How Rocket Fuel plans to reignite its business

Pippa Chambers
By Pippa Chambers | 13 July 2017
Mailee Creacy

Far from the doom and gloom headlines, Rocket Fuel Australia has staffed up to create its very own 'dream team', with hires from the likes of MCN; it's expanding in Melbourne; is shifting away from being a DSP vendor toward becoming a leading SaaS-based platform and plans on being far “more than an ad tech vendor”.

That's the word from Mailee Creacy, Rocket Fuel Australia's country manager. She arrived from the States and took to the role in November last year after predecessor JJ Eastwood left for the CEO role at The Huffington Post.

Filling the shoes of an ad tech firm's country manager in Australia is tough and can take time, (ask Criteo or MediaMath), but when Eastwood left it wasn't too long before Creacy took the reigns.

Walking into the role was surely no mean feat. Rocket Fuel propelled to a great height when launched by alumni of Yahoo in 2008; in its 2013 IPO it raised about US$116 million; sold shares for US$29 each and in Australia hired eBay's advertising GM Eastwood to kick-start the firm Down Under in 2014.

Many bad headlines later - such as The Street's 'Rocket Fuel Stock Is a Dud' and Forbes' The 'Demise Of The Hot IPO: Rocket Fuel Collapse' – Eastwood then left and it's had at least two major rounds of global lay-offs with the most recent in January as it attempts to save US$20 million in operating expenses.

All in all, it's been a bumpy ride back down to earth.

With a name associated with dynamism and lightning-speed Rocket Fuel's reputation has not aligned as planned. Did it grow to fast? Did it invest enough in tech or was it just badly run?

However, lay-offs are said to be at bay as it's now the right size based on its current revenue and business structure.

A return to growth is planned.

Now, eight months in as head of the programmatic marketing platform in Australia, AdNews catches up with Creacy to talk business plans, why it's one to watch and throws some industry scuttlebutt in the mix to get her views.

Q: What is Rocket Fuel's plan of action in Australia?
MC: We are working with our agency partners to become more than just an ad tech vendor that specialises in performance marketing. We are helping our clients become 'Predictive Enterprises' [The proliferation of artificial intelligence in business] and our agency clients are at the forefront of this charge.

Q: How is Rocket Fuel (RF) doing globally? What's the outlook?
MC: There have been changes made at Rocket Fuel that are aimed at making sure we’re in the best position for success in the current market. The decision to reorganise our operations around two core offerings – platform solutions and media services - was about putting the emphasis on those areas that would allow the business to better extend our reach outside of agencies and into the client-side space.
Our last earnings report showed that platform solutions grew 70% in Q1 and spend across holding companies is up 10 times year-on-year. In Australia, we grew platform revenues 375% year-on-year.

Q: What's the status of RF locally?
MC: Locally, Rocket Fuel ANZ is experiencing growth. In the last year we’ve signed some big name clients and our team is growing to ensure we’re delivering the best services to our clients across the board. We have 10 in Sydney and two in Melbourne which represents nearly a 50% increase in staff from this time last year.

Q:What are your goals for the business locally?
MC: We’ve made recent additions to our staff which are designed to shift the business away from being a DSP vendor towards becoming a leading SaaS [software-as-a-service]-based platform solutions company. We’ve created the role of head of platform to accommodate this change and to make sure we’re positioned to provide industry-leading platform services to our customers. Our two-year goal is to be the leader as the industry shifts to predictive marketing and to help our clients achieve their goals by leveraging our AI-driven technology.

Q: There's been job cuts and stock price drops and overall RF's reputation has taken a hit. How can you come back from that?
MC: Globally, our top goal for 2017 is returning to growth. We will do this by working side-by-side with the world’s largest agencies and brands to leverage the value of our Predictive Marketing Platform. We believe we can accelerate the traction in our platform solution business, which - at scale - should have lower costs of sales and service. We will continue plans to integrate our 'Moment Scoring' technology into the top marketing platform 'OEMs' (original equipment manufacturer) to improve their predictive capabilities. Finally, we will continue partnering with some of the most influential system integrators to create robust solutions for their customers that integrate the very best offerings in the ad tech/martech ecosystem.

Q: What will RF look like this time next year?
MC: In a year Rocket Fuel in Australia will be the definitive leader in leveraging AI-driven marketing technology in order to power Predictive Marketing. We’ve made changes to the way the business operates in order to make this a reality and we’re having positive conversations with clients about the different ways we can help them.

Q: What do you say to those who predict RF will fold or be acquired?
MC: There’s always talk of different companies going under and this certainly is the age of acquisition throughout the entire digital advertising industry. The big difference between those who survive and those who don’t will be profitability. As a business, Rocket Fuel has demonstrated to the market that we are marching towards profitability, which is an indicator we will be one of the ones standing.

Q: In a recent agency ad tech podcast [Hosted by Tim Whitfield], RF was described as a marketing and sales company that tells a 'good story', but has perhaps not invested in research and development and tech. Is this the case?
MC: I’m not familiar with that particular podcast but I’m happy to share some facts about Rocket Fuel’s technology investments. Rocket Fuel is now, and always has been, one of the first companies to apply artificial intelligence-based tech to digital advertising. When you take a look at the number of engineers that Rocket Fuel employs it’s clear that we place a huge emphasis on our technology. This company was founded on the premise that artificial intelligence could make digital advertising better and the tech has always been the number one focus. In the past six-and-a-half years that I’ve been at Rocket Fuel, I’ve witnessed people scoff at the idea of applying AI to media and then a year later talk about how they, too, have AI technology. Our story has always been the same and our tech has always been at the forefront of our unique selling proposition. I would invite anyone who is genuinely interested to have a look “under the hood” to have a chat with our engineering team leads or to our CTO to put to bed any doubts about whether or not Rocket Fuel has invested in R&D and tech.

Q: How would you summarise what RF does/is doing for clients?
MC: Rocket Fuel’s platform is designed to go beyond one-to-one marketing by learning to predict what actions to take with a particular person in a particular moment of time. Our methodology, which leverages artificial intelligence (AI) and big data, is called Moment Scoring, and it results in a much more efficient use of marketing dollars. Instead of focusing on content, context, or devices in silos, we focus on the person in order to show them the most relevant message at the particular moment. With Moment Scoring, we continue to define the next wave of data-driven marketing by optimising programmatic marketing decisions across channels, devices, and objectives for agencies and marketers. The result is and will always be more efficient use of marketing dollars for a greater return on ad spend.

Q: Is RF a tech company or a services company?
MC: We really offer both. At our core, we are a tech company but the tech has been fine-tuned and wrapped up in a nice package that allows our clients to leverage it in the best way for their business. In that sense, we are a services company because we don’t assume to know what will work best for our clients. We instead collaborate with them to build out the most comprehensive use of our platform that will help them become Predictive Enterprises.
Realistically, we want to be a software company. We have technology and services, but our primary revenue stream will be the tech platform. Then you have an ecosystem. When Rocket Fuel started we weren’t working with systems integrators like Accenture and PwC but now we have relationships with some of the top systems integrators. For us it’s about how you use the insights from AI that an Accenture, or a PwC, or Deloitte can use in their practices.

Q: How do you view the current ad tech landscape? What's the most exciting thing/biggest bugbear about the space?
MC: Rocket Fuel’s competitor landscape has changed dramatically. Our competitors used to be other DSPs and even internal trading desks, which we’ve worked hard to partner with over the last few years. Since we brought on X+1, we also acquired a new range of competitors in the DMP sphere. Ad tech vendors who operate on a managed, IO-based business model still see us as competitors, but as we move more into the predictive marketing space, the competition is scarce – for now.
One of the biggest challenges is the knowledge gap about what a company like Rocket Fuel can deliver. Programmatic media has become so commoditised, and there are so many different ad tech vendors saying relatively the same thing that it’s hard to show where we differ. Everyone says they have artificial intelligence, and automated and predictive modelling when not many can actually deliver on these things. In the end, it boils down to who performs better. That’s where we stand out. The biggest challenge is getting to the point with existing and prospective customers and having larger conversations about other solutions they’re using.
The most exciting thing about the industry is the constant change. There are so many things we can do now that we were only dreaming about a few short years ago. We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface both in marketing and in our everyday lives.

Q: RF already had a partnership with IBM, what's the new element to this expansion? Why would someone use this with RF over going direct with IBM?
MC: Our initial partnership with IBM provides marketers with the ability to activate their IBM Universal Behaviour Exchange (UBX) syndicated audiences in the digital ecosystem – including paid media, website personalisation, email, and offline channels - through Rocket Fuel’s Predictive Marketing platform. Businesses using UBX are able to create more personalised, synchronised experiences across a range of channels.
With the expansion of our partnership, we integrated IBM Watson Discovery into our Predictive Marketing platform, unveiling a new capability called Brand Moments. With Brand Moments, businesses can now have better control over their association with particular keywords and breaking news. And it gives them a more informed view of when and where their brand will appear. By using this with RF, businesses are able to take advantage of a powerful AI-to-AI connection that meets market demands for brand safety, valuable insights and intelligence, creating massive opportunities to gain competitive advantage in the industry.

Q: How have you settled into your new role and what have you been doing since taking the helm?
MC: Since I joined I’ve been focused on building out the team - there were six people on the team when I joined and we now have a team of 12. Phil Murrell, who worked for Rocket Fuel in London for six years, joined as head of sales in the Sydney office. Sam Elassad took up the role of senior analyst following a career in consulting at Ernst & Young and Commonwealth Bank. Rachel Williams joined from MCN as account manager and we are also expanding the team in Melbourne. We promoted Linda Nguyen, formerly head of client services, to head of platform, and recently brought on Andrew Hammond as the new client services director. Hammond also spent close to five years with Rocket Fuel in the London office as head of client services. Between all of us, there’s 25 years of Rocket Fuel experience within this team. It’s basically the dream team and I’m so proud of the success that we’ve been able to achieve in the past nine months.
I’ve also been focusing on our two-year growth strategy. We are out of our infancy in the ANZ market and have really established ourselves, but we still have a way to go. Rocket Fuel is uniquely positioned in this market to be educators and leaders in AI-driven marketing so we’ve been leveraging various resources within the company to provide thought leadership through meetings and events with our top clients and prospects.

Q: How have past roles helped you in your current role?
MC: I started working with Rocket Fuel before programmatic was a commonly used word in ad tech. I’ve been on the agency sales side as well as the enterprise team after the acquisition of X+1 in 2015. Before moving to the Australian market and taking on the role of country manager, I was a lead on the Platform team for the East Coast. My tenure at Rocket Fuel has helped to give me a well-rounded level of expertise on the various products and services we offer as well as exposure to a wide range of brands and verticals.

Q: How do you stay ahead of the fast-moving ad tech space/learning opportunities?
MC: My ties to the media industry in the US and specifically in New York City have helped me stay ahead of the curve in terms of what’s new and exciting. There’s too much information to ingest these days so I stick to a few reputable industry publications like AdExchanger, AdNews, Mumbrella, etc and I ask a lot of questions not only to my peers within the company but also my contacts in the US and the other international markets.

Q: Why is RF the one to watch?
MC: Rocket Fuel is uniquely positioned to demonstrate the power of AI which is giving rise to this concept of Predictive Marketing and the Predictive Enterprise. We are helping clients leverage their automated martech systems to seamlessly converse with their customers in a relevant and mutually beneficial way.
We are inspired by the evolution of digital marketing from programmatic media buying to truly predictive marketing, particularly the application of AI and big data to predict the potential of every moment and make marketing more meaningful and accountable.

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