The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth

They love computing and creativity. And now the quants may be poised to take over the ad business

A math major with a specialty in abstract mathematical concepts like combinatorics, Ben Liang envisioned a future as a financial analyst—outside of academia, a natural career path for number crunchers and the same route his dad had taken. So after college, the 26-year-old Connecticut native entered Bank of America’s two-year training program, with the aim of going to work in the global capital markets and investment banking division.

There was just one problem: Wall Street was really boring, even for somebody who loves numbers.

“You’re basically a human computer, just chugging through data,” Liang says.

A year into his training at BofA, he started looking into other, sexier avocations in which he might flaunt his quantitative talents. That search would ultimately land him a gig as a campaign analyst at ChoiceStream, the Boston ad-technology company specializing in audience targeting, where his job of optimization engineer is figuring out how to maximize the potential of complex algorithms that seek to show ads to consumers who are most likely to buy based on their online behavior.

In short, he’s helping brands figure out who their best prospects are, making him increasingly one of the most important players in the entire advertising industry.

The number of ad campaigns based on algorithms doubled last year versus 2011. In the coming years, they are expected to account for nearly half of all campaigns, according to Forrester Research. Meanwhile, this year the world’s catalog of digital data is expected to reach some 2.7 zettabytes—an amount of information so large it would take 700 billion discs to store it all.

By itself, all that data is useless, naturally. That’s why numbers people are in such high demand—not just any numbers people, but creative quants who can keep pushing online ads to the next, more sophisticated level. They are drawn to advertising not just for the job prospects but also for the creative challenge—and they’ll take a considerable pay cut versus similar jobs in financial services.

Liang himself took a 30 percent hit when he moved from banking into advertising—and he’s hardly alone in having made the leap. His colleagues at ChoiceStream include a data analyst with a Ph.D. in neurology from MIT, another with an M.S. in biostatistics from Harvard and a software engineer with a physics degree from Cambridge. Many came from fields such as finance and biomedical statistics. Meanwhile, computational advertising has become a field of study at universities including Stanford, joining majors like computational finance and financial engineering that emerged in the ’90s. Last year, Columbia University announced the launch of its Institute for Data Sciences and Engineering.

“They might perceive [advertising] as not as dry as banking, not as bureaucratic, not as governed by regulatory issues. They’re looking for industries where they feel they might have more opportunity,” says Rita Raz, a recruiter at Analytic Recruiting. “An ad agency might be more fun, or perceived as more fun.”

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