20. Ari Lewine – going native with TripleLift

Ari is the co-founder, along with Eric Berry and Shaun Zacharia, of TripleLift, a programmatic ad platform that helps advertisers and publishers to do native advertising. And native of course is a space that was identified in 2011 in an OMMA keynote by investor Fred Wilson, inspired by in-stream social ad formats (particularly on mobile) that blend in with the surrounding publisher context.

Ari and his co-founders met at then-white-hot-DSP AppNexus (now Xandr), where Ari was a young account exec with a specialty in handling Israeli ad networks. He left AppNexus with his co-founders (aka friends) in 2011 without a clear idea of what kind of company they were going to found, joining an accelerator in Times Square with little heat and light-deprived due to a New York Times billboard on the window units. An early idea to automate Pinterest marketing fizzled when Pinterest “didn’t return our calls and emails,” as Ari recalls.

By 2012, the team had identified the native opportunity — originally calling it ‘organic’ and ‘sponsored images’ — and set about trying to sign up publishers. Their first success was with a blogger who ran a site called FoodGawker, which led to a vertical-focused strategy starting in food. The team assembled enough publisher scale to enlist its first ad customer, Chobani, and from there expanded into fashion and other industries.

TripleLift co-founders Ari Lewine, Eric Berry and Shaun Zacharia

In contrast to many of our other episodes, TripleLift’s is a story of great timing, rising markets and ultimately happy outcomes. In March of 2021, private equity player Vista Equity acquired a majority stake in the company for a reported $1.4 billion, more than either YouTube or PayPal enjoyed. Native ads perform well, are adapted to mobile and other platforms, and TripleLift’s tech seems poised to succeed in CTV as well.

In this entertaining and eventful discussion, Ari tells Marty [Jill is out this week] why his childhood dreams of being a brain surgeon derailed; how his parents encouraged entrepreneurialism; how a brother-in-law in the printing business may have jump-started his ad tech career; why 2012 was such a great time to be an ex-AppNexus startup; the secret to building momentum when you’re a tiny team outnumbered by rivals; and how to get gorillas like Google’s DV360 to pay attention and integrate (hint: get their customers to request it).

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