End Of Term Party

Thanks to all of our customers for making 2006 a great year. To celebrate we threw a little party.

Accipiter 2006 London Christmas Party
Accipiter 2006 London Christmas Party

When you walk into a bar and they have created an orange cocktail for your Christmas party, what on earth would you think? As you can see from the photograph our company logo contains a fair amount of orange so, perhaps, it’s not surprising but it was an interesting twist and an excellent introduction to a superb evening. We throw a customer party each year to say thanks them and also because it’s great to see them. I think they also appreciate the fact that they get to meet people in the industry – sometimes, competitors – that they wouldn’t otherwise talk to. I introduced two London based radio stations to each other. They’re less than ten minutes walk from each other’s offices yet these on-line guys had never met. As it’s that time of year, I’d like to say thanks to all our customers for making 2006 a memorable year for us. Thanks to those of you who travelled from overseas to be with us. Have a great Christmas and we look forward to working with you in 2007.

Banners & Bazaars

Since the bubble burst in 2002 we’ve seen a move to outsourcing as more and more customers (and potential customers) want us to host the ad-serving infrastructure and they simply operate the system

Apparently, Cairo is the largest city in the Arab world. I’m sure that’s the kind of fact that can be checked on Wikipedia. It’s also packed with people, hot and wholly different from anywhere that I have been before. And it’s fascinating in a slightly “am I out of my depth” way. A colleague and I set off about 12 days ago to undertake a couple of days providing a range of professional services, including installation and training courses, on our primary ad-delivery technology. We set off a day or two early as we’re not presented with opportunities to visit this part of the world too often (actually, I’m never presented with opportunities like this). The lovely people at LINKdotNET helped us source a guide/driver for the Saturday so that we could get the most of our weekend before the worked started on the Monday morning. I have to admit that, sat in the over-priced Heathrow airport restaurant before we departed, I was wondering what on earth I was doing jetting off to somewhere warm just days before Christmas. Let’s face it, the I’m-sorry-I-didn’t-have-time-to-buy-a-gift excuse doesn’t work when the person expecting to tear off gift-wrapping has been looking at Flickr’s uncanny knack of suggesting you’ve been off having a ball in the sunshine while they’ve been struggling through the Oxford Street crowds.

What’s that? Don’t put the pictures on Flickr. Ooops, too late.

Before I forget, this was work. There was quite a lot to do in fact. I should never forget that training and implementation courses are always more complex when somebody else is in another room configuring software, changing settings and generally doing the ‘under the hood’ stuff that you wish they weren’t doing when you say ‘and clicking here works the magic that we’ve spent years developing’. Which of course, it won’t, if they haven’t installed the web-server component at that point. Still, I exaggerate for the story. Things came together pretty well. It’s always interesting working through the set-up in another country but, generally, customers have similar goals so I’m only adapting things to country-specific circumstances rather than trying to work out how we’ll re-develop some core component. I believe that’s one of the advantages of still providing our software for customer’s to run in their own data centres; we can make a set of installation-specific adjustments that are purely for a single customer.

Since the bubble burst in 2002 we’ve seen a move to outsourcing as more and more customers (and potential customers) want us to host the ad-serving infrastructure and they simply operate the system (and before any ad-ops teams come after me with burning torches, I know it’s not simple but, for now, you’ll understand that the word flows better) . Anyway, to my main point. We’re a service provider of sorts. Customers use our service rather than buy our software as a product and that tends to work well. We have the expertise delivering millions of advertisements per day; of tuning the database for the millions of ad interactions; of spotting and filtering the non-human traffic and ensuring that distribution networks deliver content quickly. But, as with every story, there’s an opposite opinion. If you have experience of managing large data projects; of maintaining response times and up-times then you have – most likely – the skills in abundance to manage an advertising infrastructure. My new friends at LinkDotNet are such an organisation; with data centres powering huge web sites popular across the world. Which is why, I found myself, in the corner, merrily suggesting configuration tweaks and obscure settings that might provide functionality in a different way; but one that is more suitable to this customer’s needs. Of course, the deeply technical guys in the room don’t like the changing the systems when all is up and running but I’m all for making operational workflow as easy as possible (see ops guys, I am really on your side).

In turn, we were provided with our own customisations for the visit in the form of our own guide, car and air-conditioning (of sorts). This way we could play tourists for a day with our own schedule and customised route through the city. And, I think, remarkably sensibly of us, it meant the driving was left to those locals who understood the rules of the road. I’d never pass a driving test there. Of course, I might not have to but you understand my point. We did see the Great Sphinx of Giza and visited – even venturing inside one of – the Great Pyramids. We took a boat to dine on the Nile and explored the palaces, mosques, and museums of the citadel, from where Egypt was ruled at one time. The Khan Al-Khalili bazaar is a melting pot of people, sounds, smells and narrow alleyways where it pays to keep your wits about you but pays you more to stop and take in the atmosphere.

There are few countries where you can claim to get out of the taxi and transfer to a camel but, I can say that, because we did. I’m sure our guide saved us a small fortune on that experience and it’s one, I imagine, our colleagues will find amusing when they see the pictures. We did get the company logo onto a pyramid (by subtlety placing a cap on one of the steps rather than spray painting it, you understand) so my covert mission in The City of a Thousand Minarets was completed.

Even after 12 days, I’m still pinching myself at the contrasts between the old world, of pyramids and citadels, and the new of modern offices, data centres and configuring banner ads. There’s so much to see that I’m hoping that we’ll do more business in that part of the world.

And, yes, with 5 days to go I still need to do my Christmas shopping but I think the brief trip to the sun was more than worth it.

My Digital Advertising Orchestra

We gathered customers in a room and asked them what they wanted from our products in the future. Strategy was discussed but not revealed here. Sorry. It was, however, an interesting insight into the dynamics of a group of industry competitors who really shared a common view on the way forward.

Yesterday, we tried something new (well, new to us, anyway). The kind of thing that could have gone horribly wrong had we not got it quite right. We gathered a small group of our customers and, more-or-less, locked them in a room with some of our product and development people to discuss what’s next in online advertising (we did feed them, it wasn’t cruel!). Truthfully, there was no key (although I sat blocking the door for some of the day, but that was to do with the shape of the room) and customers could leave if they wanted to, although if they tried I, in turn, tried to lure them back with coffee (the Dutch said I made it too bitter by plunging too quickly, but that’s another story). It was an interesting experiment and one, I hope, we’ll repeat again.

The first lesson is that managing a group of competing interests like this is akin to conducting an orchestra in that there are many sections who all need to play their part to get the best out of the day. There will be the large string, brass and woodwind sections who have clear ideas what they want from your product and each want to make sure they are heard. Then, of course, there’s the percussion section who seem to fill in the gaps with novel little additions or ideas that hold the other parts together. Fortunately, we had a great conductor in the shape of one of our key product managers from our US office. I guess the rest of us turned the pages on the musical score for the others. Here, my metaphor breaks down and I’ll move on.

I’m not breaking any confidences by suggesting that the key themes are universal to the digital ad-serving business: the industry is maturing and major organisations have moved from wondering what their web presence is all about to how they can make the most money from it and how it integrates into the rest of their business portfolio. I took away a consensus that suggests that the top three things important to the industry are:

  • video advertising is only going to get bigger but measurement metrics are still being figured out
  • ad units are going to get bigger to ensure they make a splash; but we may see fewer units per page
  • understanding inventory availability is a major concern for publishers of all sizes who can sell

and, as all great customers should do, they would like these issues resolved in the next release cycle. Of course, we were given a much deeper insight into what our business needs to do to meet these – and the other less obvious – requirements and industry challenges (do you think I’m going to tell you now?). It was fascinating to see how players in our orchestra interacted, many having never met before. It’s great to see competitors sharing information and, if any of them read this, I’d like to say thanks for your input. I’m sure we’ll do it again. We kept the group small(ish) – more chamber orchestra than philharmonic – so that we could get the best out of the day but if you’d like to be considered for the next one then you’d better be a customer in about 12 months from now!

Now, I’m starting the weekend by heading off to see a solo musician. Tori Amos is playing Hammersmith Apollo in a few hours. I believe she can play the piano rather well. I guess she’ll conduct herself.