I parked where I had always parked: the second spot to the left of the front entrance.
A receptionist greeted me at the door. “Hi, can I help you?”
“My name is Ari,” I responded. “I used to work in this building a long time ago, and just wanted to look around.”
What am I doing? This is crazy. It’s like showing up at the house you grew up in and asking the current owners if you can look around your old bedroom.
The receptionist said she would have to ask her manager.
I responded, “Please don’t bother,” as my head tilted toward the floor in embarrassment. When my eyes recognized the custom Snowball.com carpeting below my feet, my mind flashed backward to 2000.
I see us preparing to die.
There’s Mark Jung, our CEO, telling employees gathered around him that the San Jose Mercury News report was wrong; we are not going out of business. I see doubt in the glazed eyes and slumping shoulders of 112 people still working at a company that had 400 employees six months earlier.
I see us fighting for our supper.
There are our editors and engineers marching into the rarely used downstairs eating area, where $300 worth of Taco Bell awaits them.
We are celebrating Mark Mamber’s big win. The Mambino broke the Taco Bell business. He had been calling on the ad agency for this blue-chip account for a couple of years with no success. The media-buying team got that gamers bought fast food, but Mark had to convince them gamers were buying into IGN.com (our flagship site).
When the Taco Bell order officially came in in, I ran out and ordered Taco Bell for the whole company.
I see us winning.
There’s Rachelle Considine. She’s smiling. She is standing next to her Intel client at our offices, watching the editors of IGN take on a group of engineers from Intel in a multiplayer online game. We promoted the battle for weeks on the site, and now our users are tracking the competition in real time. This was the “big idea” that helped us win an ad buy from Intel.
Our editors are getting their butts kicked — and Rachelle is trying to contain her smile.
I see us showing what we’re made of.
Carrie Tice is explaining to me that over lunch, she and her client realized they had dogs of the same breed, and Carrie bet her client her dog was cuter. To prove it, she told her client she would run an online poll on IGN.com with pictures of each dog and ask our readers to determine the winner.
Carrie is now hesitating about actually taking this step. She tells me she's busy, and the client would likely just forget about it. I tell her she has to follow through on her promise.
That afternoon Carrie convinces the editors to produce and post this poll. Sure enough, her dog wins in a landslide, with over 20,000 visitors voting within the first hour the poll is up.
I recall thinking then that we had something special going on with our audience of fast-food-loving joy-sticks, and that this client was going to be one of our biggest advertisers.
I see things differently.
It’s 2002, and I am at the iMedia Summit in Arizona. I am sitting next to Dave Morgan, who begins to pitch me on his company and “behavioral targeting.” He’s done his homework. He explains that if the PC channel of IGN is sold out (which it often is), we could use his technology to serve ads to PC gamers when they are on other areas of the site.
I am confused by his solution, because I like it when our PC channel sells out. It causes our sales reps to convey urgency to our PC game advertisers and helps us maintain premium prices. I also don’t want our sales team talking about our targeting technology. I want them talking about why our users target IGN.com as a must-read, despite countless other choices.
I don’t have the poise or tact to explain any of this to Dave. I just rudely tell him I am not interested and get up from the table.
My head is spinning as I drive out of the parking lot and back to 2016. I think about the simple premise of IGN: Review video games in a fun and authentic voice, so readers consider buying the games editors approve of and pass on games the editors feel aren’t worth it. Then employ passionate and creative salespeople to channel this audience trust and sell ads.
I think about how complicated online advertising has become since I worked at 3240 Bayshore Boulevard. Most of the complexity has been driven by programmatic, a derivative of the behavioral targeting I wanted no part of when I ran sales for IGN.
I think about Dave Morgan, who is one of the nicest and most successful people in the digital ad business. He sold his behavioral targeting company Tacoda in 2007 for almost $300 million. I wonder how many of the publishers that used his technology got acquired for anything close to that amount?
Ad-tech companies increase their own value by selling publishers on using their technology, but do those publishers really increase their own value? Or worse, are they diminishing it by allowing technology and targeting to consume their value proposition?
In 2005, IGN was acquired for $650 million dollars. Today it is a featured site on Snapchat’s Live Stories. In 2000, it was on its death bed.
We never used an ad network when I worked there. We never embraced data-driven targeting as an ad-sales solution. We just read our own site religiously, monitored our message boards, knew our site metrics, limited our premium supply of inventory, and spent time listening to our editors — not the other way around. Then we went on lots of sales calls and sold ad programs led by creative ideas that connected advertisers to our audience in ways that did not erode our reader’s trust in our brand.
As I stand in the security line at the SF airport, I have one more flashback.
I see Rick Sanchez, our head product person. Rick is one of the smartest and most poised people in the building. He is feeling pessimistic this particular day, and tells me he doesn’t think IGN is going to make it. I tell him we will — and that someday, someone is going to write an article about us.