30. Dave Zinman – on the first ad server, BlueLithium and beyond

Dave co-founded a company while at Stanford Business School that built the first demand-side ad server, and he later went on to develop products at pioneering powerhouses such as BlueLithium, Yahoo, InfoLinks and Drawbridge.

Since March, 2020, Dave has been Global President of Deputy, a workforce management software company based in the Bay Area he calls home.

From his early encounters with Jerry Yang and David Filo on the Stanford campus, Poppe Tyson and later the Right Media Team and Yahoo’s byzantine cohorts — through helping previous #PaleoAdTech guest Kamakshi Sivaramakrishnan navigate the acquisition of Drawbridge into Microsoft’s LinkedIn, Dave has enjoyed a career that quite literally apes the arc of ad tech history.

Marty and Jill realized early in this rollicking ride that we’d only have time to cover a part of this well-placed human’s excellent adventure.

Dave co-founded a company called FocaLink Media Services in 1995 with his Stanford Business School classmate and friend Jason Strober. Based on a business plan written while they were students, the company narrowed in on providing a solution for advertisers to automate their own access to ad inventory. The company’s proto-ad server was intended to serve the demand side, making it different in kind (and ultimately, in success) from DoubleClick, NetGravity and Real Media‘s Open AdStream, which focused on the supply side aka publishers.

FocaLink combined with a publisher-focused platform called ClickOver in 1997 and changed its name to AdKnowledge. The Wikipedia entry on “Ad Serving” does credit FocaLink Media Services with launching the first “central ad server” (presumably: proto-SaaS or non-on premise) on July 17, 1995. This was just months before DoubleClick (also proto-SaaS) and NetGravity (on-prem) launched, so its primacy isn’t dramatic.

Mango, the tropically-named motherboard for FocaLink’s proto-ad server

More important was the company’s early commitment to advertisers, with initial adopters ranging from CondomCountry.com to GM’s Saturn division. The company was acquired by Engage, a CMGI Company, for $193 million in 1999, right before the dot-com bust. CMGI itself was a dot-com sorcerer with a peak market cap of $41 billion and a portfolio of innovative Web 1.0 unicorns including AltaVista, Lycos, GeoCities and YesMail.

The dot-com implosion rewrote the histories of CMGI, Engage and ultimately AdKnowledge, which continues to this day, independently, still focused on demand-side technology.

In 2006, Dave joined the team as SVP/GM at BlueLithium, a high-flying ad network. BlueLithium was founded by a controversial serial entrepreneur and had an impressive growth streak starting in 2003, bringing together multiple publishers to provide efficient, scaled buys for larger advertisers. One of Dave’s contributions was to tilt the network toward retargeting, starting with a pixel on T-Mobile’s site and leading to a first-look deal with MySpace to cherry-pick impressions for retargeting. Only Ad.com was better at this kind of tactic, says Dave.

This successful behavioral pivot inspired Yahoo’s decision to acquire BlueLithium for $300 million in 2007, the same year it appended Right Media. Dave stayed on a Yahoo, a relatively happy recruit (unlike the “big personality” NYC-based Right Media crew), and was GM of Yahoo’s display ad business in North America until 2011.

Subsequent perches included COO of RhythmOne (which acquired RadiumOne), and CEO of InfoLinks, which is a global monetization marketplace for smaller publications, concentrating on contextual solutions.

Before joining Deputy, Dave was COO of Drawbridge from 2018 to 2020, through its acquisition by Microsoft. He credits Drawbridge’s transition from a mobile ad network to a pure-play software company with inspiring his own latest venture outside the ad tech industry.

He says: “Once you start to see the impact that you can have, if you’re a pure software company, it’s pretty compelling.”

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