48. Brian O’Kelley (part 3) – the AppNexus adventure

We welcome Brian back for the third (and – for now – final) episode on his revelatory career, from his days as a high-school entrepreneur and javelin-tosser in Eugene, Oregon to his college career as a comp-sci major at Princeton and then co-founder of a dot-com Ticketmaster-manque called LA2Nite.com (in episode one); through his key role in building out the technology at epochal Right Media, which pioneered both supply-side technology and a form of ad exchange, before being acquired by previous investor Yahoo for a sweet $680 million in 2007 (in episode two).

This episode opens with Brian being fired by Right Media’s management the day before the Yahoo deal closes, reducing his payout, and – as he tells Marty in this riveting ride – pretty much writing him out of the Right Media story. Although known in the inner rings of the NYC ad tech super-circle, Brian didn’t feature in post-deal recaps and found himself meditatively running around the island of Manhattan, contemplating his life.

He didn’t contemplate for long, co-founding AppNexus in 2007 with Mike Nolet, a young product manager at Right Media. The company started as a proto-PaaS, building scaled hosting infrastructure for ad tech companies in an era when the newly-launched AWS wasn’t fast enough to handle real-time bidding. Raising money in the boom year of 2007 proved to be as easy as pitching his hero Marc Andreessen and Vinod Khosla. Then came the crash.

Cash-constrained, after his non-compete with Yahoo expired, Brian decided to focus on building applications and services for real-time bidding in the cloud. Gradually, he began to compete with SSPs like AdMeld, creating conflicts (check out our Ben Barokas episode for more); and then with DSPs like Invite Media, which he’d closely advised. (We did an episode on Invite here.)

But the real competitor was always Google, an adversary so formidable that it inspired Microsoft to join an alliance with AOL and invest in AppNexus – providing exclusive access to inventory on MSN.com and Outlook, etc. – simply to temper Google’s march to domination of search, supply (acquiring AdMeld), demand (acquiring Invite) and the exchange in between (acquiring DoubleClick and building AdX).

Ultimately, as Brian admits, Google proved to be too strong: “They won,” he says. Approached by AT&T in 2018, Brian agreed to sell AppNexus for a bit under $2 billion. At the time, AT&T was combining a data and identity infrastructure with a media business and wanted to combine AppNexus with DirecTV. It’s a strategy they ultimately unwound, selling AppNexus (as part of Xandr) to Microsoft at the end of last year. (Our chat with Brian Lesser gives some flavor here; and for more on Microsoft and AppNexus see Marty’s ‘oral history’ of Microsoft’s ad business in AdExchanger here.)

So AppNexus landed where Brian O’Kelley wanted it to land, although not by his preferred flight plan. Not a Hollywood ending, perhaps; more like a Menlo Park ending.

These days, Brian is very visible as the founder of Scope3, which is engaged in the admirable mission of trying to reduce the carbon footprint (and other evil exhaust) of media, advertising and beyond.

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