Craig Gooding, founder & executive chairman of Vibrant Media, discusses the advantags and disadvantages of being disruptive.
Killing In the Name by Rage Against The Machine blared out of our desktop speakers as Doug Stevenson and I marched out of AOL UK’s offices in 2000.
It was our first public act of starting Vibrant Media, a native advertising company. Looking back on it, I suppose it was a disruptive start to the business, but that wasn’t actually our intention.
It was more that we were frustrated at the state of digital advertising: the sector was still stuck in a print mindset and no one was truly pushing the possibilities of the Internet.
We had what we thought was a winning idea: a technology that shows ads within online articles rather than around them, that are actually relevant to the context of the article they appeared within, and only when a consumer actually wants to see an ad.
Investment in dotcoms was at its peak. Venture capitalists were keen to talk to burgeoning entrepreneurs. We fed off the buzz of other dotcom hopefuls and investors at First Tuesday networking events.
Most importantly, the VCs we initially spoke to were very supportive. They said: “If you’re really serious, you need to give up your jobs, show your commitment and go for it on the path to being entrepreneurs.”
That’s what we did. We remortgaged our properties to fund building the technology and for a bit of cash flow. We felt invincible.
A week later, the NASDAQ collapsed. Huge tech companies like WorldCom started going into liquidation. The VCs that had already spent billions on startups were now haemorrhaging cash trying to keep those going to make some sort of return.
Investing in something new was just not on the cards for them. The environment for a startup couldn’t have been worse.
But we’d made our bed, and we were going to jump up and down on it. We’d committed a lot to the change, so we stuck solid to our convictions.
Not disrupting the market
We didn’t go into the market to disrupt it. We just wanted to offer something different, to make the web work as it should.
We looked at the ad industry and digital marketing strategies at the time and it all looked very similar to print and traditional techniques – a rectangle filled with ad creative stuck next to content.
It just felt antiquated. We wanted to create an ad that was unique to the Internet, that hadn’t been done before. Just to be different, not disruptive.
Building the tech
Building the ad tech was difficult. Not only were we were creating the first user-initiated ad technology, but we were also going to be the first company to place commercially-focused hyperlinks natively within editorial content at scale – a bit like post-it notes could be placed on print articles to communicate: “I’m relevant to you. Read me!”
We were also going to scan billions of pages of articles and determine whether they were contextually relevant to ad campaigns and appropriate to carry advertising. No one had done what we wanted to achieve before, so we were learning everything and making mistakes along the way.
Our new advertising strategy also courted a lot of controversy. Consumers would be launching ads from hyperlinked keywords and phrases – an affront to Internet purists that had become so used to “surfing the web” via hyperlinks. We were advocating smaller ad sizes whilst everyone else was calling for bigger, more interruptive ads. Huge competitors appeared in the trade media saying that automating the targeting of digital advertising would never work. However, of biggest concern was the controversy around the native placement of ads within editorial.
No bad publicity
As much as anyone reassured us that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” the fact is, we didn’t want to be disruptive. We just wanted to make the web better. The controversy really didn’t help. In the days of print, a bad article was tomorrow’s chips. In the days of the Internet, a critical article lasts forever.
Although marketers are creative and often adventurous, some are limited by a corporate conservatism. Hence the controversy created a more difficult environment to promote the business as a whole. In particular, and counter-intuitively, the marketing and media industry trade journalists were slow to accept that content and commerce would conflate. Sixteen years later and native advertising is the accepted wisdom, but it has been a struggle – albeit a fun struggle – getting to this point.
Doug and I wanted to do things a little differently, to get away from commodity advertising products, to be more thoughtful about the market and the consumer. That turned out to be disruptive. Being disruptive has meant at times that we’ve had to do things the hard way. We’ve built technology from scratch. We’ve spent a lot of time educating the market and challenging accepted wisdom.
We have led the market on ethical native advertising. We have always strived for a unique way of doing things: a less is more, consumer-centric approach to digital advertising. By going the hard way, we’ve delivered more value to publishers, advertisers and our own business, and we’ve cut down the advertising clutter consumers face.
As a disruptor, we ruffled some feathers. Being first to throw your hat into the ring means you can expect to get the biggest beating. But after the first few rounds, you can come out stronger.