CtrlShift Rebuke Market Players Who Oversell, Tout Own Integrated 'Hub'

Adtech players who claim to have silver bullets should be prepared to demonstrate their products are original and able to function as claimed.

Rene Menezes, who is co-founder and sits on the board of directors at CtrlShift, says that, while many of these tools can get the job done, their capabilities are overstated and do not match up to how they are pitched. In a LinkedIn post last month, Menezes says as much: "I call bullshit on several players in our industry. We’ve sat through and listened to self-serving pipedreams of godly platforms that have been forged out of lightning bolts thrown by Zeus himself, but when we've gone deeper, few have had anything to show. The bulk of solutions sitting in the market are hardly more than some data visualisation tool cobbling reports together to form a semblance of a unified meta-trading desk. We really should just call a spade, a spade."

In this Q&A with ExchangeWire, he highlights the need for an integrated product that can help marketers focus on their objectives and explains why he thinks CtrlShift's The Hub fulfils this. The system will link up to its ninth buying platform in the next couple of months, he says, and features a virtual trading assistant that recommends trading strategies based on data intelligence.

ExchangeWire: It has been just over two years since CtrlShift was formed. Can you catch us up on key milestones the company has made since and where you're at in terms of product development and customer base in Asia-Pacific?

Rene Menezes: As is the case when you bring different companies together, we began by focusing inwards and working towards the synergy that initiated the merger in the first place. There have been three very significant milestones. First, we assembled a world-class management and leadership team helmed by CEO Deepika Nikhilender, CFO Shelly Maneth, and CTO Ganga Chirravuri. In terms of technology, we spent the past year putting the finishing touches on a media investment and trading platform, called The Hub, which I had referred to in my LinkedIn post, and that we believe will be game-changing for all players, including marketers, agencies, and demand platforms. It will help them allocate and optimise marketing spends across various media-buying solutions in the ecosystem and get the most out of their digital campaigns through a streamlined process.

Rene Menezes, co-founder and board member, CtrlShift

We've also consolidated our business into three focus areas to drive innovation and support our mission to be a 'global audience solutions" company, providing managed services for brands and publishers, technology for brands with in-house trading ambitions, and data sciences and research for agencies.

What are your growth plans for the next couple of years?

We are reorganising our technology department to support an SaaS (software-as-a-service) business model. We've set our sights on acquiring clients in more advanced markets, including North America, UK, and Australia. This will entail a combination of strategic partnerships, as well as setting up our own operations in some of these markets.

Very simply, we will focus on the go-to-market plan that we've put together and grow our revenue and influence globally.

Where do you see challenges, and opportunities, for CtrlShift in the Asia-Pacific region?

Asia-Pacific is a multi-country region. Unlike the US, where there is a single large economy, each country in this region has its own language, regulatory environment, publisher and marketer ecosystem, as well as taxation laws and restrictions governing how businesses are conducted. This dynamic landscape presents a formidable challenge and an interesting opportunity. We trailblaze new ground each time we scale across these boundaries.

Scale is relative when it comes to marketing budgets. Some of largest digital clients in Southeast Asia easily are spending a significant share of their marketing budgets on digital advertising; but these spends are a fraction of the spends in the US. The need to optimise relatively small budgets and across diverse markets is exactly how The Hub came into being and has been tuned to perform.

We're also realising that, in terms of digital needs in Asia-Pacific, it is not 'one size fits all'. We find marketers and brands to be at different parts of the spectrum of capabilities – some at the forefront, some playing catchup. The range is a lot wider than what is experienced in more digitally advanced markets.

We've reshaped our managed services team to be oriented towards customised data-driven solutions, enabled by creative and media strategies, as opposed to simple media execution.

In your LinkedIn post, you suggested that several market players were pitching products that weren't up to mark. Can you elaborate on this and explain what's lacking in these solutions? And why they should not be sold in the market?

Many of the offerings can get a job done; they are just not doing what they claim to be able to do. In a space as fragmented and competitive as ad tech, it is no wonder vendors are under pressure to use all means to stand out. This has resulted in thousands of players claiming to have a silver bullet that can turn around the fortunes of a marketer. Our contention is that such companies should be willing to display their software, demonstrate it is proprietary – as opposed to riding on third-party solutions that already exist – and prove the solutions work as they claim.

At the same time, there is a need for someone to offer a consolidated product that diminishes the complexity and provides marketers with the ability to focus on their key objectives and metrics, rather than the jargon, tools, and pipedreams that some in the industry sell. The Hub addresses this by connecting best-of-breed demand platforms into a single software layer that manages the complexity on the marketer's behalf. The ninth buying platform will be integrated with The Hub by the end of first half of 2017.

You also described competing products as nothing more than data visualisation tools stitching reports together to offer some form of meta-trading desk. How is CtrlShift's The Hub platform different?

The idea for The Hub came at a time when only a few ad tech players provided APIs (application programming interfaces). The ecosystem then operated in silos with little to no cross-collaboration or innovation. Our guiding principle in building a consolidating media-buying and optimisation tool was to provide a complete solution that truly achieved the single login and single unified workflow as hygiene factors. On that foundation, we added more innovation.

Besides having a reporting API that can be plugged into any dashboard, The Hub allows for both the pushing and pulling of buying strategies and campaigns in and out of multiple media platforms. It has an advanced knowledge bank – a knowledge retention feature – that ensures operational information, including the rationale behind all trading decisions, is not lost with trader turnover.

The most significant aspect of The Hub is its virtual trading assistant. Based on trading decisions collected over seven years, we've built AI (artificial intelligence) modules that recommend trading strategies and predict campaign metrics. These have the effect of training and enhancing the human traders' performance. With The Hub, it is possible to get a rookie trader trained to a very high level of proficiency within weeks.

Some brands have noted their lack of trust in programmatic as a reason for not moving more of their budget towards the technology, and are especially perplexed by the complexities of cross-channel marketing. What do you think is wrong here and how can such concerns be resolved?

Programmatic has largely lived up to its promise. Marketers have embraced programmatic to efficiently target audiences in an omnichannel manner throughout their online journey. The lack of trust is not in the technology or its capabilities, but in the operators and the vendors. A combination of overselling, short-term pressures to drive revenue at the expense of long-term credibility building, and a lack of transparency have led to a less than favourable perception and experience.

This can only be reversed if we strip out jargon and assist clients in taking control of their relationship with their audience.

On the issue of cross-channel complexities, the industry is still working on solutions to find a uniform way to plan, execute, and measure across channels at scale. The Hub is our response to tackling this issue.

What do you see as still lacking in programmatic platforms today that you would like to see resolved in Programmatic 2.0?

As an industry, we need to focus on building high-value-add solutions, rather than tools or gadgets. We need a truly effective way to evaluate and optimise media budgets across channels and platforms. I'm speaking of a unified 'terminal' for advertising investment akin to, but more dynamic than, the Bloomberg terminal.

When we have metrics being extracted from disparate platforms into a consolidated report in real time, as well as highly configured, advanced AI to help make trading decisions, true optimisation is a possibility. The emergence of platforms like The Hub, and others, are evidence that the industry has recognised the need for this software layer.

What are some misconceptions Asia-Pacific marketers have about audience data/intelligence and data-driven marketing that you would like to address?

A major misconception is that brands with modest marketing budgets will not be able to execute data-driven marketing properly. The thinking that you need to start out with all the elements, the full tech stack, in place, is just not true. It's not about making high-risk moves. It's about taking small steps, observing, measuring, learning, and repeating. This will create a cycle of simple, quick wins that add up over time.

All marketers need to start with is a clear objective. From there, they'll know what data is needed for targeting and what metrics are needed for measurement. Focus only on this narrow set of requirements and commence with a limited, affordable tech stack through partnerships.

What excites, as well as concerns, you most when you look at the Asia-Pacific ad tech landscape today?

We've started to see companies building world-class tech out of this region. Historically, the industry didn't pay attention to tech coming out of this region; but, as I previously mentioned, due to the diversity and other complexities here, tech players are forced to innovate. With the Asian consumer being truly mobile-first and leapfrogging consumers in more developed markets in terms of their technology adoption, I anticipate Asian ad tech players are going to do the same and jump ahead of competitors in the developed markets.

A concern, though, is that there may not be enough in-depth knowledge in the region, leading some marketers to adopt a myopic view and commoditise programmatic audiences. The focus tends to be about bringing CPX down. The negative reviews that programmatic has been getting of late have swayed marketers against programmatic instead of recognising it as the strategic, ROI-driving marketing solution that it is. In truth, with the state of ad tech today, we have an amazing opportunity to have meaningful conversations and long-term relationships with audiences like we've never had before. If we resist the allure of the lowest-price route, we'll see the fruits of all this data, insights, and technology.