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May 30 2023
Episode 33Ratko Vidakovic

Discerning Fact from Fiction in AdTech (with Ratko Vidakovic)

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What does it take to uncover what’s really going on in adtech? A whole lot of effort that not every advertising professional knows they need to put forth. In a fast-growing multibillion dollar industry, it’s increasingly challenging to discern truth from the carefully crafted narratives propagated by ad solution providers.

In this episode, industry thought leader and AdProfs founder Ratko Vidakovic joins host Noor Naseer to discuss how to find and distinguish adtech truths from not-so-hidden agendas.

Episode Transcript

Noor Naseer: How do you find the truth in adtech? The answer is… Not easily. Under piles of stylized marketing fluff, it can be challenging to discern the fundamentals changing the industry, from carefully crafted narratives propagated by solution providers. And once you do identify an important topic that needs discussion, it can be dense and complicated to break down. That's where Ratko comes in. He is the founder of Ad Tech Consultancy AdProfs and editor of the newsletter, This Week in Ad Tech. Ratko is someone who's putting in the work to break down topics in a big way. And he's got a ton of advice on how you can do the same. I’ll talk to him about the tools, tips and tricks you will want to employ so you can educate yourself, build perspective, and dismiss the things that you can skip prioritizing. Let's get into this conversation with Ratko. 

NN: So Ratko, you and I we've known each other for a while. We have some professional history together. You came over to what was once Centro, that turned into now Basis and the time there was an acquisition of Site Scout for a DSP. And now you've moved into a space that I think there's a lot of interest in to educate people and give them the consultancy they need so they can be more informed in this adtech world. Can you tell me a little bit about what you do in ad tech so that we can talk today about how people can stay better informed in the industry?

Ratko Vidakovic: Sure. So I guess outside of consulting, probably most well-known for writing a newsletter called This Week Ad Tech. The premise is that keeping up with all the developments in ad tech is hard. And it's time consuming. And the newsletter helps readers save time by curating the most important stories of the week, summarizing them, highlighting interesting parts, just making it very digestible for the reader. That's kind of the core of it. There are also some other features like question of the week and tweet of the week, but those are like more side dishes. They're not the main course.

NN: I mentioned earlier that we used to work together. But it was this venture or a variation of this venture that you're now on that led you down this pathway. Can you tell me a little bit more about what led you to leave having a W2, actually, you're in Canada, so you don't have W2s, but you know what I mean?

RV: Sure. So primarily, it was feeling like there was a gap in the industry. And just in terms of general education and advisory. There were, to be sure, consultants, like ad tech consultants that existed, but I felt just given my background on the DSP side, helping build a DSP from scratch, that that was a unique experience. So that's kind of what got me into starting AdProfs and also just kind of coming from the marketing side and coming from a role, which was like product marketing, which is heavily content oriented, right, like creating a lot of content. It was very appealing to me to have that creative control over sort of publishing content and creating content. What sort of made me go down the pathway of the newsletter specifically was more like an evolution of the marketing strategy that I had for the consultancy. So I knew from the beginning that I wanted to make email the core of the marketing. And in the first year, I didn't really have a strong value proposition. It was just sort of like signing up for updates when people came to the website. And I knew I needed to change something, it had to be more frequent, it had to be relevant to ad tech and it had to be valuable. And sort of that's how This Week in Ad Tech was born.

NN: You sort of already answered this question I want to follow up with. There's no shortage of newsletters, whether it's related to—well, maybe there is somewhat of a shortage in the ad tech space. And we'll talk more about that. But there's plenty of material or content that's readily accessible on a daily basis in this space. How have you tried to distinguish yourself to make sure you're adding value so people can be truly informed?

RV: Yeah. So I think it really kind of comes down to adding perspective. Beyond just sort of common like off the cuff commentary, I tried to look at things from a variety of different lenses, different perspectives, thinking about the various stakeholders across the industry, when it comes to any piece of news. So for example, if we're talking about something like an article that's written by a publisher, and it's clearly written for a publisher audience, you can take the points from the article at face value, or you could look at it from an advertiser's or DSP’s perspective. Does it still make sense? Do any of the points conflict with what advertiser's value and what they prioritize? So I really approached it initially as a way of just sort of adding detailed analysis on top of sort of the summarization. So kind of asking myself like just scrutinizing, like, what's clear about this? What's unclear about this? What's certain to happen? What's uncertain to happen, likely, unlikely? What's important about this? What's not important? Trying to provide some kind of explanation for given the facts of like, why companies are doing certain things, why they're making certain choices, making certain investments; kind of almost like going through like a mental laundry list of questions and kind of going through it in that sort of way. 

NN: What you just did described, I think is something a lot of people in the tech, the martech, the advertising world, they want to do that. But it's such a struggle. And that really is the thesis of our conversation today is people aren't all in the business of developing a newsletter where they can make that their priority for the day or every day. Instead, what's happening to them is they're getting this random note from a client or some other invested party who sends them maybe a forwarded, let's say, piece of content. And the only line included is, “Thoughts?”, or, “What's your POV?”. And that really puts you on this long, twisty road to try to figure out a perspective on something you may know very little about, or you've heard about but really don't know how to provide perspective. So I want to expand into that and more of your process. I know you mentioned using some of your discerning skill sets so that you can break down topics, but it's easy to say it's very hard to do. Can you expand on what some of your processes or methods are to stay on top of things happening in the ad tech space?

RV: Absolutely. So maybe I can talk about some of the mistakes I made at the beginning. So one of the most inefficient things that I did in retrospect, while doing the newsletter for the first few years. So it took me some time to kind of realize my ways. But the first few years, I was combing through all of these different news sources every day, everything from the daily newsletters from the trades, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Alerts. And so, I was just basically like, emailing links to myself. So, I would manually open each link, at the end of the week, read it in my browser, just sort of super manual, super time consuming. Then I remembered this kind of old thing called RSS that I sort of mentally wrote it off when Google Reader died. And I started looking into more new school RSS readers. And they've really kind of come a long way. 

I think that was a big part in sort of streamlining my workflow, because it more or less, puts all the information into one place, instead of like scrambling trying to go to all these different collection points. So from there, now that sort of everything is more or less centralized in the RSS reader, every morning, I go through the daily feed, and anything that I find interesting, I flag it, and it goes into a separate area of the reader. From there, I only read the articles that I flagged as interesting. And from there, I only choose the articles that I feel after reading them are newsworthy or interesting, and I shortlist them for inclusion in the newsletter. 

I know I'm kind of like jumping over a lot of details, because you could probably pause on each of those and say, “How do you decide what's interesting and all of that?” Maybe we can come back to that. And then from there, once I have that shortlist, I go through each of the articles with a fine-tooth comb. I scrutinize, like every word with some of those analytical lenses that I just mentioned. And that's where I kind of generate the questions in the comments, and make those kinds of connections between past events, and connections with research data, and connections like somebody's social media posts or whatever. This part is a bit harder to explain. Because it's like how our brains work. It's a little bit of a black box. So it's like, how do you make all these connections between this current information, nd ahistorical information, but I think like one way that does help is Googling, or, in my case, I go through some of my old newsletters, I see what I previously covered, I see what I previously wrote, that kind of gives me some ideas and some context for things. But at some point, in the process, it kind of becomes a little personal.

NN: You mentioned there's this grand process that you're going through. I think in theory, other people are trying to do the same thing. But it just ends up unraveling a lot of the time where your intention is to “Okay, I want to learn about this topic. I think I've subconsciously or consciously picked up on the fact that it's been mentioned a couple of times. But the second that somebody asks you to share something a little bit more comprehensive or thoughtful, it is hard to do what you are describing.” How do you make sure that you're going on a journey or a pathway to actually formulate perspective?

RV: I'm the same way. I have way too many tabs. I have a very powerful laptop that most people use for graphic design, and programming like heavy duty programming and stuff like that. And all of the resources go to running Chrome tabs. So I have a powerful machine that's just for the memory hog, which is Chrome. But that being said, I guess maybe this is not a satisfying answer. But some of those rabbit holes that you mentioned, actually, I don't avoid them. I love going down them and it gives us like a personal thing. That's just me. You do have to have a system for staying organized. And so for me, I'm fairly organized when it comes to note taking. It's not a perfect system. But if I go down rabbit holes, just like you, I want to learn about something I want to see how it actually works. I have to open like five or 10 different tabs, but I feel like the notes for that subject or for that newsletter always kind of bring me back to the original task or the original story. And so, I use tools like Evernote and Motion to sort of keep my notes organized.

NN: It's seemingly such simplistic advice. But I think not enough people are probably doing that including myself, like you said it might be our downfall, having 100 tabs open. And admittedly, I've had conversations with multiple people who have said that they're trying to research a topic and they just never turn their computers off. And then one day, they get like the blue screen, because they have hundreds of windows open for actually multiple, maybe failed attempts at trying to educate themselves on something amongst other windows. So it's definitely a challenge. But I think just like you said, tethering yourself back to what is the, like, the purpose of this journey that I'm on. So doing some note taking to keep yourself in check is definitely a good idea.

RV: If I could also just jump in and add a little extra on that, I think another part that was challenging for me for quite some time, and it probably is a challenge for a lot of other people, I'm guessing as well is what you do about PDFs. There's so much information that comes in PDF form, like those can be in browser tabs, for sure, they could also just be opened on your computer and minimized. I find that when there's something that's super long, like 50 pages, 100 pages, 300 pages, antitrust lawsuits, and stuff like that, the solution that I found was getting a PDF reader for my tablet. So in my case, it's an iPad, and I forget the name, I think it's like  PDF Viewer or something like that. But it links up with my Dropbox. So I created a Dropbox folder that has all the PDFs that I want to read. And then there is an integration that the PDF reader has with Evernote so that things that I highlight automatically go into Evernote. So it's like a way to bridge the tablet with my note taking system. So again, kind of like this concept of funneling everything into, like, a centralized place where you can actually make sense, I found that to be helpful in kind of consuming and processing information that's in these PDFs. And sometimes it's very hard to sit at a computer for hours trying to read a PDF. So it's a lot easier to just kind of lay down on the couch with a tablet, and then try to read it. 

NN: For anyone listening who's thinking like “These are just the mechanics of researching something with competence”, I will say I feel very confident that there are many people struggling with just addressing these very simple questions, because they're not processing it consciously. So there's definitely value to thinking about that. Because there's always these unsolved mysteries around why we can't answer questions, and why things are taking too long for us to offer valuable perspectives. I think if you work in the advertising and the martech, ad tech space, it is critical for you to advance in your career by bringing valuable opinions to the table. So I want to jump further into that. What does it take to actually formulate an opinion, especially in an industry where it seems like there's a lot of regurgitation, people will give you quote, unquote, insight, which is actually just copying and pasting what somebody else said, and then maybe restating that? How do you step away from that? I know you already talked a lot about connecting the dots. But how do you turn something that is raw, quote, unquote, information into actual perspective and insight?

RV: If all you rely on is articles that are from, like, industry trades, that's probably the easiest route to go. But if that's all you rely on, I think you might get some high-level information about the topic. So maybe we're talking about carbon emissions or something like that, or how carbon emissions affect ad tech, that's like a relatively new topic. If you just read the articles, you might see that it discusses supply chain efficiency, and kind of these things in broad strokes. I feel like a lot of articles miss out on the how, sort of the how question and answering that. And that's where I think it's important, or at least I personally feel compelled to kind of dig deeper and figure out how it works. So in that example, or case, for talking about carbon emissions, or sustainability and ad tech, I know from my own experience, kind of going down that rabbit hole, that there's a GitHub repository. So that's like, usually where developers, programmers kind of keep code. But some people also keep technical documentation and explainers and stuff like that there. So there is a GitHub repository from Scope Three. That's kind of like the new sustainability startup that Brian O’Kelley from App Nexus started. They published some preliminary sort of methodology documentation there, which explains how they're actually measuring things like the carbon footprint of ads. So from there, just kind of based on reading about some of the methodology, at least now, I feel more informed than I was if I didn't go down that rabbit hole and try to figure out kind of like, the how, if that makes sense.

NN: In the instance that people are ingesting different types of information about a topic and it's being sourced from a solution provider that benefits from talking about a topic. Let’s go down the identity pathway that I was talking about earlier. So there's, I want to say dozens? Let's start with dozens, not hundreds, but dozens of players who have thrown their hat into the ring, trying to be at the center of what the future of identity looks like. So what they'll do is be in touch with the trades, or they'll have some sort of article published that directly correlates with what they're bringing to the table. And it's not a sponsored article or advertorial. It's them having been able to position what they bring to the table as something that is going to be valid for the greater industry. So you start reading it, and what you're trying to do is—you being somebody who works in the ad tech space, and maybe you work at an agency or something else, where there's a responsibility for media buying—trying to figure out how important is this identifier or potential solution for me to consider. 

So I'm saying that very generally, I'm not trying to target any one identity mechanism out there. But if I was starting to read through that they're going to share some of their maybe push points to say like “This is in line with what's going to be beneficial for advertisers. This is what marketers are going to prioritize. This is going to be central to what you being able to target purposefully is going to look like. If you saw a piece like that—you’ve probably seen hundreds of pieces like that—how do you start to ask critical questions around the validity of what they've shared?

RV: So I definitely think especially working in ad tech, like all of us working in ad tech, there needs to be skepticism by default. I think it's just because there's so much BS. And also, like you said, there's a lot of veiled promotion, right, like stuff, that's it could be a Q&A with a company, it could just be like a puff piece, essentially. So there's definitely a lot to kind of filter through, it's kind of going back to the earlier point of like, sometimes you can tell just by the headline, like the title, the author, the publication. When you do it long enough, sometimes that's all you need to kind of filter things out. But I think personally, it's important to use a critical lens when reading anything about ad tech or in ad tech. But I think at the same time, you have to have a balance. So you never want to go completely negative or cynical about certain things, because I don't think that's necessarily helpful. And also, if you take that approach for too long, people will just tune you out, like they won't take you seriously. 

At the same time, you also don't want to be extremely optimistic, or pollyannaish because that kind of borders on delusion, and ignores the real issues that inform strategy and shape the path of the industry. So one example was a few years back, but Chris Kane from Johns Media did some research that kind of called out the practice of “Bit Caching” several years ago from certain SSPs. And I thought that was important, because if that wasn't called out, it wouldn't have been addressed. So it's definitely something that I think people need to force themselves to do. It's not easy. It's hard. But I think everyone needs to kind of force themselves to find a sort of balanced perspective. To me, I think that's one of the keys to good analysis, like good reading of any source material.

NN: It's a fair point, and maybe a part of my questioning has to do with the fact that I think there's a natural reluctance to do that, because that means there's going to be more time commitment to actually digging deeper. A lot of our conversation has been oriented around, you're going to need to do more, you're going to have to read more, you're going to have to connect these dots in a way that expands well beyond the scope of maybe what you want to hear. To that point, I wanted to ask you about sourcing, going to credible sources, not going to places where maybe you're more likely to get some of those puff pieces or information that isn't actually information. I'm sharing air quotes for anyone who's not watching this. So let's talk about some credible sources. You've done a lot of that vetting already. What are some top media sources or publications that you enjoy reading?

RV: So there's certain publications that we'll mention, but they more or less regurgitating press releases. And I don't think that's very valuable, in my opinion, because you could just go to PR Newswire and get that information. But I think there's definitely publications that do a good job of trying to inform and educate readers. I'll exclude myself there but AdExchanger I think is a good source for sort of steady industry news, not necessarily the best signal to noise ratio, but it is a core like it's a leading publication, you can't ignore it. Digitay is also good. Ad Week is good. Like these are all for the very specific like ad tech, niche. Marketing Brew is a relatively new player. Marketecture.tv is also a relatively new player as well. But they're interesting because they do sort of vendor0specific interviews and the interviews are done by sort of experts, like industry experts and practitioners. So it's sort of less of a media interview and more of the first call that you would have with your vendor. So it's more of an in-depth interview. There's also a bunch of general publications, Axios for example, they dropped some great scoops occasionally. Like it's not something that you can count on every single week, but it's worth following just for the sake of those scoops. Same thing with Business Insider, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, but that's like a needle in the haystack kind of stuff. You don't want to be reading every single article from those if you're trying to search for ad tech. So it's not easy.

To your previous point, none of this stuff is necessarily easy. And it definitely requires putting in the time, like there's no getting around just the hard work of just reading and focusing on that. After doing it for a while you can safely say like, what places what publications are worthwhile reading, worth following and which ones perhaps aren't.

NN: I think what some people can walk away with, because obviously, I've made you hammer this point home, like multiple times across this interview is that you, you really have to just commit to doing the work. Depending upon your position, you have to commit other people to doing the work on your behalf, but somebody has to do it to just also expand away from doing the work. It's me getting a better sense of where you are actively doing research right now on hot topics. Like I was saying earlier, sometimes maybe there are things that someone or some entity, company wants to sensationalize as a big hot new trend, when really it has more to do with their business. And then there are legitimate things that are going to affect and change the shape of the ad tech ecosystem. I've recently heard you say that you do have interest and excitement in AI, if you can expand a little bit on this topic, I think there would be interest.

RV: It's interesting that you're talking about hype, like you framed it in terms of like some companies like GE just hype it up, because that's their domain, or category. But I think in terms like AI and machine learning, those terms were kind of tarnished to some degree, either through overuse or abuse, sort of as buzzwords, I think going back at least, like seven, eight years ago, even when we were working together I think at Centro, Rocket Fuel was around. And I think we all remember them talking about their artificial intelligence and rocket scientists and all of that. The reason I say that is because I think it's easy for someone to just kind of roll their eyes when they hear the term AI like it's kind of almost been tarnished. But I am genuinely excited about the rapid pace of development around AI and just about the potential for AI to just change how we do knowledge work. Even some of the stuff that we're talking about right now, I think there are new product opportunities that are possible. Everything from workflow to graphic design to transcription, it's an exciting time to be alive.

NN: Where or what have you read that's made you excited now, knowing that there was this excessive hype up seven or eight years ago, everybody, every news publication under the sun is covering it. So I think it's a very different topic and opportunity from many other things. Web3 was the hot topic of 2022. And for 2023, it's very much angled around AI. I think there's far less suspicion or skepticism around AI, given so many of the findings. So are there any findings, or things that you've read about that have legitimized AI and the opportunity for you?

RV: For me, it's maybe not so much things that I've read, it's actually things that I've done that legitimized it. So I've just been playing around with it. Like I've been “getting my hands dirty”, so to speak, using the open AI sandbox and even kind of not being a programmer, but knowing enough that I could play around with their API, and actually test this stuff out firsthand. And that's kind of what made me a true believer is, you know, something is not vaporware, when you can actually use it, and you see the value with your own eyes. I've played around with everything, from ChatGPT questions and answers, asking summarization questions, having it almost be like a personal assistant and like, explain the differences between certain things. And instead of having to just click through on all these different links in Google, it's like having a legit personal assistant that's answering stuff in a satisfying way. Even on the design side, image generation, playing around with like, MidJourney, and going down that rabbit hole, absolutely mind blowing, like, just from a marketing perspective, like taking something that's only in your imagination, and being able to describe it in just prose, right? Like, imagine, because the instructions for MidJourney are like slash imagine, and then you just describe what you want it to look like. And to take something from literally just a description in your head to seeing it visualized within a couple of minutes feels like magic. So I'm not sure if that answers your question or not, but maybe you can see. I'm like a nerdy guy, super excited about it.

NN: You're pumped. You’re pumped up. Yeah, it's the practicality of the applications. I think what we experienced a lot in 2022, and 2021, with many different elements in the Web3 space, was that it was a lot of describing the potential of something without a lot of substance behind it. It's like, “Well just believe that NFTs are going to be high value. And maybe you should make a lot of these associated with your brand”. And “Don't ask too many questions. But like, let me give you a little bit of that”. Going back to regurgitation of what other people have said. Admittedly, I've edited the Web3 spaces too when I share information, I'm just like consolidating what's already readily available. I don't pretend to be a crypto expert, I don't see this crystal-clear connection between tech and crypto outside of you know, if it became this super hyper legitimized currency that maybe we would be transacting on it, like we would in many other industries. What does that mean for you? I mean, I get it, we're in a business about pitching and showing the shiny side of things. But sometimes if the connection doesn't exist, we just have to be honest about that. So I'm with you, AI, a lot of applications across industries. Admittedly, some of the applications you just mentioned Ratko, expand into more larger advertising implications. For AI and ad tech, there is going to be this legitimization around targeting data aggregation, real time betting? Is that going to change? Do you think it is going to change with this forthcoming proliferation of AI technologies?

RV: On the part of like real time bidding, that part, I'm not so sure where the AI plays a role. I think there could be a role like, like a pre-bid or even a post-bid environment, just because real time bidding is so fast—everything's going in milliseconds. I think the AI can inform perhaps some of the targeting strategies, some of the targeting methods, some of the planning. I also think it can inform and execute on the optimizations. So like looking at the reporting that's coming out of the campaign, helping to provide insights, helping even just the people who have the fingers on the keyboard that are managing the campaign, helping them generate reports, like in a fraction of the time. So one thing that I also have, like firsthand experience playing around with, and again, I'm not an AI expert, I'm an amateur that's just playing around with this stuff. You can query databases using natural language. So typically, unless somebody builds an interface for it, you have to know, like, SQL, right, to kind of make these queries of databases, but you can actually get AI to help you generate those queries. So I think there can be a huge step forward and just workflow, personal productivity, like productivity across the board; helping individuals generate reports, helping individuals or teams optimize campaigns. I just think it has the opportunity to kind of touch on so many different aspects.

NN: I think we'll hopefully see some of that showing up faster than some of these past emerging trends or themes that were supposed to come to the table. And I also say like, never say never, just because a theme that became popular in the trades that people want perspective on, it maybe didn't work the first time around, it doesn't mean that it won't eventually become important and like central to the way that we do work. But it's definitely one of those things that I think will come to fruition in a big way. 

A quick, last question for you, Ratko. Are there any other topics? Obviously, you have a lot of energy around AI, but other things that you think are, if not interesting, exceptionally important for people to be reading about right now maybe like one or two topics that people should be digging into?

RV: If we're talking about ad tech, I think one thing that is important, may not be interesting to everybody. But it's definitely important, I think, for privacy overall, like data privacy, and its impacts on the ecosystem and its impacts on the future of the ecosystem as well. And we're sort of in the thick of it right now. Like we're in the middle of things. And they're evolving very quickly. One of the things that I think also just kind of, at least for me kind of keeps things interesting about it is that it's constantly moving. There's constantly new developments. But I can also understand at the same time, it can be a little bit impenetrable, because you have this force around privacy. But it touches on technical aspects of the industry, like fundamentally how the internet works type topics, like IP addresses, cookies, and so forth. So it gets really into, like, very low levels of how the internet works, which can be very technical for a lot of people that aren't technical. So that part can be challenging. 

The other part is legal. So we've all basically become armchair lawyers because these new laws and bills and stuff come out and judgments and cases in Europe and North America, and so forth. Truly without reading regurgitated information to read the source material, it can be very dry, but at the same time, that doesn't make it unimportant. So it kind of goes back to our common thread of like, it's not easy. This stuff is just not easy but at the same time, I think the work still needs to be done.

NN: The volume of armchair attorneys that have needed to pop up in the marketing and advertising space related to data privacy is astronomical. I don't think they're being paid hourly for the labor that they're attempting to do. So it's a challenging time for people who need to study up on the topic. Now this has been great. I know Ratko I’ve said to you earlier in past conversations, you're just a person who knows a lot legitimately about so many things. So, hopefully this is a start for more conversations and maybe we'll circle back sometime soon about another topic that is of interest.

RV: Yeah, no, it was great chatting.

NN: Thanks again to Ratko Vidakovic, founder of ad tech consultancy AdProfs and editor of newsletter This Week in Ad Tech. 

Look, we're not all running a consultancy like Ratko is, but in ad tech, we're all better off empowering our capacity for discernment, especially in a sector often filled with narrowly distinguished options in new developments and trends of varied importance. 

I know it won't be easy to put all these tips into practice, but that's what consultants and educational resources are for. Feel free to sign up for Ratko’s newsletter by going to AdProfs.co, that's AdProfs.co, and you can also find more resources at the Basis Technologies Resource Center. 

That's it for this episode, more AdTech Unfiltered very soon.

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