New Verve CEO: Mobile/Location Combo Will Continue to Increase in Importance

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In the past two years, mobile ad tech has gone from an immature testing ground to a battlefield with billions of dollars at stake. In this struggle, location data has emerged as one of the most sought after assets in the mobile media mix, fueling the growth of a handful of local-centric mobile marketing startups.

One of the earliest players, Verve Mobile, has reached a turning point in its own evolution. The company parted ways with longtime CEO Tom MacIsaac in April, introducing former Acxiom CRO Nada Stirratt as the new chief executive. Stirratt faces an advertising industry in the throes of a deep transition to programmatic buying, even though mobile media is substantially farther along than its desktop counterpart.

Street Fight caught up with Stirratt to talk about the company’s vision for the future of the industry.

Let’s talk a little about Verve and where the company was when you took over. Do you think the company’s strategy for the past 24 months was correct?
Some parts of the business are never going to change, such as the fact that we exist to be able to drive foot traffic to brick-and-mortar locations. That is at our core, and whether it is for a large global multinational company or it’s for a hyperlocal mom-and-pop shop, the Verve platform is designed to allow any constituency to get people to actually go and transact in the real world, in real time. That’s really important — that the relationship between the customer and the brand or marketer happens in real time in the real world is at the core of what we do.

Verve still runs a fairly big network of mobile publishers. What role does that play in its business as the industry moves to exchanges?
A lot of people talk about place data, but thanks to our network we have access to device location data. There’s a huge advantage in having direct access to the publisher data because of where the device is in relation to that location. That device data gets tracked back to a household and at the household level is where you know a lot of purchasing history, etc.

The nuances and the level of sophistication and the complexity of device location data versus place data is a huge advantage and we’ve been at it for 10 years. That’s the big competitive piece for us because it allows us to be able to do targeting better for publishers so they are making more money for their advertising. It’s a really big advantage to us.

You come from three years heading up revenue at Acxiom, one of the biggest data companies in the world. And location-based mobile ad networks are drowning in data. Given that background, what opportunity, if any, do you see for Verve as a data company?
While Verve has unique and highly valuable data sets (i.e. device location data vs. simple place data), we are not a data company. Verve will always utilize our first-party location data to reach specific customers in a specific location at a specific time. But it’s really how we leverage this location intelligence that allows us to precisely engage individuals across our mobile ad network. In many cases we partner with Axciom and other CRM data service companies to give our joint marketers the ability to reach distinct audiences with brand messaging that drives retail foot traffic and sales.

Part of the confusion around location stems from the question of whether it’s a tactic, appended to all media, or a category in its own right that necessitates its own technologies, vendors, budgets etc. How do you think about location in relationship to the broader ad tech community?
Two things here. The first is that you have to have the hypothesis that people are going to continue to go into a location in order to conduct some kind of a transaction (whether it’s a test drive, watching a movie or buying something). Right now we know more than 90 percent of all transactions are still done at a brick-and-mortar. That’s a really important hypothesis. If that continues, and I believe it will certainly in our lifetime, then you need to be able to connect with that consumer at that moment, or before that moment or be driving them to that moment.

What’s also important is that mobile marketing is now surpassing digital marketing. People always have their devices and they are always looking at them expecting some kind of marketing messaging to be coming on their device. Therefore the combination of knowing you are going to be expecting some information on your device and that you are going into some type of location to conduct a final transaction — the combination of mobile and location will continue to increase in importance in the overall marketing mix.

We spend a lot of time talking about how brand marketers are using mobile and location — do you see small businesses as a meaningful growth opportunity for the mobile ad tech community?
Absolutely. Not for all mobile ad tech, but I think there is going to be certain players that will do this really well. This is a very important part of our business. We have a lot of local agencies using Verve Direct where they are creating and managing their local mobile advertising campaign in their local market.

We will make it easier for them, the mom-and-pop shops and other SMBs, to be able to access a richer data set and access better diversity for ad output. It’s important to us. Again, we can do that really well because of the combination of lat long data and the device location data we have. I think it’s a very important part of our business.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the value of programmatic for media buyers. But what does this mean for local publishers? Does it destroy the value of their sales force?
I think there is room for all classes of marketers to transact at the mobile platform level from the mom-and-pop shop all the way to global multinationals, and there always will be. There is no question when there is something like this that is quite complicated and the diversity of the data sets and the diversity of the desired output is such that you can’t do it all in a programmatic way. So there will always be a need for strategy, creativity and management around relationships you have with marketers because you’ll get so much more out of it. As you think of your business, you have to think of being able to do both and do them both well.

Liz Taurasi is a contributor to Street Fight.