Time in digital media is perhaps better measured in dog than human years. A quick look at the numerous '90s websites that still exist, unchanged, in their original forms, certainly serve as evidence that it doesn't take long to become antiquated when it comes to the internet.
Basing your business entirely on digital media exposes it to the ever-present risk of obsolescence. And it was something the team at Acquire Online were acutely aware of when they started the business 18 September 2012. It has meant the team has been forced to constantly adapt to stay in tune with evolving client demands, while simultaneously ensuring that the core business remains valuable to existing partners.
So far, the company has excelled on both fronts, being ranked the 15th fastest growing company in the 2016 Deloitte Fast 50, and then going on to win the 2017 IAB Grand Prix Award and the 2017 IAB Junior and Senior Ad Operations Excellence Awards. But the job is still not done. And founders Chris Schultz, Simon Healy and Anthony Ord (pictured below left to right) reckon there's still room to move in this highly complex space.
Here are their thoughts on the last five years and what the future might hold.
What's the backstory behind the company? How did the original founders decide to start it?
"Through Simon Healy’s and Chris Schultz’s existing relationship with DigiLowCost France, one of Europe’s leading independent trading desks. Given the strong growth in digital advertising solutions, and that there was no New Zealand company in this space, we saw an opportunity to be the first programmatic trading desk in the market, giving us a real competitive advantage. Along with Anthony Ord, the first programmatic campaigns were trialled back in 2010-11 and from the performance of those campaigns, it was clear programmatic will be driving force for digital advertising in the future."
How many people worked on the business originally? How long was it before some additional staff was necessary?
"Chris, Simon and Ant were the 'originals' with the first campaigns being managed from Paris. We quickly employed Arnaud Calonne to start running the campaigns from our own platform accounts. The business really started to grow once we started to attract bookings from our media agency partners. We then employed Zane Furtado who really broadened our offering across multiple programmatic channels."
How quickly has the business grown over the last five years?
"What we used bill in the first few years is now what we bill in a month, so the growth has been more than ten-fold over this time. We can also say the complexity of programmatic has grown ten-fold over that time also. Not only do we offer full deck buying services (search, social, native, video, mobile, display, in-app and audio) we provide attribution analysis and even real-time dashboards. This means we are tracking and optimising across wide range digital channels which result in better performance and a high rate of rebooking with bigger budgets. We now employ 18 staff and last year we were recognised in the Deloitte Fast 50 as the 15th fastest growing company in New Zealand recording a 406 percent growth over three years."
As you've added staff, have you found it difficult to find the skills you've needed to continue growing?
"Yes, it is very difficult. We have been fortunate to employ some experienced staff who bring new knowledge as well as Zane coaching and developing some fantastic new-to-industry-people like Ashwin Sundaram and Harista Ganda. Our focus on staff training and development is paying dividends. At the 2017 IAB NZ Awards, Ashwin Sundaram won the ‘Junior Ad-Operations Person of the Year’ award and Zane Furtado the leading ‘Senior Ad-operation Person of the Year’. Zane also won the overall Grand Prix award. We need to acknowledge the skills in account management as well. Kali Pentecost’s Aussie mobile background was the ideal grounding for programmatic and Nick Paschalis has made a massive difference in his role as agency sales manager."
What do you think needs to happen to make it easier for tech businesses to find the right staff in New Zealand?
"We need the universities offering relevant education on programmatic and data analytics generally. We need the profile of programmatic raised to attract talent to the industry. However, the solution is trending towards employing more and more people with experience from outside New Zealand. These may be people returning from overseas but most likely people from Asia, specifically India."
How much have things changed in the industry since you started five years ago? How have you navigated those changes?
"Six months in programmatic is like 10 years in the traditional advertising business. We have become evangelists and educators on programmatic. Complexity is the biggest change. There is more and more technology to master to execute and attribute programmatic campaigns. Navigation requires a mental exploration. It's about relentlessly going forward and smashing new ground through trial and error. We’ve uncovered some highly valuable tech solutions along the way but we have had some clangers. If we are not sprinting forwards, we are going backwards. Our business is all about embracing change. Our ad-ops team is constantly up-skilling and trialling new DSPs and innovating in areas like attribution tracking models."
Have you ever been offered an opportunity to sell the business? Why have you resisted until now?
"Yes, but it was too early. With the benefit of hindsight, it was fortunate a couple of opportunities that did come up did not proceed. We think the programmatic industry is just half-way to first-base considering it entails digital advertising only. Programmatic TV will happen faster than most people will anticipate once mainstream VR content starts rolling out. The amount of IP-enable video inventory will easily exceed free-to-air viewing (for people under 55) in the ten years."
Would you consider selling in the future?
"Yes, of course. It’s the Kiwi way. However, we want to be in a position to sell when the market has matured further – but when there is still a significant upside to the purchaser, plus we have so much fun as the business continues to grow."
Where to next for the business?
"Our prime focus is always on people. Developing and empowering talent internally will directly result in better campaign performance but managing trusted relationships externally is key to our financial business performance. We will always look into ways to be even more transparent, track attribution better and deliver more data-driven value on every dollar spent. We are always exploring new programmatic tech. Pacific expansion is on the cards and we have already begun to secure clients in other markets."
Note: these questions were answered via email through a combined effort between Schultz, Healy, Ord and Furtado.