The @d:tech tradeshow has always held a soft spot in my heart, which probably isn't a surprise to my regular readers. It's also special to me because it's where we debuted our first product back in 1998, garnering overwhelming response. But this year I particularly enjoyed it.
The resounding mood on the tradeshow and conference floor was one of relief. Last year's @d:tech NY was dismal. Conferences were echoingly empty, and the tradeshow floor was a wasteland. This year felt almost like the old days -- at least compared to last year. Everyone I spoke with at booths and presentations was similarly upbeat. It really felt good. The show floor was busy -- even crowded at times. The forums were well attended and the discussion was lively.
I talked to a number of companies this year, and I was startled by two things -- first, the number of new companies that were at the show and, second, the fact that so many established companies were not at the show. Many on the floor noted the absence of some of the established companies in ad serving and rich media, such as DoubleClick, ValueClick (and its MediaPlex division), Atlas DMT, Unicast, Eyeblaster, and United Virtualities. Not surprising was the large number of search-related companies exhibiting. Following is a round up of firms with which I spoke and my analysis of their offerings.
The Impossibly Cool
Hands down, the coolest new technology I saw at the show was the offering by Pulse. If you haven't seen this thing yet, check out its Web site. You can (literally in minutes) take a head shot of anyone (human or animal) and turn him into an animating, talking model that can be synched to prerecorded or live synthesized voice communications.
The company has focused on email as the delivery vehicle of choice but also showed that these can easily be placed on Web pages. Delivery is via either Java or an ActiveX player. The company completely bypasses the typical issues facing most companies using 3-D technology in the ad/marketing space through an elegantly simple authoring tool that builds "emotive avatars" in simple, quick steps. Even the one I saw produced in about 30 seconds was shockingly good.
Unfortunately, having a cool new technology has proven the kiss of death for many companies -- especially in the rich media space. These cool technologies often translate into applications that make great features but poor businesses. I wish Pulse the best -- and if its margins are strong, it's likely to go far with a very cool niche solution.
The Reasonably Feasible
I was a bit surprised to see new ad servers coming onto the market. Not very surprised, since some of these companies (including a few that weren't there but are still imminent for launch) have called me over the past year asking for advice. But given that my advice was always, "You're out of your mind!" I have to admit I was still a bit surprised.
If you believe ad serving is a commodity market (I personally do not), then these new offerings make a lot of sense. The reality is switching ad servers on the site side is a daunting task, one that requires a clear value proposition. It also can't be taken lightly, given the mission-critical issues with delivery and uptime. But if these guys can pull it off, I'm happy to see the space grow again.
The newest player on the block is ValueAd.com, with its AdXpress product. By outsourcing development to Russia, the company was able to save significantly on costs. If the architecture is stable and the company can manage to keep its costs down (as well as attract customers), it could do well.
ValueAd has managed to attract a number of customers, including a few larger brands, such as Gator and MTV Italy. Although the product is primarily a site-side and network-serving solution, staffers say they can customize the product for advertisers wanting to use it. The company's sales materials position it squarely against site-side servers such as Fastclick, SpinBox, Advertising.com, and BURST! Media.
Also debuting at the tradeshow was the new serving offering from ad network Fastclick. The company seems to be positioning itself against those with similar backgrounds, such as Advertising.com and ValueClick. Execs say this new solution is based on the company's original technology but has been fully reworked to meet the needs of a hosted ad-serving solution.
The Nuevo Riche
I was heartened to see Point·Roll on the show floor, given the absence of the Unicast and Eyeblaster contingent. The company's always-entertaining leader Jules Gardner was present, and its booth seemed to be getting some good foot traffic. Given Point·Roll's focused specialization and dedication to one simple, high-margin product, it makes sense that the company is still moving forward.
I was excited to see ViewPoint's launch of its online advertising efforts. The Viewpoint player offers the best support of high-end content of any major player out there. It renders Flash faster than the Flash player, it plays 3-D content that is remarkably fast loading and beautiful, and it breaks completely out of the browser on a whim -- allowing content to move around on the user's desktop without any trouble. Given Viewpoint's broadening penetration (already over 60 percent) and deep integration into the AOL client -- whole interfaces within AOL are built using Viewpoint -- I think these guys are ready to make some serious noise. The company's attraction of long-time Real Media product guru Larry Allen to lead the productization of Viewpoint for advertising is a step in the right direction, which should pay off in the long run.
Those of you who've been around for a while will likely recall RadicalMail (RM). The company was a rising star in rich media email prior to the bubble bursting. RM was purchased by MindArrow, and, after merger with Category 5 Technologies, the entire company relaunched itself with the Arthurian moniker of Avalon. The company has focused more on standard email delivery -- but with a very strong support of rich media email. Through the various mergers and acquisitions, the company has gained a number of customers, and, though approximately 80 percent of revenue comes from small businesses, Avalon continues bringing in a number of premier customers. Its future looks bright.
I've been a big proponent of advergaming for a long time, and Skyworks Technologies was a pleasant surprise among the booths. This company makes custom games for marketers, allowing consumers to spend time with their brands. Given that I'd played some of Skyworks's games in the past, it was nice to know who was doing this work.
The Somewhat Confusing
Applied Semantics is a company that caught my eye, but I found it difficult to understand exactly what it does. If I haven't misunderstood the company's offering (I had to read a white paper on its Ontology technology to give you this much), Applied Semantics's technology has the capability to target messages to Web pages very relevantly.
In essence, it's using known science to understand the relevance of the page being targeted in a new and powerful way. The company's using this capability in the paid-placement space by delivering highly targeted CPC links on pages with highly relevant content. By increasing the relevancy of these links to the content of the page, you see a huge lift in the effectiveness of the text links.
This spreads the value of a player like Overture across venues it normally couldn't play in -- since there is no search taking place on the pages. But because the Applied Semantics system can place the links relevantly, it offers value in the same way a search engine does. I think there is a clear value to what the company's doing, and, once it gets the messaging straight, it will likely attract a lot of interest.
The Gracefully Established
And finally, let's talk about the established players who stood by @d:tech this year and still showed on the floor.
Bluestreak was there in force, showing the Ion Ad Manager 3.0 system as well as the IonMail Center 2.5 and a variety of referral marketing programs. (Note: I am a cofounder of Bluestreak and won't go into detail about our offerings due to conflict of interest issues, but I wanted to mention Bluestreak's presence to provide a more complete picture.)
I spent a long time with Coremetrics talking to both CEO Scott Kaufman and founder Brett Hurt, who holds the title of chairman and chief architect. I'm very impressed with this company. Anyone who can close a round of private funding in this market deserves applause, and that's exactly what company execs have done. In addition, the company's stellar and growing customer base includes such heavy hitters as Ann Taylor, Columbia House, CompUSA, Eddie Bauer, Motorola, Wal-Mart and many others.
The flagship product is elegantly simple to use but extremely powerful and deep. As a product person, I was quite impressed. As a marketing technologist, I was envious. Coremetrics's new Marketing Management Center is another breakthrough -- automatically tracking and reporting on links from any ad vehicle using unique URLs. This might not sound exciting on the surface, but the actual implementation is elegant because there is no configuration required inside the Coremetrics system. It automatically recognizes these calls and appropriately files and reports the information.
Other standout ad technology companies I spoke with include Nielsen//Netratings, comScore (which did not have a booth but did have a presence), Gator, Solbright, Rawhide, and WhenU.
Overall, it was a great show -- exhausting and a lot of fun.
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