Founder of TubeMogul Brett Wilson has left the business two and a half years after it was acquired by Adobe, AdNews can reveal.
It’s been a 12-year journey for US-founded video demand-side platform (DSP) which was acquired by Adobe in 2016 in a deal worth US$540 million net of debt and cash.
Just over a year ago, Adobe revealed its grand plans for the acquisition by creating a cloud product managing the whole advertising journey – from search to traditional linear TV.
The move saw the TubeMogul name retired and the platform become Adobe Advertising Cloud - headed up in Australia by Phil Cowlishaw.
In an exclusive interview with AdNews, Wilson talks about “the rage against the machine”, “relentlessly swimming upstream to challenge the status quo”, being at odds with industry intermediaries and black box business models, and shares advice for other ad tech startups hoping to be acquired.
He also discusses “predatory” ad challenges, why the internet is broken, what the future of advertising holds and explains why he’s not ready for gardening and bingo just yet.
Why is now the right time to leave?
Mainly because my team finally got tired of hearing the same jokes for 12 years. I also feel good about the state of our team and product post-acquisition. We were around 650 people when we were acquired – it was important to me to stay until the team was in a good position. Moreover, now that we have integrated with Adobe we went from a point solution to part of something greater.
Was that always the plan?
About a year in I decided that I was interested in pursuing some new challenges. At that point I handed over the helm to Keith Eadie who was my right-hand person at TubeMogul. I continued to stay on for another 18 months to help with the transition.
Will you have any involvement at all with the business?
I’ve been told I still get a ticket to Adobe Ad Cloud University and all the parties.
Will you still follow the business and keep on top of developments and people moves etc?
I’ll definitely keep track of my friends in the industry but won’t be glued to AdExchanger or the latest LUMAscape.
How does it feel leaving the business you created?
I will miss the people. After having time to reflect I’ve realised it was working with my friends every day that made the journey so fun. That said the timing feels right. We created lots of shareholder wealth and Adobe is a great home for our team and clients.
And walking out of the office for the last time?
Are you trying to make me cry?
How would you summarise the last 12 years?
Relentlessly swimming upstream to challenge the status quo.
What are you most proud of?
I’m most proud that we built a winning and highly accountable team and culture that was also fun, friendly and respectful – a rare blend. I’m also proud of our focus on always doing the right thing for advertisers. This often put us at odds with industry intermediaries and black box business models but helped push an entire industry towards more transparency and accountability.
What are you most thankful for?
For all the people that took a bet on two scrappy guys that didn’t come from the industry and had never started a software company before.
There are so many. I’ll give you a fun memory and one that left me scarred.
For many years we shared hotel rooms to encourage team bonding and as a symbol of our scrappiness and willingness to win. During one of our internal sales conferences in San Francisco I asked to be put into a hotel room whereas I originally planned just to drive home. I reminded the event staff to let the salesperson that would be sharing a room with me know in advance, but they forgot to do this…. Man was this person surprised when they stumbled back to the room at 4am to find me there working! We ended up staying up the rest of the night talking about his relationship challenges.
A more consequential memory was our IPO roadshow which was just brutal. We were "comped" against ad networks (that masqueraded as tech companies) that had recently gone public but performed poorly – even though these were the very companies we were disrupting. We reluctantly had to lower our price range to get a deal done. Watching our stock soar 64% the day of our IPO was vindicating.
Entrepreneurship is rewarding but also really hard. My co-founder John Hughes shared with me recently that he didn’t think he had been home for dinner a single week night in the entire 10 years prior to our acquisition by Adobe. That sounded about right for me as well. I wasn’t smart enough to not constantly outwork the competition. You can imagine our bodies and relationships sometimes suffered.
What will your next step be?
I don’t know but I’m not ready for gardening and bingo just yet. Despite my last comment entrepreneur amnesia is beginning to set in.
Will you stay within the industry?
In talking to lots of entrepreneurs I’ve learned that all of them think their industry is uniquely challenging, but ad tech actually is uniquely challenging.
Could you ever start a business from scratch/build a product/team again or is once enough?
What was life like post-acquisition as a founder?
Adobe is a great company and classy acquiror. But losing control of my baby wasn’t easy. The first year was a lot of rage against the machine.
What advice would you give to someone about to launch a business in ad tech?
- Work directly with brands
- Make your product truly self-serve
- Focus on a SaaS business model
What advice would you give to an ad tech startup founder thinking about selling their business?
The adage of "just build a great company and the rest takes care of itself" is a recipe for dilution to venture capitalists. You have to constantly be developing options so you are only raising money if that is what maximises enterprise value, not because you have to. This includes spending a lot of time building relationships with people that can buy you and being able to articulate a compelling joint vision.
What is the biggest challenge facing the wider ad tech industry?
If we’re honest, digital advertising rarely serves the consumer. Too often it’s the opposite with ads that are annoying, predatory or targeted in a way that violates one’s privacy. I would go as far as saying that the internet is broken as there is no way to use it without losing control of your personal data. Companies need to reframe to advertising in a way that actually benefits people.
What is the future of advertising?
I’m not sure but past performance is not indicative of future results.
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