Omar Tawakol launches his new venture today – it’s called Rembrand (“without the T”), an AI (of course)-driven platform for virtual video product placement. Think of it as a native format for video to replace overtly interruptive last-gen experiences, particularly for creator and short-form video.
Jill and Marty were honored to be included among a handful of high-powered media outlets to announce the launch of Rembrand, which emerges from stealth mode today with about $8 million Series A in the hat and a team of ten, including seven AI-optimizing engineers.
Omar was the co-founder of a couple of previous success stories, most notably BlueKai, the data provider and early data management platform (DMP) acquired by Oracle in 2014 for over $400 million, a 10x net revenue multiple. After Oracle, he co-founded Voicea, an AI voice recognition platform that provided bulleted action summaries of meetings and calls. The latter was acquired by Cisco in 2019.
Omar’s journey began in Cairo and then upstate New York, giving him what he sees in retrospect as an appreciation for perspective. And like most – all? — #PaleoAdTech guests, he “was entrepreneurial from the beginning,” starting with a proto-tchotchke company selling to neighbors when he was five.
He shifted his focus from engineering to comp. sci. at Stanford in the mid-1990s, where he worked on a class project that included mapping the extant internet onto a wall. After graduation, he worked briefly at a Netscape spin-off called Navio before launching his first venture, a recommendation engine company called CoRelation.
CoRelation was technically successful early on and employed then-blazing ensemble methods to provide product recommendations for early e-tailers including Barnes & Noble (who didn’t want to use Amazon, for obvious reasons), Nordstrom, etc. CoRelation was acquired by another startup, later called Audience Science, in 2002. Omar’s team of ten joined a cadre ten times larger, and he himself became CMO.
Starting as a web analytics company larger than Omniture at the time, Audience Science shifted into behavioral targeting and was a direct competitor of Dave Morgan’s Tacoda, acquired by AOL in 2007. After a year at the mobile analytics startup Medio, acquired by Nokia, Omar “got the itch” that would become BlueKai.
BlueKai had its first all-hands meeting the first week of January, 2008. Its founders were Omar, Grant Ries, Mike Bigby and Alexander “Hoosh” Hooshmand, a veteran of Right Media. By July of that year, they convinced five major players to join their data exchange: Kayak, Expedia, Cars.com, eBay and Datalogix.
The founding insight for BlueKai came in part from Kayak, which was a data company that sold its search capabilities, unbundled from the overhead of selling and servicing tickets (like its larger rival Expedia). Omar and his team looked at the ad business and realized that targeting data could be more valuable than media, so they founded BlueKai with a mission: We do not sell ads.
The original BlueKai was a data exchange. Its media agnosticism allowed it to partner with behavioral and other ad networks, including Datalogix, which bundled media with its data product. BlueKai built a real-time bidded auction system for data, with buyers paying to be included in the order of pixels fired on the partners’ sites.
The data itself was behavioral and linked to intent. Early on, its most valuable segments were auto and travel intenders, browsers who had looked at certain car, truck or holiday info on Kayak or Cars.com, for example, and could be targeted elsewhere on the web. Naturally, this data works better than vaguely accurate demo data, and at first BlueKai had only a single direct competitor, eXelate.
The company faced challenges from DSPs and agencies, but its most formidable hurdle was mobile. Without cookies in apps, identifying users wasn’t easy; and ultimately, BlueKai adopted a probabilistic model incorporating IP address, location, OS and other signals, which was not as accurate as its browser product.
Within a few years, driven by customers, BlueKai built and launched a product that would later be called a DMP. (Most likely, the first explicitly-named DMP was Demdex, later Adobe Audience Manager.) In addition to buying data, customers like Expedia and eBay were using BlueKai to manage data. Launching a separate SKU for the DMP was a big shift for BlueKai, driven by a recognition that customers would always value first-party data more highly than third-party data, no matter how useful. And that buyers (as opposed to pubs and providers) could use a DMP to gain additional insight into the audiences visiting their sites.
Adobe acquired Demdex in 2011. In 2013, BlueKai was sitting in a cone of silence, trying to acquire a then-independent LiveRamp. Omar’s pitch to the board was that cookies were going away – a prescient call, maybe – and BlueKai would need a way to tie pseudonymous cookie IDs to more stable IDs such as LiveRamp’s. The cost was high (eventually, Acxiom got LiveRamp). And suddenly – “out of the blue,” he says – three public companies appeared, wanting to acquire BlueKai.
Oracle won the bid. Omar sat down with Larry Ellison, whom he describes as a hyper-focused data processor with a need to know what’s real; and Ellison told him he would be boot up a data business and give him resources to acquire the components he needed to build out his graph: which in turn lead to the Oracle Data Cloud, led by Omar, and the major acquisitions of AddThis, Crosswise, Datalogix and Moat.
Somewhat pensively, Omar describes the fate of the BlueKai DMP, split off from the Data Cloud, embedded in the Marketing Cloud, diffused functionally throughout the larger Oracle org, and entrusted to enterprise mar-tech sellers who were not ideally suited to run an ad tech operation. It might have done better alone.
The day after he left Oracle, in 2018, Omar spoke to AI sage Ahmad Abdulkader and began to think about applying voice AI to the workplace. He tells Jill and Marty – in this wide-roaming episode – that an inspiration came from an earlier meeting with Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, who provided a precise itemized recap and action-item minutes after a meeting. Voicea was created – in the words of a Cisco marketer – “to make the best of us like the rest of us.” The company prototyped in 2017, launched in 2018, and was acquired within two whizzing years.
Like Voicea, Rembrand inhabits AI space. An inspiration came from Google, which started its search ad business (as did Yahoo) with visual banners, then moved into native pay-per-click ads, a new approach that actually works. Consumers gliding into short-form video avoid interruptive ads whenever possible. Product placement is a big, largely manual, long-lead-time business. Combining this alchemy, Rembrand aims to automate the creation, distribution, targeting and measurement of in-video product placement.
It requires videogame-like AI approaches that obey the laws of physics. Rembrand’s test cases are creators with relatively stable visual milieus, where product images fit and suit their own brands. Eventually, the vision is to turn the two-sided marketplace into an API-driven engine allowing user-level targeting and flexibility. And a new form of programmatic advertising is born, cookie-free, visual and natively integrated into the scene.
We here at #PaleoAdTech love the idea, for what its worth, and look forward to the AI-driven retinal rewards to come.