59. Andy Atherton – optimizing Yahoo, Brand.net and AppNexus

Andy was VP of pricing and yield management at Yahoo and helped lead a revamp and professionalization of the portal’s approach to pricing and selling ads. He brought on both Rapt (via our previous guest Tom Chavez) and Right Media (via Brian O’Kelley) to improve yield management and to gain access to demand on RM’s exchange.

After Yahoo, Andy co-founded Brand.net, a media buying platform for upper-funnel campaigns, and was SVP and GM of Marketplaces at AppNexus.

Today he is Chief Operating Officer at Solestial, a company in space tech that develops solar panels.

After graduating from MIT, Andy was a management consultant and later got into the nascent digital music scene at IUMA and EMusic. And at the height of the dot-com boom on the west coast, he was President and Co-Founder of Optivo, which provided pricing optimization software for e-commerce storefronts. Optivo launched in 1999 and was a casualty of the market meltdown.

In 2002, Andy brought his passion for price optimization to Yahoo, which was entering a new and more energetic era under the Hollywood player Terry Semel. Andy’s job was to help maximize the monetization of display ads on Yahoo’s properties and network, forecasting supply and demand, and revamping sales processes. His boss was the legendary Wenda Harris Millard, who had lately been at DoubleClick.

“So you know, looking in the rear-view,” he recalls, “we had two years of panic selling and an inventory glut. … [Wenda] was strategic enough to look forward and say, as the market rebounds, we’re going to have … increasing sales discipline and increasing inventory constraints.”

Changes included a revamped algorithm that didn’t “hammer [people] with continual ads” for maxed-out brands like Columbia House; a new (real) rate-card and price-data cleanup; and a new incentive structure for the sales team that took into account price attainment and not just total revenue.

Andy brought Tom Chavez’s Rapt into Yahoo, realizing that its focus on hardware pricing optimization was beside the point; the underlying math could work for ads.

“I remember vividly sitting in Tom’s office,” Andy tells Marty and Jill in this illuminating episode, “going like ten rounds with him, ‘Oh, internet media is going to be a thing, trust me. This is worth you tweaking your model a little bit, move away from hardware’….”

He encountered Brian O’Kelley in a vivid scene previously recounted to loyal listeners by O’Kelley himself. Right Media’s co-founder Mike Walrath had pitched Yahoo on its optimization capabilities, but Andy needed demand and supply; O’Kelley tried again, flying across the country to meet with Andy during a work-from-home Friday in San Francisco.

O’Kelley described the proto-network he was building at RM, and Andy admits “he got me excited.” In time, Right Media was acquired by Yahoo.

Andy co-founded Brand.net in 2007. Its mission was to programmatize the buying and selling of digital ads for premium and upper-funnel inventory rather than remnant and class-two, which was basically all other programmatic. It required building forecasting and delivery management solutions, quality filtering and measurement of offline sales in partnership with Nielsen. The company was acquired by Valassis in 2012.

Our hero’s next stop was AppNexus, in 2012, working for his old friend O’Kelley, who hired him to open a SF office for the company and work with big brands. Andy managed the Microsoft relationship and the FBX integration – back when Facebook was in the programmatic space, and was still called Facebook.

He was most associated with Twixt, a buyside programmatic reserve workflow tool developed by AppNexus, and coordinated with the acquired sellside tool Yieldex. In concept similar to Brand.net, Twixt aimed to make the buying and selling of premium and direct-sold ads more automated and efficient.

He describes Twixt: “So essentially you’ve got what amounts to like a Google sheet between the media planner and all the publishers. Where you’ve got this sort of integrated media plan at the line item level that connects to the ad server and actually creates the booking.”

Circa 2013, Andy wrote an impassioned series of columns on programmatic reserve for AdExchanger.

Unfortunately, Twixt was ultimately shuttered in 2016 after a major holding company deal fell through. The cause: a significant investment made by rival holding company WPP into AppNexus, which was seen as a potential conflict.

After AppNexus, Andy applied his hard-won expertise at Healthline Media as SVP and GM. Since 2021, he has worked at Solestial, which is a company in the space tech, um, space.

Why did he leave ad tech after all those years? “I wanted to do something that I believed in,” he admits, “was excited about; you know, that I would do almost if I wasn’t getting paid.”

You can read about his exit from the industry and much more on his personal blog here.

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