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AdTech Reboot

Trust Web Times Interview Series: David Gehring ; Distributed Media Labs

Marc Goldberg

Marc Goldberg

Author at The Trust Web Times
Marc Goldberg

Marc Goldberg

Author at The Trust Web Times

Marc Goldberg is a contributor for the Trust Web Times. Marc is also the Principal at Stages Collective. Stages Collective helps companies at different life stages in a variety of ways. Business Development, go-to market strategies, Landscape analysis and as an additional recruiting resource.

 David Gehring is the CEO & CO-Founder at Distributed Media Labs 

We exchanged emails for this interview and it has been slightly condensed and edited.

Marc Goldberg: Tell me about your journey

David Gehring: In 2009, I was working for a consumer market research firm primarily serving news media clients like local broadcasters, newspapers and cable news organizations. That focus gave me an opportunity to learn about the rapidly changing, and in some cases eroding, economic circumstances faced by the news media industry. I grew increasingly concerned about what seemed to be the inevitable demise of the news media industry which was troubling given that news organizations are tasked with providing us the information we need to be free and self governing as a democratic society. I knew that as goes the news media industry, so goes democracy.

I thought, if I have 20+ years of my career left to do something, what if I focused the rest of my career on doing something about this problem? What jobs would I do? How could I have an impact?

At that time, the advertising industry was foundational to news media but it was also transitioning from traditional formats like print advertising to digital formats like display and search. Search advertising in particular was clearly exploding- see Google. So, I thought if I want to have an impact on the news media industry, I better understand how Google works in particular, and how the emerging digital media economy is evolving in general.

I got a job at Google in 2010 with this mission in mind, namely, to dedicate my career toward establishing a more viable economic framework that supports quality original journalism on the web. My first role at Google was to work with News partners as part of the Partnerships team at YouTube. This was a new focus for Youtube and I had a blast working there. But after a year or so, it was clear to me that YouTube was not going to have a significant impact on the economics of the news industry.

I shifted roles inside Google to a Strategic Partnerships team based in Mountain View. This role gave me a broader view across all Google’s product areas and from that perspective a bunch of ideas emerged around how Google might play a more concerted and impactful role improving the market opportunity for news media on the web.

However, not being an engineer or product manager meant my ability to pursue those ideas within Google was severely limited.

The opportunity came to pursue some of those ideas outside of Google when the CEO of the Guardian offered me a role that would provide a platform for pursuing the kind of large scale changes I thought would position news media more effectively in the digital economy. As Global VP of Partnerships at the Guardian, I helped form a coalition of European publishers to engage with Google on a variety of strategic initiatives- basically all the stuff I wanted Google to do when I worked there, but couldn’t get Google to do while I worked there.

This initiative was much more effective and we ended up launching an open source software project with Google’s leadership – now referred to as the AMP Project. As the AMP Project gained a foothold in the market with Google’s participation and promotion, I transitioned to being an advisor to the publisher coalition while on the side starting up a new technology company called Relay Media.

Relay Media was designed to enable publishers to adopt the AMP framework without re-engineering their websites. Within a year or so, we had about 100 publishers across the U.S. growing their AMP audiences by using our platform. However, given the nascent position of the AMP framework in the market, raising venture capital to grow the company didn’t happen. We ended up selling the company to Google a month shy of our two year anniversary, which turned out to be an awesome Plan B.

As the AMP framework continued to grow across the publishing industry worldwide, and with the benefit of having sold my last company to Google, I pretty quickly started Distributed Media Lab to harness AMP as a syndication specification and provide publishers and brands a new channel for audience discovery and engagement across the open web. This new channel for audience development would be tailored to the original decentralized architecture and economics of the open web and would enable publishers to benefit from new business models more natural to the web’s original design.

MG: Can you tell us more about DML?

DG: DML is now about four and half years old. 

In true Silicon Valley style, focusing on the hardest problem, we got our start working with local news publishers because I thought they are the most adversely affected by the economic transition from traditional to digital media business models.

Our first content collection–an assemblage of articles from numerous publishers–was curated using the DML platform, and placed on a local news publisher website in Santa Barbara. Over the next couple years, we experimented with the platform working with numerous local, non-profit, national and international media companies.

The first business model we launched was in 2020. Using the platform to support a Meta funded project in partnership with the Local Media Association and Local Media Consortium as our go-to-market partners, we launched The Branded Content Project. That has been a great success in terms of driving new and material revenue for the local publishers who participate. The partnership with the LMA and LMC has been incredibly valuable in promoting the program and training local news publishers how to get into the content marketing business with their local business clients.

With that SaaS business projected to continue to grow and serve local publishers across North America, we decided to try and accelerate DML’s growth by building platform capabilities to serve brand and performance marketers as well. 

We could see that as Google Chrome moves closer to deprecating third party cookies, publishers, brands and ad tech companies are being forced to retrofit or rebuild the advertising economy on the web. Brands are responding by becoming publishers and growing their content marketing strategies to engage consumers directly. In fact, Digital Content Marketing is now an $80B sector in the U.S.– growing faster than digital Display and Search advertising. 

In early 2022, DML began developing the platform to offer scaled distribution for brand content marketers. Having launched this distribution service for national brand marketers in July, we are now also starting to tie it back to our local news publisher roots by opening this distribution to them to sell to their local or regional advertisers. We’re just getting started with that program, but I love the way it leverages the local publishers’ defensible position as the best storytellers in a local market while giving them a larger campaign to sell to their local advertising clients. I believe this can become a new and very significant revenue stream for local news publishers everywhere.

MG: So are you competing with Outbrain or Taboola? 

DG: In a way, we might be. But I think in most ways we’re not. I mean, we don’t compete with them in the sense that a publisher has to decide whether to use DML or them. And we don’t compete in the sense that an advertiser or publisher has to make a similarly binary decision for distributing their content. I think the format DML offers publishers to embed and content providers to distribute is just really different.

Also, the format DML offers is designed to provide users with a content experience that is more engaging through bundling multiple pieces of content into any single experience, while at the same time our pop-out viewer is designed to give users an onsite experience which the embedding publishers appreciate.

We really wanted to find that golden middle ground that serves users and publishers with the best possible experience in a way that respects user privacy and publisher business models.

Plus, we’ve built into the DML platform multiple ways for publishers to make money. It’s not just about advertising.

In fact, in 2020, we got a big grant to build into the DML platform support for a new open payment protocol called Web Monetization. That work is now complete and we’ve been testing Web Monetization in the DML platform since January 2022. Effectively, this gives us the ability to offer distributed consumer payment models to publishers who need non-Advertising revenue streams but also realize that current paywall technologies and models are not well suited for a fundamentally disaggregated consumer behavior on the web. We built a method for consumer payments that is more naturally aligned with the inherent decentralized architecture and economics of the open web. We expect to launch that as a service to benefit publishers and consumers in 2023.

MG: Do you see a trend with native advertising growing?

DG: Absolutely, yes. And it has to. 

Increasingly, the display ad is losing all value. And when Google joins Apple and Mozilla in deprecating third party cookies, then marketers will really need to engage consumers with first party experiences to fill the top of the marketing funnel. Engaging consumers with content is really hard when you have to get everyone to come to your corporate blog. DML takes the corporate blogs and enables them to be distributed directly or programmatically offering a scaled opportunity to engage consumers with a first party experience. This is huge for marketers.

MG: Content is king, but the content players are not living like kings anymore. How are you helping journalism?

DG: Supporting Journalism is fundamental to DML’s mission and culture.

One way this has taken root for us as a company is with collaborative journalism. Over the last few years, collaborative journalism has evolved as a new editorial strategy that shares the load across collaborating news organizations as they cover some of the largest and most important issues we face as a society. Covering big changes in environment, education, healthcare and more, all require significant time and expense to get the journalism right. To make sure these stories can get the greatest audience possible, the DML platform makes it easy to share the journalism that results from the collaborative editorial process. We’ve been fortunate to support numerous journalism collaborative initiatives to date including Word in Black, the Covering Climate Collaborative, Mississippi Ag & Water Desk and more to come focused on Education, Healthcare, Sports, Automotive and other topics. 

We’re now also building toward providing a business model that can monetize this important journalism in a way that supports both non-profit and local media organizations. More to come on that front in 2023.

MG: If you look at the AdFontes chart of media bias. You will see that the extreme news sites are free. This scares me that a lot of the reputable news organizations are running to pay walls while these free sites are growing at a rapid clip. What advice do you have for some of these reputable publications?

DG: This is an existential threat to democracy. To put that more tangibly, the rise of extremist and disinformation media is going to end our 246 year experiment in liberal democracy if it continues to go unabated. We will definitely be living in an authoritarian state of either fascist or communist orientation if we don’t get the nihilists to back off.

One way we feel like we’re in the fight is by emphasizing brand safety as a function of trusted media and trusted media as a reflection of a pursuit of the truth. We think advertisers will come to realize that even smaller audiences are often more valuable when you know those audiences are engaging in environments where they have trusted relationships with quality publishers committed to pursuing the truth. We want that digital audience to represent inventory more valuable than scaled meaningless placement. In this way, we are working toward supporting a more quality advertising based revenue stream which is the only way to keep quality content free. And this is important. We believe a free press is only as powerful as it is freely available. 

But we’re not naive. While working to improve the value of advertising for both the advertiser and publishers, we also know there are categories of content that consumers can and probably should pay for. For instance, Sports is an obvious category. While not necessary for democracy, we see how important quality Sports content is by the engagement we see across our network. This very valuable content can, and in many cases should, be something people pay for. This is one of the main reasons we built Web Monetization into the DML platform. Namely, to be able to provide a distributed model for consumer payments when the content category is naturally inclined. 

MG: Do you have funding? And do you want more?

DG: Yes and yes. 

We closed our Seed round of financing in August 2021 and are planning a Series A in 2023. At this point, we’re focused on growing revenue for DML and our publisher ecosystem partners. To accelerate that growth, we recently opened a small round of financing with a SAFE and expect that to close soon. We’re pretty well subscribed at this point, but we’re always eager to meet new people interested in participating in the mission!

MG: Going back to your past. You grew up on Army bases and were a runner. What was your event and where was your favorite place growing up?

DG: To be clear, I grew up on Marine bases, well, more like Marine neighborhoods as sometimes we weren’t living on base exactly. But yea, growing up we moved around a lot. That’s sometimes a tough thing to do as a kid, but I realized as I got older that it instilled in me an ability to see things from a bunch of different perspectives. Also contributing to that is that my mother is from Cuernavaca Mexico. I grew up with a Mexican mom trying to learn English while raising us kids in the Philippines or Japan or suburbs of DC or California. California ended up feeling most like home. So, I stayed. It’s fair to say I had a bit of an eclectic childhood.

To deal with the craziness I became a runner. Well, in high school I was also a hurdler and pole vaulter. But from about 12 years old until my mid thirties I was probably running between forty to sixty miles a week on average. That was a major part of my life until injuries started catching up with me. Probably the craziest thing I ever did after college as a runner was to run across the Grand Canyon and back. It’s a trail run called the Rim to Rim to Rim. It took me about 20 hours and I ran through the night which was a glorious experience.

It was experiences like that along with the perspective gained from moving around as a kid that I think really informs my entrepreneurialism now. Running across the Grand Canyon a couple times back to back is a pretty severe physical challenge. It’s the kind of thing that once endured everything else can feel kind of tame. This is a nice perspective to have when navigating the ups and downs of starting a company– especially a company serving at the intersection of technology and media.

It hasn’t always been easy. But it has been good.