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From commercial-free streaming TV to voice assistants and beyond, it’s clear that people don’t consume content the way they used to. This has forced brands to seek out innovative ways to interact with relevant users, rather than relying on traditional ad buys. Ad tech allows agencies and brands to examine their digital advertising efforts and better target, deliver, and analyze data to reach more relevant audiences.

Portrait of Ethan Simblist

For MeritDirect, that means unlocking the pathways that more directly connect brands with potential buyers. MeritDirect is a 150-person company that specializes in data management, hygiene, monetization, and data-driven advertising, as well as data-driven display and video advertising. Ethan Simblist, an 18-year digital advertising veteran, is responsible for building and maintaining the company’s tech stack and growing their digital advertising business.

As part of our Tech Stack Chat series, I recently had a chance to sit down with Ethan and chat about how he pairs the right people with the right tech and his thoughts on the future of the ad tech world.

Watch the full interview or read the highlights below.

When it comes to your technology and the people and processes that manage it, what is your role in driving these investments?

I was brought on board because our company knew they were sitting on rich data assets, and they knew that you could map them to online devices. But they didn’t know how to put all the pieces together. They didn’t have someone that knows who to reach out to to monetize that data or how to build a display campaign around it driven by that data. I was brought on board to put it all together and sort of “productize” it.

If someone else was looking to go down that path of building a new tech stack and a team around it, what type of advice would you have for them?

Talent is key. I have to give our CEO credit. He knew what he didn’t know. He knew that he needed to invest in talent. They invested in me, knowing that I would be able to build a business around it. [Depending on where you are], you’ve got to think about having more flexibility. Be open to training and hiring someone with a little bit less experience OR just hiring someone [experienced] and letting them work remotely. The key is just to do some research and figure out the type of person that has the knowledge base of how to build the foundation, and then you start layering on the talent on top of that.

Technology is changing so rapidly and sometimes becoming obsolete within a few years. Tell me about your tech stack and how you ensure you have the right people for it?

I’ll start with the most important piece, which is the advent of data onboarding; being able to match postal and email data with digital devices. A digital device can include a cookie in a browser, and a digital device can also include a mobile ID. Now, it can also include OTT (over-the-top media services) and smart television, where programmatic ads are now being served.

It’s what you do with the data that’s the game changer. I’ve [strategically chosen] tools that have training within their own ecosystem or that have their own training product. It’s free and accessible.

I use DoubleClick Bid Manager as the demand site platform, and I use DoubleClick Campaign Manager (DCM) as the ad server. You can actually go to the DoubleClick site, get training, and actually get certified. You can take people that have an interest in analytics, modern digital marketing, and programmatic, and if they touch any of the Google tools or any programmatic media, they have the potential and the capacity to learn using these tutorials. They feel good in their sense of accomplishments when they receive certifications, and once you have a certain amount of people certified, you can actually say that you are a Google-certified company.

That’s the reason for picking these kinds of partners. It’s very hands-off for me, and it’s very easy to get someone up to speed. From there, you really do learn the most once you start diving into the tool and running campaigns.

What are you keeping track of on the horizon? If you look three, five, ten years out, what do you think is going to disrupt the ad tech world?

In ad tech, especially over the last years, I’ve seen the pace of change accelerate dramatically. Things that I was doing two years ago are not applicable to our business today.

Looking out, it’s hard to predict. While I think that everyone expected Amazon to grow as a company, people did not anticipate them starting their first year in business-to-business advertising earning $1 billion dollars in ad revenue. And now, they’re earning $10 billion, becoming the third largest advertising entity in the U.S.

Also, Facebook is under a great deal of scrutiny. They’re having trouble with globalization with EU privacy policies. They’re getting fined over $100 million by the EU for their privacy standards.

My point to all this is that it’s very hard to predict where we’re going to be. What is necessary in this business is to always stay on top—not just reading the trades, but going out to conferences with senior leadership and getting a sense for things that other folks are playing with that can set you apart. As a small to medium-sized business competing in advertising, you need to continue to evolve and be prepared to pivot at the drop of a dime.

Check out the full video interview.

Watch the full interview to hear more about Ethan’s predictions for data-driven video and how attending industry events led him to discover a costly mistake he’ll never make again when partnering with vendors.

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