Founded in 2005 with headquarters in San Francisco and additional offices in Hamburg, New York City, Shanghai, Beijing, and Singapore, Smaato is a well-established leader in the mobile ad tech space, and has recently expanded beyond its core offering of mobile monetization. The global Smaato group now offers a self-serve platform that provides publishers with a powerful set of tools for ad monetization. In this interview Matthew Deets, General Manager of Smaato shares his insights on the development of mobile AdTech, preparing for an AI-centric world and predictions on impactful disruptions in Advertising, Marketing and Sales Technology in the upcoming future.
Please tell us a bit about your journey into marketing technology and how you came to be the General Manager of Smaato?
I began my career in the late 90’s as a web developer during the dotcom bubble. After the bubble, while still developing websites I got more involved in the business side of managing and monetizing websites for a portfolio of businesses. That’s when I really got hooked on marketing tech.
My technical background allowed me to jump head first into the ad-tech industry on the operations side of the business, and that journey began at Advertising.com. I got to know the business from the inside out through multiple roles across sales and operations, and eventually moved on to running business operations for a contextual ad network Contextweb. At the inception of RTB, we created one of the first ad exchanges. I developed a taste for leading client-facing and operational teams, and the journey continued with Rubicon Project, OpenX, Nextar Digital, VGI CTV, and now Smaato.
The “Smaaties” are a passionate, driven group of people who are innovating and creating and improving the digital ad tech world, it’s been an exciting few months already, and I’m excited about what we’ve got planned for the next year.
Can you briefly present Smaato and the benefits offered?
Smaato’s digital ad tech platform is a completely omnichannel, self-serve monetization solution and ad server. Simply put, we make monetization simple, and we don’t charge ad serving fees.
Instead of utilizing multiple Platforms/SSP’s for ad monetization, publishers can bring their first-party data and manage their entire stack in one place. As a result, marketers get access to their high-quality inventory so they can reach audiences around the world and on any device.
Smaato was first known for industry-leading in-app expertise, but has since expanded to offer a fully omnichannel solution. Now publishers can monetize their in-app, mobile web, desktop, OTT/CTV, and audio inventory all in one place.
We’re especially excited about the unique benefits offered by our OTT/CTV Platform. On top of manual and dynamic ad pod construction, granular reporting, and contextual targeting, the Smaato solution offers two key differentiators: First of all, we’re the only OTT platform with in-house Server-Side Ad Insertion (SSAI). By completing SSAI in-house and at no cost to our partners, we eliminate the need for a third party vendor and the high-risk of SSAI fraud that comes with it. Secondly, our OTT solution includes the ability to bid by pod, or by individual ad slot. With ad podding, publishers have an opportunity to double or triple the value of their commercial breaks with now double or triple the number of ads. At the same time, marketers gain more contextual opportunities to get in front of relevant audiences.
We also offer a range of programmatic bidding options, including preferred deals, open exchange, and private exchange (PMP) deals. We’re excited about the possibilities for contextual targeting via PMP deals. Private exchanges (PMP) can be used to help reach users based on context rather than personal identity. At Smaato, we help publishers set up PMP deals that let them hand-select relevant marketers and advertisers to participate in a programmatic auction. This helps deliver a strong user experience, since ad content can better match site content.
Of course, I have to mention another benefit of working with Smaato: One of our main values is customer obsession, and we really live it. From a robust market and traffic quality team, to products that evolve with customer feedback, to one-on-one support for setting up accounts, we’re really proud of the quality we’re able to deliver to our customers, and are constantly working to get even better.
What is the core marketing technology capability of Smaato that you bring to a marketer?
At the core, we help marketers reach quality audiences around the world and on any device. The Smaato platform is built to support any device and any ad format, so we give marketers and advertisers the flexibility they need along with high-quality inventory.
I should also mention that we fully support user-first privacy laws, and help our publishers and marketers alike maintain compliance with ever-shifting privacy laws. Marketers get access to our publisher-managed first-party data, and can access our contextual targeting tools to reach audiences while respecting privacy.
What type of content currently have you found most effective?
Banner blindness is real. We’re encouraging our publishers and marketers to take advantage of some of the more eye-catching and engaging creative formats, like splash ads, video ads, and rewarded content.
Anything that tends to blend in with the surroundings, like native ads, or contextually-relevant CTV/OTT ads, delivers strong ROI, too.
From a technology perspective what are some of the biggest challenges that your marketing team faces today?
One of the main challenges we’ve faced is actually the in-app reputation that precedes us wherever we go. We are so proud of the work we’ve done, and continue to do, to evolve in-app advertising and deliver outstanding user experiences. But we’ve come a long way from in-app only. We’re seeing major success with mobile web, and of course, are pumped about all we can offer with OTT/CTV and OTT audio. While our platform keeps evolving, the biggest challenge is helping spread the word about our true omnichannel capabilities.
What impact have you seen the pandemic have on digital advertising?
The COVID-19 Pandemic’s impact is felt world wide, and to this day.
As the world had to adjust to loss, lockdowns, and changes to routines, the digital world helped the world keep turning, from virtual memorials, to remote working and learning, to online ordering, to staying in touch from afar, to making it easier to check in on critical news and health updates.
When the reliance on the online world increased, digital advertising evolved, too. The pandemic accelerated many trends that were already taking off, like the rise in digital ad spend, increased time-spent on devices, and a focus on user privacy.
In China, for example, WeCom’s monthly usage more than doubled in 2020. Meanwhile, average time spent engaging with digital media in the US jumped a full hour to almost 8 hours in 2020, up from 2021.
Of course OTT/CTV picked up too, much faster than expected, as viewers cut the cord and turned to streaming devices for entertainment.
As stay-at-home orders recede and lockdowns lift, the patterns and digital habits picked up during the pandemic are sticking, too. The conveniences of ecommerce, online grocery shopping, and at-home fitness apps, not to mention addictive mobile games, has further cemented our reliance on our devices.
With so much more time spent on devices, delivering those impactful, relevant, and powerful user experiences is more important than ever.
How has mobile AdTech developed over the past five years?
Mobile AdTech has come a long way in the last few years, and it’s constantly evolving. As users spend more and more time on their devices, AdTech has to stay relevant and engaging and combat banner blindness. We’re seeing big success on mobile web, especially with engaging formats like native rich media, and with innovations like rewarded video outside of gaming.
I think the biggest development for AdTech is happening now, with changing privacy laws. As we enter a new era of privacy and shift away from device-based targeting, we as an industry are tasked with finding new ways to create positive experiences for audiences. With GDPR, IDFA policies, and CCPA (for California) creating blueprints for privacy policies around the world, the industry has to adapt to find ways to protect user privacy without losing revenue. We support and welcome the privacy changes, which give users more control and transparency. We want our audiences to have positive experiences, and it has changed our approach toward digital advertising. On our mobile in-app exchange foundation, we’ve built a digital advertising technology platform to address these privacy changes.
The rise of OTT has demonstrated how effective content and context-based targeting can be. From day one, OTT/CTV was designed without the need to rely on device identifiers, IP addresses, GPS coordinates or any other PII (personally identifying information). This concept isn’t new. A commercial on TV is sold based on the relevancy of that commercial to the content a user may be watching, the screen she might be on and the context of the programming. Similarly, OTT/CTV adoption and targeting has also been driven by content, channels, and context. With greater sophistication, and especially with cross-device streaming, marketers and advertisers can target hyper relevant creative based on not only the channel, but also the genre of the content, or even where the ad falls (both within the ad break, and in the content itself). This means you can deliver engaging, creative, and relevant content to viewers without ever needing to know their personal identifiers.
Another thing to consider in recent years is the rise of header bidding solutions. They’ve really leveled the playing field, giving marketers greater access to inventory they never would have had a chance to see before. It benefits publishers, too, who can maximize revenue and enjoy higher eCPMs. At Smaato, we support both Prebid.JS and Prebid Mobile. We also have our own header bidding solution, Unified Bidding, for publishers who use our free ad server as their primary server, which has increased publisher revenue by 30%.
How do you prepare for an AI-centric world as a business leader?
That’s a good question. AI will (and already has) transformed the way we work, and can help automate and facilitate a lot of the day-to-day. For example, we use machine learning to help our Market and Traffic Quality teams stop fraud in its tracks at Smaato. But AI alone isn’t enough. We need those talented and smart individuals on the team giving our customer service that literal human touch. So, as contradictory as it may sound, I think the best preparation for an AI-centric world is to focus on your people. AI will help create efficiencies, but investing and empowering team members will help drive company performance.
What are your predictions on the most impactful disruptions in Advertising, Marketing and Sales Technology in the upcoming future?
We’re starting to see some big consolidations in the industry. As tech giants join forces, we’re predicting that omnichannel platforms will gain an edge in the competitive landscape. I think we’ll pretty quickly start to see that the days of separate partners for different types of inventory are over. Publishers need to be able to manage their inventory across different screens and devices. Advertisers and marketers deserve a one-stop-shop for selecting ad formats and environments that meet their campaign goals.
Of course, the changes to privacy laws, cookieless future, and deprecation of personal identifiers will have a huge impact on how advertisers, marketers, and sales tech operate. The industry and ID solutions will continue to evolve to help ensure accurate campaign measurement and attribution, while respecting user privacy.
Are there any new features or upcoming upgrades in the pipeline that you can share?
We’re excited to continue expanding our OTT/CTV platform. It keeps getting better. We recently introduced Line Items and direct-deal support, which helps publishers better price their inventory, and gets marketers access to one-to-one deals through the platform. OTT Audio is also an exciting development, helping publishers monetize their radio app, podcast, and audio streaming inventory.
We have a ton more in the pipeline and we can’t wait to share it with you. I can’t say too much, but I will tell you that we have some really cool innovations happening with shoppable ads, and rewarded video and native video ad formats. Stay tuned.