On the Heels of Receiving Ad Age Award, Stirista CEO Announces Plan to Take Company Public
A number 13 position on Ad Age’s prestigious Best Places to Work list is just the latest in a series of accolades Stirista has picked up in the last 12 months. With massive expansion plans underway, Stirista is preparing to enter a new era and Marketing Director, Patrick Howard, catches up with CEO Ajay Gupta for a frank discussion over high tea.
Patrick: How do you build something that gets you to the 13th position on the Ad Age list?
Ajay: Unlike most awards, which are given by outsiders, this one is scored off of an employee survey. You can call it the happiness index. There are a few things we do differently than others – besides sand volleyball, Age of Empire, and other games and events – the most important thing we do is we value opinions and suggestions across the board. Conversations rarely end with, “I’m the boss and you can’t talk to me like that.” I think that’s the major difference. People should come to work and feel good about the coming day. The camaraderie helps, but there are too many workplaces with this artificial time pressure. You can be happy and enjoy your work, and yet be productive – most companies don’t get that.
Patrick: Where does Stirista go from here?
Ajay: Look, we’re working with a five-year vision. The Ad Age ranking is not a fluke – we have been headed in this direction for some time now. Our goal is to be the de facto leader in the data-driven marketing execution space. I want to empower the staff, let them feel ownership over what they do, and be stockholders in the company. In an ideal world, we are looking to take Stirista public within a five-year timeframe. We will start holding ourselves to higher ethical standards by virtue of being publicly traded and give the employees a real stake in the game. I’m tired of our competitors engaging in daylight robbery and we intend to raise massive amounts of capital to fight mis-information. Most people in the industry will tell you most acquisition email campaigns are straight-up fraudulent. We fight that by trampling the competition when it comes to the only metric that really matters – actual conversions. Stirista going public will set an example for the rest of the startups – good guys do win, and we want to prove that they can win big in the end.
Patrick: Is there a concern that other mid-sized companies are actively engaging in fraudulent open, clicks, and impressions? How do you compete with that?
Ajay: Trump got elected with a promise to drain the swamp. The reality is the swamp in our industry would give politicians a run for their money. We have gotten to the point at which nearly everyone knows that guaranteed 10 percent open rates are fake and yet nearly every single major company peddles this lie to clients. Most of the mid-level folks claim helplessness: “We have promised our client these lies for so long, I can’t tell them we have been lying.” And, it doesn’t help that the problem gets wholly overshadowed by digital ad fraud – there are shockingly few third-party studies highlighting the absurdity of it all. I think the fraudsters’ hope is that if they lie enough, the customer will eventually believe in these fake metrics.
Patrick: Seems to me these guys peddling bot traffic are generally well-regarded as nice guys.
Ajay: Yes, in true Kafkaesque fashion, these guys are almost entirely named John, Rob, Tom and other harmless iterations. It seems to make the fraud more palatable. “Well, Rob wouldn’t do that. He’s on a plant-based diet and bikes to work.”
Patrick: Do you see the ANA or someone else taking up the fight?
Ajay: We are faced with an industry without a clear industry board and next to no effective oversight. We have taken to ineffective committees and subcommittees run by generally the same group of people who have presided over the demise of the industry they claim to champion. At some point, some of these folks have to step away to make room for the younger companies and younger leaders. If we don’t effectively begin policing ourselves, we’re eventually going to be in for something worse. The recent FBI investigations into digital ad fraud should have shown us that.
Patrick: Are you pitching yourself for the job?
Ajay: No, not at all. I, unfortunately, have ADHD and find it difficult to sit through all-day meetings. But generally, yes, people from companies like Stirista need to be included in these meetings. Take the data label initiative, for instance – I had no idea something like this was underway. I am asked by a reporter on what I think about the latest IAB report – I have no idea. What report? A lot of organizations just reach out when they need a check for a sponsorship.
Patrick: Where do you see our competitors going?
Ajay: We are where we are because we follow what clients are looking for. Our competitors find themselves trapped – many of them want a big cash out. The problem is fake open rates look attractive on paper, but nobody is going to buy something that requires hardcoding fake delivery rates and bot traffic.
Patrick: What’s the big advantage being the good, honest guys when it means losing out on some major deals?
Ajay: In the short-run, you’re not wrong. We do tend to laugh off even large brands that have unattainable goals. Is that smart? I don’t know. In the short run, it would make sense to just shut up, execute, and give them the fake open rates they ask for. They would be happy either way – if not happier – and we would make more money.
In the long term, however, refusing to participate in the fraud has forced us to develop a more creative and effective set of capabilities that go far beyond campaign execution. When you start looking at what we have built with Visitor ID Graph, for example – it is the first of its kind and pushes the already innovative data hub category past what has been done before. There is a lot of chatter about identity and linkage, but this is the first product that brings it all to life with a couple of lines of code.
So, while we may lose out on a couple of execution deals here and there, we are winning the war. Nobody can touch what we have built – our data fusion engine and de-identification technology is second to none.