52. Ana Milicevic – managing data from Demdex to Sparrow

Ana Milicevic was a seasoned product manager in New York City in 2009 when she joined a wily data management startup called Demdex, which was then swirling around a programmatic audience-building space soon labeled Data Management Platform (DMP). Within two years, Adobe acquired Demdex and folded it into its emerging ad tech and data suite as Adobe Audience Manager, which persists to this day.

Currently, Ana is principal and co-founder of Sparrow Advisors, a consultancy focused on data management. She founded it in 2015 with her sister, Maja, an ad tech vet (AppNexus, Sovern).

At the time of its sale to Adobe, Demdex was still relatively small, having raised about $8.5 million and enjoying a team of 30-35 based on the far, far west side of Manhattan, in pre-WeWork space shared with Invite Media, among others. Adobe paid a reported $109 million for the company.

Demdex was co-founded in late 2008 by Randy Nicolau, who had been president of Playboy Enterprises and a direct marketer. The relatively rapid exit happened after a flurry of activity at Adobe, which acquired Omniture in 2009, tried to acquire Invite Media, consulted with LUMA Partners and others … and more, in a dramatic aside that can be relished in our recent Brian Andersen episode.

As Ana tells Jill and Marty in this trenchant retelling, she shifted early in her career from coding to product management, an emerging discipline, because she liked to engage with “actual business humans.” A prolific linguist, she worked for a time for the United Nations in NYC and made her way to city permanently, exploring the then-modest East Coast startup milieu.

After postings in video streaming and “putting radio on the internet” — yes, she’s aware of the Silicon Valley resonance, but she was there first, — she was lured by Randy (a board member at the video startup) to join Demdex as one of a small handful of employees.

The initial vision for the company was to help e-commerce sites to build profiles of customers based on their purchases and behaviors on owned and operated sites. It was a first-party data foray, which proved to be more interesting to publishers than e-tailers.

An early description of the company:

The firm creates a ‘behavioral data bank’ of audience profiles with anonymous data captured from clients’ web sites, purchased from third-party data sellers or exchanges, and generated from ad campaigns. This data can then be used for content management, multivariate testing and analytics.

source: https://www.mrweb.com/drno/news12983.htm

Like most DMPs, Demdex also built a SaaS tag manager, primarily to ensure its marketing customers could implement the DMP tags sooner than “six to nine months,” a typical IT queue.

A differentiator for Demdex compared to other early DMPs — especially BlueKai, but also eXelate and Lotame — was its emphasis on first-party data, and later probabilistic profiles based on ‘traitweights.’ It used both a first-party and a third-party cookie, collecting 1P, 2P and 3P data, which it assembled into audiences either for sale (from a publisher) or purchase (by ad buyers) — or for analytics, testing, etc.

This emphasis on first-party data meshed well with Omniture’s (aka Adobe Analytics’) use of first-party pseudonymous data for site analytics: Omniture already had a vast network of enterprise customers. Within two years of its joining the Adobe suite, analytics accounted for 10% of the company’s revenue. Expanding into audience-building for media made sense.

Although BlueKai (later acquired to Oracle) was the best-known DMP, it initially dealt only in third-party profiles tied to 3P cookie IDs, based on browsing behavior across websites, or so-called ‘cookie pools.’ Demdex’s differentiation was — as Ana says — “first-party data.” A purchase for a retailer could be mapped to a taxonomy that indicated demographic traits such as interests, family size, gender, location, spending power, etc. A publisher could tag an ID based on content consumption (e.g., sports fan, luxury automotive enthusiast) of interest to certain ad buyers.

Ana describes the evolution of Demdex’s signature ‘traitweight’ — a poetic neologism no longer much used, like ‘hepcat’ and ‘totes magotes‘ — which was an algo that scored people against some 40 behavioral and demographic variables. Using scores instead of a binary in/out method obviously expanded the size of the segments by lowering average accuracy.

At the time of the acquisition, Demdex was working on a further refinement of traitweights using ‘signals’, including more detail than before, as well as a major brand refresh with a new logo. Which might have been a good idea:

Ana left shortly after the deal to join SAS under Bill Stratton (now at Snowflake), to support a newly-launched entertainment and media vertical; and then Signal, a retooled DMP (formerly BrightTag) popular with retailers and a large company in Japan; and then entrepreneurship.

Sparrow combines Ana’s data product expertise with her sister’s ad tech perspective:

We’ve productized a lot of how consulting should go to market, and we can be very prescriptive and proactive with our clients.

Ana Milicevic

Contact Ana via the Sparrow site here and sign up for their probing and salient newsletter here.

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