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Accidental Ad Tech: The Voyage of Bill Wise

By Martin Kihn | May 16, 2017 | 4 Comments

Marketingad tech

Before he became CEO of Mediaocean, sold last year to Vista Partners for $720 million; before he ran Yahoo’s global ad platform business and was president of Right Media and SVP at Ask and a VP at DoubleClick; and well before he became what he is today – a Larchmont-living, eternally boyish father of three who is one of the most powerful people in media, – before all that, Bill Wise was an accountant.

And he admits, “Not a very good one.”


After a humbling evaluation by his boss at Arthur Andersen in the mid-1990s – Wise refused to sign it – he got kicked upstairs as a troublemaker. The head of the office moved him into a staff role on a team doing small-cap IPOs. Wise liked the work but not the upside. Tired of being “the only schmuck not making money,” he did what many digital dreamers did in 1997: joined DoubleClick, as a financial reporting manager.

Most roads in modern media lead back to DoubleClick, somehow. The early ad server was an unlikely b-school and R&D shop for some of ad tech’s young pioneers. In Wise’s case, the b-school analogy is literal. The CEO actually ripped up his application to Harvard and told him, “You’re going to get your M.B.A. here.”

So he did, cycling through operations and sales and ending up helping to launch the direct-response media division of DoubleClick, called Sonar. An early hire was a New York Sports Club trainer and sales rep named Mike “Wally” Walrath, who was only 4% of the sales staff but somehow brought in 40% of deals.

What was Mike Walrath doing differently?

Nobody could understand it [says Wise]. How did he keep all his deals running? The thing was, he was spending time talking to the “dark guys” on the tech side of DoubleClick. He realized the ad server didn’t deliver based on yield, it delivered based on revenue maximization.

How did it work?

We had a thing called the ‘Satisfaction Index.’ It said if [an advertiser] signed a $10 million deal over ten days, it should pace at $1 million per day. There were no spikes in delivery; it was spread out nicely. But it was not a Darwinian way to do revenue management. Wally would book massive deals but put in frequency caps [to manage exposure]. He basically reverse engineered the [DoubleClick] DART algorithm because the technology was fundamentally flawed in that it erroneously thought it was underdelivering his campaigns, and thus was giving delivery priority them.

Sonar merged with DoubleClick’s other media business and Wise was put in charge. He and Walrath had an idea for an ad server that would function more like the stock market, putting impressions up for sale to the highest bidder.

We called it ‘AdNASDAQ’ [says Wise]. We pitched it to the investment committee at DoubleClick and they shot it down. Then they sold the media business and Walrath and I and some others all ended up at L90 [later Max Worldwide]. We pitched the idea there — and then the bubble burst.

Carnage all around them, athwart the new millennium, our heroes remained undaunted. …

I’ll never forget this. Wally came and talked to me. He said, ‘Let do this!’ He said, ‘I spoke to Zawadzki and they have a closet. They’ll clean it out and we can have it.’ And I said, ‘Wally, I fully support you. You have my blessing. You can only take two people with you.’ So he did it. And every three months or so he would call me to join him. It was all about survival mode then. … Eventually he stopped calling, so I started calling him.

Zawadzki was Joe Zawadzki, now CEO of MediaMath and then head of an agency and ad network called Poindexter. We have seen how Zawadzki played a pivotal role in this epic. Of course, Wise eventually joined Walrath at the new venture, Right Media.

What was Right Media like in those days?

We were on Fifth Avenue when I joined, moving to Park Avenue. It was Silicon Alley, around 30th Street. About two-thirds of our business was media dollars and one-third was the ad exchange. I’d say it was a f%&#ed up functional family. We were all young, you know. … You had Mike Walrath [visionary and elite salesman], Brian O’Kelley [tech guru], andChristine Hunsicker [project manager].

Hunsicker was really the unsung hero. She was hired as a project manager, knew very little about advertising. There were a lot of big egos there, big swinging dicks. She was the diplomat basically outexecuting us all. Mike’s passion and vision set the tone. Brian’s technical chops made it work. And Christine pulled all that together. She was very direct, and she grew into the COO role.

In another odd cycle of fate, today Hunsicker owns a successful plus-size clothing rental empire and is celebrity co-host of Project Runway: Fashion Startup. Back at Right Media, the ad exchange was born. Yahoo acquired 20% of Right Media, and Google decided to get into the game. (Also among those present was Accuen CEO Megan Pagliuca.)

How did the Right Media acquisition happen?

Well, I was there for about six weeks when DoubleClick announced it was for sale. Wally and I and bunch of others had a meeting with Yahoo. They said they wanted to buy DoubleClick and needed our help. After that, Wally said the best thing that could happen is if Yahoo doesn’t get it. They offered $3 billion but DoubleClick went with Google because Google guaranteed the close, even if the E.U. rejected it. … Google announced their own ad exchange. It put Yahoo in an uncomfortable position.

Walrath was great at the art of the deal. As soon as Google acquired DoubleClick, Yahoo almost immediately made us an offer. It was completely okay. Walrath was cold as ice. He said, ‘Don’t insult me.’ And I’m like, ‘Mike, we can’t figure out how to serve ads. We are a glorified ad network for about 70% of our revenue.’ His response to me was, we have another 53 days to negotiate [in a 60-day option]. And he used every bit of it.

Yahoo bought the 80% of Right Media it didn’t own for about $680 million and Wise stayed on to run its ad platform. And to become a digital lexicographer.

One thing I have never taken credit for [he says] is I came up with name ‘Demand Side Platform.’ I went into P&G and started pitching them. They had 162 brands and a few hundred million to spend. I said, if you look at all your brands, you’re the third-largest ad network in the space. There’s Google, and P&G. They had $250 million in digital display spend. I convinced them that agencies were about to embark on a strategy to start co-opting the data. So I came up with a strategy for them and called it a Demand Side Platform.

That’s how I ended up where I am now. We had to go to the [P&G] investment committee to get approval for this [DSP] initiative, called Project Hawkeye. People came up to me at the time and they were intrigued by the data overlays, applying the idea to traditional media [e.g., television and print]. I got intrigued myself and started to wonder how traditional media is bought and sold. I had been so digitally focused.

That’s when I found a little company in Chicago that had taken one agency from [market leader] Donovan. I literally cold called them and said, ‘I’ve got a billion dollar idea.’

That cold call eventually led to the merger of Donovan Data Systems and Mediabank into Mediaocean, the leader in media workflow solutions. Whether or not it’s a billion dollar baby remains to be seen, but Wise’s voyage on the wide media ocean continues.

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  • John Ellett says:

    Love hearing how the journey of a great guy like Bill evolves based on opportunities instead of master plans.

  • Great story and flies in the face of the question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Who knows where the road will lead you as long as you keep your eyes and ears open and pursue what you love?

  • Brian Kurlan says:

    Great story about a bright, hard working guy driven for success!

  • “AdNASDAQ’ We pitched it to the investment committee and they shot it down”

    I am always interested in people who create a new market within an established business. Interesting how many very smart people didn’t see the opportunity.