Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Joel Cox, co-founder and executive vice president of strategy and innovation for Strategus, an advertising technology startup founded in Denver in 2014. The company pioneered the first programmatic OTT/CTV (Over-The-Top digital streaming over Connected Television) advertising campaign the following year.
The Strategus Managed Services Platform produces real-time automated ad campaigns that instantly deliver custom, audience-targeted messages to CTVs and other internet-connected devices. With a wide variety of brand and agency customers, our growth has been phenomenal, with revenues of $14.8 million in 2019. We’ve been on the Inc. 5000 three years running due to our geometric sales increases.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
My career has been running fast at the forefront of digital advertising. I rose quickly through the ranks at Digital First Media and AdTaxi Networks. I saw the need for a new approach to the growing market in digital streaming.
There were two trends on the rise at the time that I knew were not fads and wouldn’t be going away any time soon: people were starting to watch television over the internet (“over-the-top” of cable and satellite, also known as “linear TV”) and advertisers were starting to track and target audience data to make their buying decisions. Consumers were adopting the new delivery systems that stream digital content. Content providers like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu and now Disney Plus were growing by leaps and bounds. Facebook, Google, and others were taking user data -- everything from their browsing habits to their physical location -- and selling that information to advertisers. That’s when everyone started to notice that the ads they were seeing were becoming more relevant to them, with products and services that they had perhaps been shopping for already.
Work is work, and hobbies are hobbies. Keep them separate. Find what interests you and make that your work. Don’t ruin your hobby by making it your work.
Over the same period, there was new technology developing that connected all this data that was being harvested with automated audience targeting. Using real-time bidding, consumer brands and agencies could now buy into a new world of advertising inventory across all the new content that was being produced. This automated, real-time bidding for digital advertising inventory became known as “programmatic,” and represented a complete paradigm shift. Ad buying in the past was defined by targeting the content itself, say, Monday Night Football, based around very general user demographics, say, men, 18-34, who would likely be watching that particular TV show. Viewers have always been irritated by old school, content-targeted ads that, most of the time, have little or no meaning for them. Advertisers, for the most part, have played the “hit or miss” game of serving ads to people who aren’t necessarily interested in learning more or engaging with the brand. It has been this “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” approach for 75 years. Programmatic advertising pinpoints meaningful connections between brands and buyers. Advertisers and consumers finally have the opportunity to share relevant information, with products and services that they would likely be interested in, and would probably be buying in the future.
I became an entrepreneur when I decided to risk my career with the launch of the nation’s first programmatic OTT/CTV advertising campaign. The gamble paid off with the founding of Strategus in 2014. Today, recent Nielsen survey data shows that streaming accounts for nearly 20% of TV consumption for most Americans, almost doubling since 2018.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
As is often the case in developing new digital products, the technology was already there. It was just a matter of putting together the tools to automate OTT/CTV ad buys, which no one had done before. My founding partner Dave Miles and I were advertising, branding and media experts, and not necessarily technologists. Each of us set out to find the right technology partners who we could combine resources to take user data and target it to the growing content platforms out there.
We didn’t invent the technology. Instead, we curated the elements, developed the initial service agreements and began working together to produce a service that worked for brands and agencies to buy the advertising inventory in new ways. After that, it became a matter of selling those services and then running the advertising operations to make the campaigns work. Our early sales and ops team members came from traditional career paths. With energy, curiosity and hard work, they learned the new technology, applied it with creativity, sold the idea to the early adopters willing to try it, and we’ve been running at full steam to this day.
Since then, after pioneering that first programmatic OTT/CTV campaign in 2015, we have been fortunate to have unique, early-adopter opportunities to test and curate the most complex and effective reporting technologies with the best data partners in the business. These relationships allow us to keep our service on the cutting edge with new and constantly evolving data sourcing and reporting tools.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Our technology platform was so unique, and worked so well, that we started building and selling campaigns on day one and never looked back. There was, and remains today, high demand for what we provide.
I know that most startups go through a lot of ups and downs, fits and starts, but we were lucky. We found a need, filled it, and took off.
We’ve been trying to keep up with hiring a great team and dealing with all the usual growing pains of any fast-growing startup. We have not had to fund the company outside of the founders, and have been able to fuel our growth with revenues. If you can get away with it -- to self-fund within the founders, and perhaps friends and family -- that’s the best lesson learned that I’d impart to other entrepreneurs. Grow the business as much as possible on the market demand you create, and less on debt or venture capital sources that may not understand the opportunity.
Also, it’s great to be in ad-tech since the capital costs in most technology and software startups are much lower than more traditional businesses that require heavy capital expense upfront.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
It started with feet on the street, then word of mouth, then online leads. By combining our agency experience and our contacts, we were able to get an auto agency and dealer association to partner with us on executing that first programmatic campaign. The trick that got us going was that we had a client willing to try something new, and were then able to target consumers that had shown interest and were in the market to buy cars. We could bid, buy and serve those ads in the programming that these likely buyers were watching.
With that, the word started getting out about programmatic. Having been the first in our field, we gained a lot of attention through SEO since we came up on top of a lot of searches and web research. The more competitive early adopters willing to take risks and try something new found us easily as we were the first out there doing programmatic campaigns. The online leads started pouring in, and our great sales team followed up with diligence.
As we mature, we’re starting to invest in other marketing and public relations. It’s gotten much noisier in our space, so we have to devote more budget to marketing and sales support.
We’re making news with great campaigns and new products. Here’s a shot of recent press coverage -- it’s noisy alright, but we still are getting noticed.
We’re starting to get more involved with trade associations, research firms and attending conventions and conventions as well.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, we manage our ad-tech campaigns from offices across the country, serving Fortune 100 brands and agencies, and have been profitable since Day One. I now lead strategy and innovation initiatives within our Strategus Labs testing and new product development division. You need to post strong year-over-year revenues to gain a spot on the Inc. 5,000, and we are poised to make the list for the third year in a row. We have new products and services in the works.
Short-term goals are to keep on selling and growing. The long-term goal is that we’re building a team, with all of us committed to making this the best job they ever had.
We want to break into new markets as well. The majority of ad spend is by the big, national consumer product companies -- the ones that advertise on the Super Bowl. Programmatic advertising brings new capabilities to more mid-market companies who can now afford more precise targeting, and therefore more accessible budgeting and reach. The opportunities for more advertisers are democratized by new technology. We want to move the market more toward where it should go, where ads are targeted to individuals in the audience, who see ads that are relevant to them, as opposed to the old way, where ads are targeted more toward the content that people are watching. The data-driven approach makes so much more sense as the content is exploding with digital streaming over the internet. The cable and satellite providers are probably not going away, but advertisers want to reach people where they are when they’re watching, and with products and services they want. We feel this is an important movement, and we’re an important part of it. Serving relevant ads to the right people at the right time is where the advertising industry has wanted to go for generations, and we’re just about there.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
In light of the greater goal toward data-driven advertising, we also want to be part of the trend that makes these sophisticated programs and targeting more available for smaller brands and businesses, within smaller markets and regions. For instance, we ran a campaign for college ticket sales for the University of Washington, which is focused primarily in the Seattle market and does not advertise nationally. It worked well for them, and they were able to put the high-level, high-tech tools to work that used to only be available to the biggest brands.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
OTT/CTV advertising has been measured primarily on Video Completion Rate – how many people saw an ad from start to finish. The attribution piece – connecting an audience-targeted message to buyer behavior – has not kept pace. This is what inspired Strategus Labs to create a robust tracking methodology bundled into our Version 3 Reporting Dashboard that represents the industry’s first full-function product suite for digital streaming attribution.
Our Attribution Suite combines the reporting power of our data partners including Amazon, Oracle, Factual, LiveRamp and others. The resulting product suite aggregates essential attribution and reporting elements into an accurate, quality-controlled technology stack that, for the first time, is available to agencies and brands of all sizes and budgets.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
My favorite podcast right now is Pivot with Professor Scott Galloway and Kara Swisher, all about tech, business, and politics.
I also started listening to the NPR podcast, How I Built This, which are often fascinating and inspiring stories about entrepreneurs.
At Strategus, we’re also fans of the book, The Great Game of Business, and our company is involved in the workshops and conventions they sponsor.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
“Follow your passion and you’ll never work a day in your life” is a cliche that I don’t agree with. Work is work, and hobbies are hobbies. Keep them separate. Find what interests you and make that your work. Don’t ruin your hobby by making it your work.
I started off in college as a finance major, and just found I wasn’t interested in the subject matter. Don’t make it about the money, either. You want to be curious and interested when you go to work in the morning.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Our Help Wanted sign is up all the time. The positions we’re hiring for are hard to fill. As with many technology startups, and especially in ad-tech these days, there’s no college degree you can earn that fits the job skills we need. It’s hard to find the type of talent we’re looking for, so it’s hard to find experienced people in what we do in an industry that’s so nascent and quickly changing.
We’re hiring for interns, client success managers, Ad/Ops, and always salespeople, and we’re hiring for a Chief Operating Officer.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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