Shawn is the Founder and CEO of Basis Technologies, aka Centro, and a well-known figure on the ad tech circuit for two decades. He started the company back in 2001 with the vision of being a comprehensive, automated and intelligent software platform for digital media, focused on mid-market agencies and brands. In his spare time he’s an activist for all the right causes and an angel investor.
Shawn is also the -two in our recent one-two punch of influential Chicago-based ad tech startups. Like his fellow hometown hero Matt Spiegel, who co-founded Resolution Media in 2003, Shawn proves that not all good digital media ideas come from the coasts or the Middle East. The Midwest has its deep thinkers as well.
Adopted into a pious Mennonite family, Shawn originally aspired to follow in the footsteps of the savior and become a pastor, attending a small Christian college and transferring to Bowling Green State University. Luckily for ad tech history — as Shawn tells Jill and Marty in this riveting recital, — although “there was not a lot of competition” at BGSU, the school was home to a very well-known professor named Martha Rogers, founding partner of the Peppers & Rogers Group and co-author of the best-selling The One to One Future (1993) about what used to be called “database marketing.”
Inspired by Dr. Rogers, Shawn began his career getting newspapers like the Akron Beacon-Journal and the Cleveland Plain Dealer onto the internet. It was a feverish time, Shawn recalls: “There were no rules, nobody understood what they were doing. But we knew we had to get moving in that [digital] direction.”
Eventually he joined #PaleoAdTech favorite Dave Morgan at Real Media in the 1990s, helping to aggregate local media for larger national advertisers. When Real Media’s DoubleClick acquisition fell through at the last minute, Shawn spoke up to execs to face “serious operational and scale issues … relative to the ad sales network side [of the business]” — and the idea for Basis was born.
What was the Basis vision? “It was workflow automation,” explains Shawn. “[It] was the concept of just stringing together and creating databases and creating workflow, connected workflow across all the different publishers.”
Bootstrapping through the lean early ’00s, Shawn slowly built a business with the help of consultants Joe Kelly and Ken Wallace. Things changed in about 2011-12, when ad tech adapted to the advent of programmatic and real-time bidding; that caused a moment of reexamination, and a platform retooling, as Basis/Centro incorporated a DSP into its workflow automation suite.
(By the way, #PaleoAdTech regulars will remember our episode with Ratko Vidakovic, co-founder of SiteScout, a DSP acquired by Centro in 2013.)
Offering a mix of software and services, Shawn says his team now consists of about 1,000 people spread around 20 offices in the U.S. and Canada, still headquartered in Chicago. They have “close to 500 agencies up and running on the platform.” He’s still focused on automating workflows and acquired QuanticMind last year to incorporate more SEM into the mix.
“So eventually,” Shawn says, “we believe that all media should be able to flow through a singular platform based upon the audience that I want to pay for and reach.”