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AdTech Reboot

Trust Web Times Interview Series : Sparrow Advisers

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 Chief Revenue Officer of Method Media Intelligence an MRC accredited ad verification and measurement company.

Sparrow Advisers is Ana Milicevic and Maja Milicevic

I exchanged emails with them for this interview and it has been slightly condensed and edited.

Marc Goldberg : I noticed Sparrow advisers launched in 2015. I  am going to go out on a limb and say didn’t just “meet” and start a company. Can you both tell me you history before Sparrow?

[Ana]: Funny you should say that, I did kind of just meet her one day. 

[Maja]: Ana’s been my co-founding partner since day one (I’m the younger one). Wait, doesn’t everyone get assigned a co-founding partner at birth? 

[Ana]: They should! Would make a few things easier. 

[Maja]: Adtech and martech have been my professional home since the late aughts. I worked with Ana at Demdex, an early data management platform and Adobe’s first acquisition en route to building their marketing suite. After Adobe I went deeper down the adtech path: joining AppNexus in their early days and later on the sell-side running revenue for Federated Media/sovrn. That path gave me a front-row seat into just how different your understanding of the industry can be based on whether you’re on the buy side or the sell side: it’s like different worlds. That’s something that Ana and I both zeroed in on: there really wasn’t a service that you could call to look at your business holistically and help across a number of rather common scaling or evolution challenges. You could go to the big consultancies, pay them a lot of money, and then still have to figure out how to operationalize their high level strategy decks, or you could work with someone super tactical who can help you with a specific problem in a specific channel or tool but can’t connect that with adjacent challenges. We then quite selfishly built Sparrow as the kind of consultancy we absolutely wished we had access to in our earlier operational roles. 

[Ana]: My path is slightly longer. I lucked into entrepreneurship at university and foolishly started my first software company. I followed that up by consulting for the United Nations and working on how emerging web and media technologies can help the lives of kids around the world. It was the early days of video so I dove back into entrepreneurship and pursued product and strategy leadership roles across several startups in video, audio, and community — so my early experiences in advertising were either with super-global branding and awareness campaigns, or highly tactical customer acquisition drives and daily optimizations of your company’s CAC. That led me to Demdex and the idea/opportunity of improving experiences for custom audiences. After Adobe, I went down the martech path at SAS and Signal. I now had first-hand experience with companies at every stage: from pre-seed through to Fortune 500, and could appreciate how different the same challenge could look depending on what stage a company was at. 

MG: What is it like working with your sibling? 

[Ana]: We’re very lucky that we have complementary skillsets and interests: mine are on the engineering/building, product & strategy side and Maja excels at positioning, commercialization, and taking things to market. That lets us focus on different parts of the business day-to-day and align on longer term vision quite easily. In that sense it’s like working with someone you really enjoy working with and have worked with across different companies – there’s a level of trust that I wish we could bottle and sell DTC because it turns out it’s quite rare. 

[Maja]: Like any great partnership it requires empathy, boundaries, and excellent communication. We share the same outlook on how we want to build companies, what we’re looking for in new hires, and the types of problems we want to be able to solve for our clients. I wouldn’t recommend starting a business with your sibling (or friend, for that matter) unless you have a really strong relationship as a foundation and you know exactly what makes the other one tick.  

MG: So Sparrow advisers multiple sides of the digital ecosystems. It used to be about the three letter acronyms, now we have some important Four letter ones. What the FLOC is going on? Can you tell why buyers and sellers need to pay attention to FLOC and the proposals in this space?

[Ana]: We’re an industry that’s evolving rapidly and while it may seem a little extra whiplashy at times and like there’s a new development, legislation, or technology you need to learn about every single day. For most executives it’s hard to keep up on top of their regular day job of actually managing a business line or a team against current goals. Since it can be hard to cut through the noise, we see companies adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach: wait till a clear solution emerges and then hop on the bandwagon to implement it. Privacy sandboxes are a perfect example of this, on top of a sort of denial at the extent of upcoming change (Apple ATT is a perfect example here, with companies happily touting that not much will change despite ample evidence to the contrary).  

[Maja]: We often see this evolution manifested as a lopsided stack in some of our clients: depending on when they bought which component they may be working with a meh partner in one channel, and have a next-gen one in another, leading to frustration across the board. It’s not just enough to understand key topics in general: you really need to buy them in context for your company and it’s not easy to muster a true outside-in perspective. 

[Ana]: And this is where we come in! 

[Maja]: As far as FloC specifically goes, color me skeptical about any solution for the open web that is driven by Google and any other walled garden. 

[Ana]: I do enjoy all the bird names though – Turtledove, (the other) Sparrow, Dovekey, now FloC – we’re clearly on to something. 

MG: Another fun new acronym is SPAC. Are you seeing more companies eye this route?

[Ana]: I cannot pronounce SPAC without laughing so I’ll temporarily plead the Fifth here.  

[Maja]: Definitely more interest in the short-term. There’s a lot of private money that would like to be public out there so SPACs make a lot of sense. I’d like to think that at the other side of SPACs lies a reconstituting of the holding company on the buy side and the media conglomerate on the sell side. 

[Ana]: One of Maja’s superpowers is optimism and always being able to see the best possible version of something. 

MG: Is it pent up demand, irrational exuberance? Are we asking for another internet crash?

[Ana]: It’s a bit of a perfect storm, accelerated by the pandemic. There is a lot of pent up demand, for sure, but also the realization that we’re now making choices on what the next decade of online advertising, content, and commerce should look like. The last big shift of this kind was from desktop to mobile and that took a few years to sort through (I could argue that it’s still very much in flux). 

MG: Now let us go back to three letter acronyms. SPO (Supply Path Optimizations) is often thought as a publisher product to help them get the most for their inventory. SPO is also buy side. Can you help share some insights and advice that you make sure publisher/buyers are thinking about and implementing?

[Maja]: This is where only looking at one side of the ecosystem really comes up short: we think of this as an advertising supply chain challenge that needs to be addressed from the perspective of both publishers and buyers. On the sell side, we’ve seen publishers try to manage the same buyers buying the same inventory through different platforms and seeing different pricing; on the buy side, we’ve seen extreme examples of brands having no idea nor control of where their advertising appears until they’re dealing with a PR nightmare. Because the early days of programmatic embraced the idea that everyone should work with everyone, we now get to hit pause and ask do you really need 20 different partners if there’s nothing unique about the inventory you’re seeing. We’ve inadvertently made the open internet so complex that it’s easier to buy a walled garden and call it a day.

[Ana]: I keep thinking of that example from a few years ago when J.P. Morgan cut down the number of sites they advertise on in any given month from 400,000 to 5,000 (and even that latter figure seemed like an exaggeration). There is a trade-off to all this complexity: is getting to a user for a few cents cheaper CPM worth the extra log reconciliation and gymnastics on the analytics side to demonstrate that this is indeed effective? Few brands have done the math on this correctly and those that have are big and rapid champions of advertising supply chain audits and simplifying the advertiser-seller relationship.   

[Maja]: Ironically, this is precisely the area where your agency should not only be helping but actively driving you towards supply chain optimization yet very few have the capacity or desire to do this. 

MG: Well we make it easy at MMI, my shameless plug for today. So what do you make of Clubhouse? I am an android user and have FOMO. Am missing out?

[Ana]: It’s interesting to think of it as potentially the first post-advertising platform (you can read more about that and the opportunity we see in this recent issue of our newsletter). {editor note, great newsletter!}The experience varies widely: some rooms are mind blowingly great, and others seem to be full of a ‘collect them all’ lineup of internet scammers. If you’re looking for a good one, Matt Barash and Eric Franchi host a now regular Wednesday evening adtech and martech session. It’s just the kind of unfiltered insight that you’d get to hear if you were backstage at an industry conference or dinner except now you can tune in from anywhere in the world. I like that kind of democratization of access (especially once they expand to Android, too).    

[Maja]: It seems like the perfect app for our extended WFH lockdowns, doesn’t it? I’m curious to see how it adapts over the summer when we’ll hopefully be getting back to more in-person business and possibly a conference or three. 

MG: Has the pandemic helped or hurt your business? Any specific part?

[Maja]: It’s been a wild ride. At the beginning of the pandemic, most of our clients had short freezes, especially in the US. It was interesting to see our APAC and EMEA clients hardly miss a beat, while the US was struggling to find a good angle. We’ve definitely seen an uptick in strategy work as most of our clients started to look at a bit longer-term horizons. Similarly, quite an uptick in due diligence sphere as well as sales training/coaching. 

[Ana]: The fact that we’re all stuck in front of our screens and have the luxury of working from wherever there’s a good internet connection seems to be reactivating the desire to fix more foundational business challenges. Maja mentioned due diligence: the pandemic year brought about a new type of preemptive diligence project where companies ask us to pressure-test their strategy, teams, and commercial value prop the way we would if someone was actually kicking the tires on an acquisition but more with the goal of positioning as an attractive target . Personally I love these kinds of engagements because they let  you not just diagnose opportunities and challenges but then work with the company to fix them over time, too. 

[Maja]: She’s not kidding, she’s been trying to make the term ‘pre-diligence’ happen since the first prospect reached out about this. The rest of our team isn’t terribly impressed with this nomenclature. 

[Ana]: Our goal is to have prospects reach out to us with interesting problems — that can range from ‘hey, what’s the best team structure for my sales team’ all the way through ‘I need to future-proof my business and don’t know where to start’. In the past year we’ve seen more of those really complex, gnarly challenges that span different functional teams and oftentimes different lines of business. More retainers and more ambitious scope is a trend I can get behind.    

MG: Where are you both living and have you seen each other? (I am assuming Boston and NY but could be wrong)

[Maja]: We’re now both in Boston and in the same quarantine pod. It is interesting, for us, the pandemic actually brought us together and we freak out some of our clients by occasionally showing up in the same Zoom square. From Day 1 we designed Sparrow to be location agnostic and distributed which in the pre-pandemic times meant we wouldn’t see each other or the rest of our team all that often in person. Spending so much time together in the same place has allowed us to launch and accelerate some things we’ve been planning on for a while but haven’t gotten around to – like our weekly newsletter, Sparrow One, that goes deep on a single important topic from the worlds of media, advertising, technology, and commerce each week. 

[Ana]: I’m so used to traveling for work (and for non-work) and in a few weeks it’ll be exactly a year since I was last on a plane; I don’t think I’ve been in the same place for this long since… high school? Delta probably thinks I’ve died. 

MG: All things back to normal where will you take each other when you travel next?

[Ana]: Has to be a beach, as far away from winter as possible. 

[Maja]: I never say no to beaches. I think I’ll just take Ana to the airport and let her figure it out from there.