Q&A: AdRoll’s President on the Future of Ad Tech, and Those Snapchat Rumors

Toby Gabriner also talks video and the evolution of agencies

Before joining AdRoll, Toby Gabriner was CEO and president of Adap.tv. Winni Wintermeyer
Headshot of Marty Swant

Adweek: AdRoll is one of several companies that have developed data co-ops (along with Adobe and others), which are pitched as alternatives to walled gardens.
Toby Gabriner: Our original thought we came to market with was a retargeting product, and then four years ago, the company was really smart and thought about how do we help our customers drive more traffic to their site. We’re doing a really good job of converting traffic that comes to the site, but we wanted to now drive more traffic to the site. And obviously, in order to do that, you need a rich data set, and our customers were at a real disadvantage compared to big brands in that they don’t have a ton of data on their own and third-party data is really expensive. We polled our customers and asked if we were to launch this data co-op, would this be something they’re interested in. And lo and behold, we got overwhelming feedback that this was something they looked upon really positively.

AdRoll recently expanded into video. Why now?
Historically video has been a challenging media format if you look at it purely from performance. Our customers are looking for us to drive more of a cost per acquisition type of metric, and video doesn’t perform if you look at it in isolation. But what we’ve now launched and pushed out to most of our customer base is an attribution dashboard that allows our customers to really understand the entire user journey that leads to acquisition, whether it is a media format or device. … So we can start to demonstrate the efficacy of video as being part of that path, and we’re starting to see some real positive signals that video really does lead to actual purchases. For that reason we’re starting to pursue video, and while we haven’t made a formal launch announcement around that, it is an area of exploration.

What’s your plan for growth, and do you want to remain independent?
I joined the company because I’m incredibly excited about the company going forward, and I think there are some pretty significant tailwinds, if you will, that will help drive this business forward. There is a growing, deeper understanding of what true performance marketing is. I think that term has been thrown around a lot in the digital space and a lot of companies get bucketed into that. There really is a difference between companies that claim they are performance drivers [and those that actually are], but really they are identifying audiences and driving upper funnel activity. We’ve been hyper focused for 10 years on building our technology stack to drive conversion, and that is very different and super nuanced in terms of developing machine learning and optimization algorithms.

There have been some rumors that AdRoll has been in talks with Snap Inc. to be acquired.
Obviously, we don’t comment on rumors or innuendoes of that nature as it pertains to being acquired. We’re laser-focused on these big opportunities and feel like our job is to keep building a great business. If an exit happens, those things happen, but that’s not what we’re optimizing our business around.

You’ve been in ad tech for 20 years. What’s changed more slowly than you expected?
The evolution of agencies, quite frankly. I think there’s been a struggle with how far agencies should go in terms of technology adoption and being on the forefront of ad tech or mar tech. And I do think it is a bit of a missed opportunity for a number of the major agency holding companies. They started out with trading desks that were supposed to do that. I now think that there’s a real acceleration, and the agencies are waking up. In order to really provide value to their customers, they’re going to really need to be at the forefront of technology and data. And you see some agency holding companies like WPP that have pushed the boundaries on that.

Current gig
President, AdRoll
Previous gig
CEO and president, Adap.tv

This story first appeared in the Aug. 7, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@martyswant martin.swant@adweek.com Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.