing, that's essentially what is happening. So, eyeo goes to market with that concept and they get lambasted by publishers in the industry. What they did was - they said, “well we need to separate ourselves from that.” So they kind of empowered what you might call “tax collectors” to go out and do it for them under other brand names.
So, it's not eyeo, but it is these other company names that are out there, tapping people on the shoulder and saying hey you know, “If you cut us in on the action, we will let your ads through.”
So I think they've gotten better at marketing it. You know the problem for publishers is that, from an RPM standpoint, it's just the bottom of the barrel. So, for someone who is trying to check the box, “oh! I did something about ad blocks.” Well, it's better than nothing.
Rob: Right, but you're still not making a lot.
Dan: If you think about anyone who focuses on yield optimization, that remnant is just like the baseline. What you really want to do is get your premium on top and so that's where the stuff we do around relationships and talking to users and getting blockers off.
When you get the blocker off it unlocks the full ad stack and so you get the full RPMs. In some sense, ours is called full stack recovery versus something like acceptable ads. You can think of it as almost like multiple bidders for an ad blocker (for the inventory of blocker). Anyone who knows yield optimization knows there's value in having multiple bidders. You’d never just run remnant inventory and not try to run some other bidders against it.
We just bring you the higher RPMs. In the last data we ran, we had RPMs almost 5x to 9x from full stack recovery versus just acceptable ads.
Rob: That's awesome. You have some other models too. You mentioned things - the full stack. I really like the idea of fostering that relationship with the viewer and with the readers. Because there's nothing more annoying than going to a website and you're bombarded with ads - poor user experience. You're just there to read some trash on the internet and that's it.
Honestly, I load up some pages and get hit by so many ads, then I am like, “I’m not going back to this page. It’s just not happening.”
I know there are certain sites out there. They've got like subscription models - where you can pay. Our local newspaper here, I'm in on the west coast in Atlantic Canada and the media publisher over here like our newspapers - you pay I think it's like a dollar-95 cent for a month and you can access all their articles and things like that. Even then you still see some ads right? You still see ads but it's not an overwhelming experience.
I'm happy to pay the money for it. My first job as a newspaper boy, delivering newspapers and knocking on doors. I used to pay like a dollar a week for newspapers. So, I don't mind paying a dollar-95 to get access to read my local news every day.
But what do you find / what's working for publishers? What's not working? If you had to give recommendations, what would you recommend?
Dan: Sure. So, again, we really do start this from their relationship and so it helps us not to get too stuck in any one fiefdom. Like publishers get stuck with these fiefdoms right - they got their ad ops team, they got their subscriptions team, they got their email guy that has a list of 10000 emails, and they're fighting for resources.
And we're a little more focused on the entire relationship. Just to list off some of the things that we think are a part of relationships - talking about ad blocks. That's a simple one. You get ad blockers off. That's immediate revenue.
Then, starting an email relationship with someone - turning that into a registration. Which you can start to have an account - which has first-party data attached to that account.
Then, moving into things like following on social media, downloading mobile apps, donating (like Patreon - sort of donations), subscriptions and then ultimately privacy consent like GDPR and CCPA. So, all of those things are part of what it means to have a relationship.
If you can talk to somebody about one of those things and they will opt into that they're stepping into the relationship - leaning in a little bit. So, ultimately you want to do all of that. But in reality - you only do it one step at a time.
So what we promote is - to put our free tag on the page and you'll immediately see what revenue opportunity exists across these various buckets. Then you can turn on any of them that you want to without writing a single line of code. You may turn on AdBlock recovery.
Then you may say, “oh well, I'd love to get some email addresses as well. Let's click on getting email addresses.” Then let's turn on subscriptions.
We can power all of that for them depending upon the philosophy of the publisher. Some of them may have a subscription mindset and so they definitely want to launch that. And some of them may specifically not have a subscription mindset and they want to stay more in the kind of free access world.
We happen to feel that there is no one silver bullet on any of these. It is that you have a diverse audience that is open to different value exchanges.
You can have the exact same site with the exact same article. But two different people show up and one of them is okay with an ad-supported experience and another one wants ad-free and they're willing to pay for it. So, you need a platform that can allow you to meet people where they're at. Then ultimately maximize focus on average revenue per user or ARPU.
There are some folks out there who ask specifically about subscriptions. There are some folks that kind of have blinders on about subscriptions and so everything they do is ultimately about how they try to get a subscriber. But in reality, at best you're going to hit 5% of your users as subscribers. Or if you absolutely blew it out of the water top tier - at best 10% are paying subscribers.
That means 90 to 95% of your visitors are not paying subscribers and so if you have blinders on about turning everyone to a subscriber you're actually going to screw some things up with the other 90-95% versus figure out how to kind of grow relationships and grow ARPU across the entire spectrum.
Again, if someone goes from not being an email subscriber to being an email subscriber that calls them to read an extra article per week which doubles their page views with you. You just doubled the ARPU of that visitor and they didn't have to pull a credit card out.
You didn't have to make that level of an ask. But over time if they're an email subscriber and they turn off their blocker and they're a social follower. There's a decent chance they'll become a paid subscriber so you just have to grow the relationship steps at a time.
Rob: It's interesting. You said there is a first-party data aspect too. Is there anything that you found that is the most profitable? So in the first-party data world, if I come to a page and I give consent. OR there's a sign-up process and I'm signing up and I'm filling in my email address or maybe my date of birth and location and things.
Is there anything that you would recommend is the best for targeting? So if you're running an ad campaign and relying on first-party data - is there anything that works the best.? Like you find ‘Geo’ is more profitable than say ‘contextual’. You might not have insights into this, I'm just really curious. But in terms of first-party data and what the publisher shares along that supply chain (as it were) - are there any sets of data that you find are trending right now that publishers should look at that maybe they aren't considering?
Dan: I don't know if the top ones would be a surprise to everyone. We've done some work with some of our publishers and analyzed all the bidding that's happened against their stack and therefore we know what are the top data points that are used for campaigns.
And there's data we could all kind of guess on. It’s geo, it's gender, it's household income - those sorts of things. That’s for broad-based. But then, if and when you have direct sales capabilities, it can be very narrow - specific to the advertiser, you're thinking about.
So to the degree, that for an auto advertiser, you could pick up via a first-party form or survey. You know someone's preferences in cars or and you know whether they're interested in fast cars versus family cars or what have you. Like that data, the point is then really valuable in a direct sales atmosphere or PNP atmosphere. That's then going to push up your CPMs on those campaigns so so yes there's you know maybe a top None of just kind of like the core that everyone's bidding against but ah.
Depending upon your niche. There's a bunch of additional first-party that you can get that really pushes up your CPMs.
Rob: Yeah, one of the ones that I've seen here kind of frequently is in the real estate market - like the number of bedrooms in a house or the number of bathrooms and things like that - where the advertisers are paying to get a premium ad space for people looking for expensive houses. It's really cool that level of granularity can be used to drive RPM and in this case, ARPU. That's super cool.
Dan: I'd say that there's a near-term piece of this and then there's the longer-term piece. When I talk about you know Direct or PMP - that's the near-term piece because programmatic and cookies are still taking care of you on first-party programmatic targeting. But when we move beyond - when we get deprecation of third-party cookies and we get into a world of seller-defined audiences or some sort of grouping of audiences.
Publishers really need to have their own data set to date. They've been able to rely on the fact that - if I come to a news site but I happened to have previously visited a running site then it knows to show me a running shoe ad.
The publisher news publisher benefits from that CPM. But if the degree that third-party connection gets severed, it's really up to that news publisher to start to really understand who their visitors are and this comes back to first-party data.
In addition to the explicit or declared first-party data like filling out forms or surveys. You also have the implied first-party data. One of the things where we've got a big ML project is an immediate classification of content consumption. Is somebody a Tampa Bay Bucks fan or are they a hockey fan or what? So, that's out of the box - you have the first-party representation of your visitor set.
Rob: Yeah, that's super intriguing. We don't quite have the same use case over here in the AdButler platform. But we have a contextual management platform. When a visitor comes to the page we can read and identify each page and we learn what that page is about, then we fit it all into the IAB taxonomy for categories and keywords So a publisher can go in and get a real-time view of how are ads doing based on specific IAB categories.
So they can say - our users right now are digesting a lot of news-related or money/finance-related articles. Then you can marry that data to first-party data that you have.
And say, “finance is currently doing really well on the East Coast so let's focus a lot of our content creation on finance articles targeted to specific geos and things like that. So it's really cool to see all of these you know, different working pieces come together.
There's a soft spot in my heart for publishers. So it's really cool to see publishers taking all of this kind of curated content or curated information and then building content for their viewers and it's really relevant to what they want to read. I Love it.
Dan: You touched on a contextual aspect. But you're going to see this shift to where you need to be able to tie it to the authenticated user and on top of to the authenticated user - lookalike audiences to that user.
We're just trying to help as much as we can. Our mission is saving the free internet one publisher at a time. Because all this wave of privacy and user empowerment is going to challenge publishers for a long while.
Rob: I Love It. One publisher at a time. Saving the free and I 100% love that. Because I think we have the same mentality here. Shifting gears just slightly.
I recently found out that your customer success team calls themselves the ‘Customer Love’ team. I love that! So I've talked to other companies - they called them ‘Success Gurus’.
There was another one that had ‘Customer Ninjas’ and things along those lines. The customer love team. What's your story behind that? I Love that idea. What made you come up with ‘Customer Love’? How did that happen?
Dan: It was a little organic - it really came out of the mentality of our company. So when you try to analyze you know what's core values of your company and what are things you're doing - naturally versus artificially. What’s the DNA of your people?
Customer love is just shown through. If you talk to our customers, the term customer love will come up sometime in that conversation. It starts with our mission of saving the free internet one publisher at a time and then how are we doing that.
Well, one of the ways we're doing it is just absolute care and love for our customers’ success. We started that years ago but then just in the last year we stumbled onto this book. I don't know if you've been exposed to it or not - it's called ‘Winning on Purpose’ by Fred Reichheld. He was the guy who created a Net Promoter Score.
He writes this book and the subtitle of the book is ‘The Unbeatable Strategy of Loving Customers’. And he even uses the phrase ‘Customer Love’. We got all excited that he's putting some science around what we feel.
The whole message of it is - your happiness, your feeling of progress is defined by whether you are progressing the customer. Is the customer better off - both at a company level, but also the individual champion that you're working with? Are they a hero in their organization because you're going overboard to try to make sure they're a hero in their organization?
Rob: I love it. So I come from a bit of a sales background before I stepped into like the product and apparently the podcast role here at AdButler. From the sales point of view, it was always that in the buying process right, people are always coming in and you know they're looking at pricing.
But really at the end of the day there's it's something very satisfying to that user to go back to stakeholders and say hey you know I close the deal with AdButler. Or I close to deal with Admiral. I close the deal with Google. And I got us a 30% discount or I got us x y and z bonus - they feel like a hero. They look like a hero.
So, empowering that one individual user or customer or whoever. It is the customer at that point. I love that you just said that because that's kind of exactly what I've learned in my experience and I've gone through some sales processes with our vendors where it's not like that at all and you just kind of feel like you're almost a burden or you're just a number to them - as opposed to actually trying to make you be successful.
Dan: I think, back to how it started - now that you say that - it reminds me that one of the reasons it started. Again, at Grooveshark, we're a media publisher and so we had vendors coming to us all the time.
And you had the vendors that would say, “hey we'll promise you a $5 CPM.” But it's all smoke and mirrors. Because as soon as you put their thing on - they do like 0.5% fill and they're like, “See, I got to the CPM.” But I was like I didn't gain any revenue in the process.
We are coming into a category that had some smoke and mirrors in it. And publishers have been hardened from the smoke and mirrors in Adtech and Martech space. So, we just said, “ We want to be completely transparent on the customer side trying to solve their problems. And if we do that we're going to be all right and they're going to be all right.”
That was a bit of the origin, but it's really served us well. The other thing, we talk about ‘The Visitor Relationship Management company’ - it puts relationships front and centre for us as a company - but like more than a tagline. Like relationships, we can think about publisher-visitor relationships, right? Our product does that.
But also our relationship with the publisher really matters. That's the Customer Love. Our relationship with visitors matters because our software is interacting with visitors. Are we doing it right? Are we doing it well? And then lastly the relationship between our employees and Admiral as a company. All matter. So relationships are this like awesome 4 circle Venn Diagram of if we deliver on caring about relationships - we're going to be okay.
Rob: Yeah, that's awesome I love it. But in the last couple of minutes here I'm going to kind of roll out the red carpet for you.
Where can people find Admiral? Where can they find you? Are there any events that are upcoming? if somebody wanted to learn more about a]Admiral and get onboarded and started with you guys, where would they go?
Dan: If you go to getadmiral.com, you'll learn all about visitor relationship management and how we can deliver revenue. It starts with a free tag you should at least put that on your site and see what kind of revenue potential is sitting there.
And then everything we do is performance-based and so it's guaranteed Net ROI for the publishers.
I would comment about the macro environment that we're in right now. Having been in the venture, I went through multiple market crashes. And there's this looming recession out there that publishers are talking to us about. The beauty is our platform is - like a Swiss Army Knife of new revenue. You can pick up lost ad revenue that you were just burning up every single day. You can pick up email ad revenue. You can pick up donations and subscriptions and everything along that journey.
When Covid first hit, the same sort of thing happened and publishers were scrambling for revenue continuity. And our ability to just turn on revenue without writing a single line of code was really valuable. So, as we look forward over the next 6-12-18 months, we're really looking to try to help publishers. Just turn on revenue as quickly and easily as possible to weather the storm.
Rob: That's really good to hear. Coming from a publisher ad server specifically, I know there's a big appetite in the market right now for exactly that. Especially you mentioned it - a looming recession - the writings kind of on the wall. We've seen this in the tech Industry.
Layoffs happening. There's just been this down tik in consumption. So I think you're absolutely right - ways to empower publishers now to open up new revenue streams that maybe they didn't have before. Or just grow what they already have in place. I think is exactly the right direction.
getadmiral.com, hopefully, anybody that's listening and if they've been intrigued by it. Go check it out.
Dan was an absolute pleasure to have you. I'm sure we'll have you back because this was great - appreciate your time today. We'll hopefully talk to you very soon.
Dan: Thanks Rob, I love it. I'd love to come back!
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