Why AI Isn't Your Father's HTML: A Conversation With John Nardone

MediaPost: So why are you leaving Mediaocean now?

John Nardone: I had a two-year obligation. My equity was tied to that.

MediaPost: And you feel you’ve accomplished what you needed to do over those two years?

Nardone: I feel very good about stepping out at this point. When we sold [Flashtalking] to Mediaocean it was owned by Vista [Equity Partners] and we facilitated the sale of Mediaocean from Vista to CVC Capital Partners. And we’re through a challenging first year of integration, because Mediaocean had acquired 4C [Insights] the year before us, and we were still going through COVID.

When we had our kick-off meeting after the deal closed and we got to meet as a team for the first time in person, the 4C people who had already been owned for a year at that point were also meeting the Mediaocean team for the first time.



It was a weird first meeting, because nobody knew who's who.

MediaPost: What a strange time for a merger. But things have gelled by now?

Nardone: Yes, but there was a fair bit of finding our way, but I think it’s in a good place now.

MediaPost: So you’re leaving Mediaocean in a good place. It’s a much more diversified company with high growth potential, so who’s succeeding you?

Nardone: No one is going to succeed me and everybody is. Essentially, my responsibilities have been divided up across multiple people and it’s part of a broader reorganization.

The pace and the rhythm and the dynamics of the legacy Mediaocean business and the ad-tech business are so different that you can’t push them together. What we have now essentially is an ad infrastructure business, which is the legacy Mediaocean business, and an ad-tech business, which is a result of the merger of Flashtalking and 4C, which is now one platform and a go-to-market effort.

Ben Kartzman, who was the COO of Flashtalking and my right-hand man, is effectively leading the entire ad-tech effort. And on the Mediaocean side, [president-agency systems] Nick Galassi is leading the Mediaocean legacy business.

All the product engineering and tech flow up into those two business units. So we have not tried to merge the engineering and product organizations.

The two other pieces of that is that there is this corporate development function led by [Chief Development Officer] Ramsey McGrory, where some of the future-facing television stuff –--what we’ll call “advanced currencies,” the future of TV planning, converged workflow between legacy linear TV and CTV -- is sitting with Ramsey.

MediaPost: That’s interesting, because after covering the emergence of alternative TV currencies over the past couple of years, the people pushing them keep touting the fact that they can now integrate their workflow though Mediaocean, and it seems like they consider it almost as important as their underlying methodologies.

Nardone: Well, it is, because in a lot of ways people accept the methodology is what it is, but if you can’t actually transact on it, it’s not a currency. And if you can’t flow it through the accounting systems and the agencies and through the measurement then you can’t transact on it.

MediaPost: So you have to be able to buy, sell, post, makegood, and pay everything through the system?

Nardone: That’s right. And Mediaocean provides all of that end-to-end process.

MediaPost: And it sounds like that will be an ongoing area of development with the U.S. JIC [joint industry committee] promoting alternative currencies, there could be new players constantly coming on stream that have different ways of doing things?

Nardone: I think we’ve made some very smart technical decisions in terms of how we’re handling that. We know that Nielsen’s next evolution is still coming. And in anticipating that, we know that we at least have to deal with that. And Comscore is going to continue to try and develop stuff in this space.

So we’ve done a lot of work to essentially create an API [application programming interface] in which whatever your methodology is, as long as you write to our APIs, that data is going to flow through that end-to-end system in a coherent and consistent way so the agencies can consume it.

MediaPost: So you’re going to remain an investor and have an important interest in Mediaocean going forward. Are you going to remain an advisor or are you independent of that now?

Nardone: I have been asked to advise on some things, which I am open to do until I wind up landing with something else that consumes my time.

At some point, I will decide what my long-term thing is going to be.

MediaPost: Well, we know you can’t speak specifically to that right now, but given your history we can guess it will probably have something to do with technology, data, digital media, and things like that?

Nardone: That’s absolutely right. I do have some areas of non-compete with Mediaocean obviously, and I have no interest in doing something that is going to put me in competition with my old team and friends. That wouldn’t be fun.

But there are areas that are pretty broad in terms of identity measurement, marketing research, audience development, contextualization. They’re all areas that are pretty wide open in terms of perspective, and even acquisitions that I’d be interested in.

So I’m also talking to a bunch of private-equity firms to see who lines up with the things I’m most interested in.

MediaPost: So your next new thing might end up being a portfolio play for you in which you’ll create a new company?

Nardone: I don’t want to sound like I’m all over the board, but this is a moment of opportunity for me, so I’m looking at a lot of different things.

And certainly, one of the things that I’m intrigued with is doing a startup around AI. I mean, how could you not consider that right now, because it is such a disruptive technology and in many ways, I keep having flashbacks to 1994 when me and the guys at Modem were sitting in our offices learning about internet technology and browsers and thinking, “This is going to change everything and it’s going to have far-reaching implications."

And yet, as we look back on it, for as much as we could foresee how disruptive it was going to be and we built lots of businesses and careers around it, we only saw a tiny bit of what would actually happen.

And I think that AI is the same thing. We’re sitting here today imagining all of these ways that AI is going to change our lives, the world, and society, and impact the advertising business too.

And I think we can only imagine a tiny fraction of what the reality is really going to be.

MediaPost: Given where we are at this moment in time with AI, do you think it is more disruptive and game-changing than what you thought HTML was going to be in 1994?

Nardone: I think that on a societal basis, it is going to be even more disruptive. I think for the ad industry, it’s going to be about the same, because what HTML did was create a whole new model for advertising. Online was a completely new ad platform that created inventory that didn’t exist before.

I don’t think that AI will create new inventory, but what it will do is change the way we think about doing creative. I think that will be the biggest immediate impact of it. And then bring all kinds of operational workflow efficiencies up and down the supply chain. Things that human beings were required to do.

Not that you won’t still need human beings involved, but AI will allow one human being to do the work of what 10 people used to do before it.

MediaPost: That’s very exciting. And scary too. You don’t have a specific game plan, but you think that’s an area you’ll probably end up in?

Nardone: Not necessarily. I’m at a different point in my life than I was in 1994, so I’m also thinking about the time horizon and doing a ground floor startup is a longer horizon than something that is private equity-based and you just go in and buy a going concern, improve it, take costs out and set a growth trajectory, and sell it in four or five years.

They are very, very different paths, but I can’t say if one is more likely for me than the other.

MediaPost: Well you covered most of what we wanted to ask you. Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?

Nardone: Disruptive technologies have an arc to them and I do feel like the arc of internet advertising 1.0 is at its end. I think that programmatic has rung all of the opportunity out of it that is to be gotten. And in fact, I would argue now that as cookies are going away and we’re wrestling with data privacy, it’s actually going to take a huge step back.

So the piece that I think is at an inflection point now is, as I said, the creative. We’ve spent the last 25 years utilizing the connectivity of the internet to create efficiency in targeting the buy, but relatively little effort over the years – Flashtalking notwithstanding – has gone into appreciably making creative better. And I think that’s the epicenter right now. Can we really make ads better using this tech?

There’s a lot to be learned.

I always like to remind people -- and I’m very passionate about this -- that while human beings may remain the same, the consumer constantly changes. Just think about how our own behavior in terms of media consumption has changed since the launch of streaming.

I always point people to the launch of the iPhone as a moment that changed consumers. The consumer before the iPhone was not the same as the consumer after the iPhone in terms of our needs, wants, expectations, our cognitive processing.

And because the consumer continues to change, creative has to change to keep up with them.

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