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On Building Faster Horses

Customer feedback can be good and it can be bad. Customers are human beings, after all. They have different biases, experiences, backgrounds, and education.  They’re different in age and gender, and they play different roles in different companies. Marketing, sales, admin, IT, and business owners all provide a unique perspective. Even the mood of a person at the time they are providing feedback can change that feedback.

When doing something truly innovative, be careful not to take too much customer feedback. They may lead you astray, and most of the time, in circles.  

A market opportunity represents itself because techTechnology Then & Nownology, a process, or a way of doing something better can help a company become more efficient or make more money. The problem is most people already believe they are doing something the right way and they don’t believe or want to believe that there may be a better way.

This is the most difficult part of bringing new products to market—change management.  It’s getting people who do a job every day to change or to do something different.  For example, Facebook has 500 million users, but there are still 7.5 billion people in the world that haven’t figured out the value of Facebook and/or are unwilling to learn.  

I met those same people in the late 1980s and early 1990s when it came to the personal computer and software. In 1990 my grandma bought me a typewriter that had electronic keys for college, but it was still a typewriter. What if Steve Jobs had asked my grandma in a focus group to describe exactly what she needed for her grandson? She would have described a typewriter, not a computer. Remember what Steve Jobs had to say about that?

“How can I possibly ask someone what a graphics-based computer ought to be when they have no idea what a graphics-based computer is?  No one has ever seen one before.”Steve Jobs

Imagine what a rancher or farmer would have told Henry Ford when Henry suggested they could transfer goods in greater quantity, more often, and with less effort using the automobile. People who sold horses would create objections like, “Where are you going to get the gas?” “There are no roads to drive cars on.” “What are you going to do when the tires wear out or go flat?”

Henry Ford’s view on that kind of feedback and its underlying sense of fear and uncertainty has become a mantra for the modern entrepreneurial community:

“If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” -Henry Ford

Advertising and marketing people are good at what they do, but they don’t tend to be as forward thinking as we think they are, and they definitely don’t know how to build innovative technology products. The fact is that most products being developed today are just better mouse traps, or better versions of the same process or view point.  

Bringing innovation to business processes, utilizing technology to automate the collection of data and different processes saves time and money, but it requires people to bite the bullet and make the change. 

Avenue Right wants people to make a paradigm shift, get off the horse and onto the information super highway. Traditional media buyers and sellers need to change because the internet is much more efficient, making all commodities—advertising included—easier to buy, and more measurable.  Get off the horse…and buy a car.

“Automation allows for a more pure marketplace based on facts and results, rather than imperfect relationships and biased information,” says Brian Gramer in an interview with Kevin Ohashi for MO.com. Gramer is founder and CEO of advertising technology company Avenue Right.

 

In the interview, Gramer discusses his philosophy as a serial entrepreneur, how Avenue Right’s software benefits smaller ad agencies, technology change and adoption, and why automation isn’t such a bad thing.    Brian Headshot 150

Interviewer Kevin Ohashi observed that Avenue Right sits at the intersection of old and new media. Here’s an excerpt on that topic:

MO: Your company is directly tied to the clash between old and new media. What are the major changes you’ve noticed since starting Avenue Right on both sides? What changes can we expect in both old and new in the next few years?
Brian: I see some major changes happening. For one thing new media has caused old media to become more responsive to measurement and reporting, forcing old media to become more quantifiable in terms of value.
New media is also changing the way we consume traditional content. Push-pull marketing isn’t the only method to use anymore—it’s about building community, getting fans, and spreading word of mouth. It’s as important to market to your current customers as it is to market to prospective customers. Old media drives awareness, and new media builds community.
Consumer marketers need both online and offline media in their mix. Traditional media is not going away. It will continue to change and morph. New media will become more competitive with different ways to advertise online. Social platforms are just another media property. The question, then, becomes how to use both to target an audience most effectively.

Read the full interview here.

Yesterday afternoon technology author and blogger Bob Cringely, his family, and a television crew visited Avenue Right on the Cringely’s (NOT in Silicon Valley) Startup Tour.describe the image

We were delighted to see the not-so-subtle black RV pull into the parking lot, here with a camera crew to talk to our CEO. The Tour will result in a 13-part television series profiling 24 startups across the country. More on that here .

The spirit of the project is to show the importance of American startup companies, wherever they’re located—how they contribute to the U.S. economy, serve to develop new markets and job opportunities, help us discover new technologies no matter our industry, and keep our country competitive in a global market.

Representing the media and advertising space, Avenue Right was selected for the Tour from among the nearly 400 startup companies nominated. Brian Gramer, founder & CEO, described his vision for the interview:

“My vision is to automate the process of media buying by providing a transparent media exchange that brings buyers and sellers together, helping small to mid-size ad agencies and the businesses they serve. The process of buying and selling local media—any medium—should be automated, transparent, and easy.”

So far, Avenue Right has built a database of over 49,000 media outlets; automated the RFP process for any local advertising medium; and above all, provided a place where media buyers can plan, negotiate, buy, and report on all their campaigns and clients, from one central location. And this company is just getting started.

With some big things coming over the next few months, we look forward to sharing that story as part of this television series that’s all about innovation, scheduled to air on a currently undisclosed cable station in January.

A big thank-you to those who nominated, voted, or commented in favor of Avenue Right.

Seeing that RV in our parking lot, it was an honor to know that we
kick enough ass to bring this Tour all the way to Fargo, North Dakota, on a day so humid that we all wore the air like a second skin. Of course, a few of us still went outside for a picture. For now, it’ll have to do.

Tacks on the Wall: Finding (and Fitting) Your Target Audience

Media buyers should be able to spend more time on the activities that create value for their clients, such as negotiating placement and rates, rather than manually collecting and organizing information related to a buy. That’s the premise behind Avenue Right’s web-based media buying software.

Avenue Right founder and CEO Brian Gramer was interviewed by “Media Man” Michael Massey on his Internet radio show Your Ad Here (February 12, 2010). This is the third and final post in a series of excerpts from that interview. You can listen to the full recording of the show here.  

In this excerpt Brian shares a bit of his background and experience in advertising, along with an overview of Avenue Right’s media buying software, the target user for whom the product is designed, and why a “pragmatic approach” to development works in this changing media landscape.

Michael Massey is also author of Your Ad Here: Demystifying the Business of Media and Advertising and an Avenue Right power user.

MM: Welcome to the Friday, February 12, broadcast of Your Ad Here hosted by Media Man, that’s me, Michael Massey. Today’s topic is streamlining the media planning and buying process, and I gotta tell you, anyone that does this can tell you it can be a daunting, frustrating process. Today my guest is Brian Gramer, founder and CEO of marketing technology company Avenue Right. He’s going to share how his company is working to make this process a bit less painful, right Brian?

BG: Correct.

MM: Why don’t we take a couple minutes and sort of explain how you got where you are, what jazzes you, and why Avenue Right.

BG: I got exposed to the advertising business from him when I was 12 years old. My dad brought me to his agency one day, and he said, “We’re going to do some mapping so we can target my clients’ customers and figure out where they’re coming from.”

In the 1980s with advertising, there wasn’t a lot of technology, and my dad’s agency was doing their books by hand. And shortly after that they got their first computer and with it an accounting process.

But he put up a map, which was the state of Minnesota and counties in North Dakota, and took the receipts of his clients and gave me some tacks, and he read of the zip codes from the receipts for where the customers were for his clients. I put the thumbtacks on the board, and that’s how we figured out the geography of where the client’s customers were coming from by looking at where the tacks were.

Then he’d draw up a report by hand and deliver it to the client and say, “Based on where the tacks were, here’s where most of your customers are coming from percentage-wise, and I’m going to break it down county by county. We can continue to build brand awareness and advertise where your customers come from to keep that competitive advantage, and/or we could market in other areas around where your customers come from to try to get other people to visit your retail store.”

But anyway, that was my first exposure, and I’ve been interested in it ever since. So I’ve been for more than 20 years now exposed to the advertising industry and that was my first love.

At the age of 28, I started my first company. It was a niche search engine to help high school kids find colleges, started in 1999. Then I got into the database marketing space and started a marketing automation company called Vtrenz, and after those two ventures, I decided to start Avenue Right.

MM: Tell me who your primary target is. You’ve said media buyers, but can you say more about that?

BG: Yes. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 30,000 advertising agencies that have 100 employees or less in the United States, and represent about 20% of all media bought in the United States. But the smaller part of the media spend in the US is about $60 million dollars.

Depending on how well the economy is doing and what report you look at, there’s about $300 billion dollars spent on media, annually, in the United States. Most of that media buy is done by the largest brands and largest agencies, okay, and so 80% of it is spent by them, but 20% is spent by these smaller agencies.

MM: Like me.

BG: Right. So that’s who we’re going after. Because most of the products being built are addressing that larger side of the market, and they’ve neglected to provide products that are affordable and pragmatic for small advertising agencies.

MM: You know what, that’s a perfect mission statement right there, Brian. That’s one of the things that turned me on to this particular product.

BG: That’s why I was saying you have to pick what functionality you’re going to build first when you start these things, and so we decided to address the biggest problem first, which is collecting information. But now we have a customization rolling out in a near-term release where you can actually pull in and manage all the different media, even if it’s not in our searchable database. You can add stuff in there and customize it for budgeting and reporting purposes. And so that’s exactly one of the things we’re adding is the ability to do that, based off feedback, and it’s always been on our roadmap. The question was, what priority are we going to give it, and right now it’s a very high priority.

MM: We just got a question so I want to be sure we address it. Why would someone use this sort of product over something like a Strata or a Donovan or a SmartPlus or a Google TV.

BG: I think all those products have their place in the marketplace, and I don’t think they’re going anywhere. Some of them are very, very expensive, so we like to build pragmatic software.

One of the things I would say first off is that in relation to this, some businesses need QuickBooks to run their accounting, and some need programs like Microsoft Dynamics and these huge accounting programs for companies that have multi-national operations in 80 countries and they have 4,000 users using the accounting system, from office admins to controllers to CPAs, right? And with QuickBooks, it’s an office manager that needs to input simple invoices and billings and stuff, which most businesses need QuickBooks, not the big one.

It’s not that these other systems aren’t valuable; it’s just way too much functionality for their needs and way too costly. Some of the products they described, that’s the limitation—it’s way more functionality than a small agency needs, and it’s too costly. That’s going to be the determining factor for the agencies. People don’t need all that functionality in many cases, and they don’t want to pay for if they don’t need it.

Strata is a different product. I don’t even think of them as a competitor. They do a great job, but for a bigger agency that needs all that functionality. And so in many instances small agencies bit the bullet and said this is the only choice I have. I don’t need 80% of the functionality they’re delivering, but I’ll buy it.

The second thing is that they are limited by media type with a lot of the products. The third thing is that many are seller-side solutions and we’re a buyer-side solution. Our whole goal is to make tools to make media buyers more efficient, and we think the sellers will naturally come. So again, we’re making buy- side solutions, not sell-side solutions.

MM: Another question we got is to have you share, in your opinion, what are one or two strengths and one or two weaknesses that you feel are there in Avenue Right.

BG: One of the strengths is that we’re multi-channel, media agnostic, and not involved in the commission process. We don’t have any financial stake between the buyers and the sellers, which allows you to things a little differently, and better.

Another strength is that we look pragmatically and simply at the problem, we try to add the most valuable functionality that solves your biggest problems first. We know it’s not going to solve everything, but I think our pragmatic approach is why people are buying us, even though the system doesn’t do everything already that they wish it would today.

The disadvantage we have is that we’re new, so we’re finishing building our roadmap.

The other disadvantage we have—and this is a disadvantage for everybody—is that the media buying landscape continues to get more complicated. And this is always going to happen in media, so you’ve got to make the system flexible like we’ve talked about so you can customize it and have an open API. But the disadvantage for all of us is there’s always a new type of media. There’s always a new outlets being created. There’s always someone else providing content and trying to make money off advertising, you know. So being fluid.

That constant change is a disadvantage for a software company because you really have to think about how you develop the product in a world of constant change, and if you’ve never done it before, it’s really hard to do. So I think that’s an advantage for us is that we’ve done it before.

Read more from Brian’s interview on Your Ad Here. Check out part 1, Information Collection, Visibility, and the Value of Simplicity in Media Buying, and part 2, Tell the Courier to Fax Me: Adapting to Changing Technology. Learn more about Avenue Right’s web-based media buying software here.

Information Collection, Visibility, and the Value of Simplicity

Media buyers should be able to spend more time on the activities that create value for their clients, such as negotiating placement and rates, rather than manually collecting and organizing information related to a buy. That’s the premise behind Avenue Right’s web-based media buying software.

On February 12 Avenue Right founder and CEO Brian Gramer was interviewed by “Media Man” Michael Massey on his Internet radio show Your Ad Here. This is the first in a series of blog posts with excerpts from that interview. You can listen to the full recording of the show here.

Michael Massey is also author of Your Ad Here: Demystifying the Business of Media and Advertising, to be released next month, and an Avenue Right power user.

MM: Why don’t we take a few minutes to explain how you got where you are, what jazzes you, why Avenue Right?

BG: When I started Avenue Right 2 years ago, I said I’m going to solve a problem and it’s this—how do we create one place for media buyers and advertising professionals to go and find media buying opportunities for their clients so they don’t have to manually gather this information?

The thing is, you can say that seems pretty simple, is that really going to provide value? And what I’ve found talking to advertising agencies is that they spend half their time manually collecting information. And the information they collect isn’t secret information, it’s not private. It’s media sales contact information and email addresses for media outlets. Things like rate cards, media kits.

This is what the media buyer has to do all day long instead of the things that they do really well, that provide value for their clients, like strategy and planning and placement. They are spending a good portion of their time just collecting information that I thought should be automatically collected and updated somewhere. It shouldn’t have to be manually collected all the time.

But the reason this is always manually collected is that the information changes all the time—rates change daily, the media outlet sales department has a 100% turnover, depending on the outlet, and inventory supply changes.

And now with the Internet, there are no barriers to creating a media publisher, or creating and distributing content. So there are more and more options, and how do you keep up with all that? That was the creation and idea of Avenue Right.

MM: Give me some typical examples of what media buyers are wanting, 5 or 12 things everybody wants. I can’t be atypical in some of the demands I’m making.

BG: You would think there would be a lot of commonalities in what media buyers want, but there are a lot of anomalies. And you have to manage all those needs so you don’t create too complicated of a product, but create the core functionality that provides the most value.

They do want visibility into what they’re doing in more granular detail, but they also want to provide that visibility to their clients. Any kind of reporting we can provide agencies, they can provide their clients, so the agency can show the value that they are creating for their clients. So if you think of media buyers in the past, all the work they do doesn’t show up on a neat client report. Negotiating with media outlets, all the services you provide, theirs wasn’t an easy way to show clients all that value you’ve created for them, all that work.

MM: Brian, I’m going to record what you just said, and send it to all my clients.

BG: Well, it’s been a difficult thing, right? One of the things we’re doing to augment our product is try to continually provide our agencies with better internal reports, for your own internal processes. How much media did you buy across certain geographies, how much media did you buy by client?

MM: As a buyer, I’ve been doing this for 12 years, and before that I was a seller of media. And really, when you’re working on a media plan, a lot of the work is up front, because you’re doing exactly what you just said. You’re contacting the media properties, you’re negotiating, you’re gathering all the data, you’re putting the plan together, you’re putting it in a nice report and then you just have to kind of shepherd it for 6 months or throughout the year or whatever it is.

But there is a ton of work that goes into it at the beginning. And I’m not even including the constant influx and volume of email and phone calls you get from media reps.

So any time you can show a client that this is the time you spent and the value created, there’s something to that.

BG: Yeah, that’s exactly the kind of visibility they want to provide if they are using an automated system to do some of their process. It’s very difficult to buy media if you have to manually do it in a spreadsheet after you’ve done all the work.

Other feedback is related to reporting and it’s being able to integrate our system to other tools to get data out of those tools. Even if you’re doing social stuff, or anything, any data source you might want to pull or you’re managing some other type of media buy that doesn’t go in our system.

For example, if you’re managing search for your clients, you can pull that data in and report on it on the spot. And that’s the other request we get—incorporating other data into our system to pull that data into the same system as their offline buys. So we’re going to work on integration—that’s feedback we’re taking to heart and going to make happen.

MM: Can you say more about the actual modules that are available? Originally I think it just started out with radio and print, but in the near past you’ve actually added some other components. Do you want to talk about those briefly?

BG: We’re in version 1 of TV, cable and broadcast. And again we’re taking a bunch of feedback from users to enhance that. We’re probably in version 4 of radio. Print includes magazines and newspapers, but if you look at online, our approach and what we want to represent is local display advertising.

So an example of that right now in our system would be a local newspaper that has pushed their content online, right? They are moving their content online, and some of those content sites have a lot of traffic for their geographies, and they can prove it. A ton of reach and frequency for a particular geography.

MM: I’m all about unique and new media, so I’m your timeline there for architecture. Are you guys going to look at mobile advertising, texting?

BG: Yeah, mobile is a big one. Our approach is this, and it’s a really simple approach—we’re going be the platform to take whatever data is necessary for you to plan budget and report on your media to your clients. At worst case you can enter and create these categories yourself in the tool if they don’t exist.

MM: So I’ll have the ability to customize it myself.

BG: You can customize it yourself, right. Let’s say you customize it and put in information on a billboard company, or say it’s park bench advertising on the busiest street in some city you advertise in for a client. And it just happens to be a great advertisement because of the type of client you have and the traffic that it gets.

So let’s say its park bench advertising and you put that in our system. See, we’re a software as a service, we’re a platform. If that information is not private, and its public, meaning the park bench advertising company wants to sell more advertising to other people, not just you and your clients, we release that for the whole community. So the next time somebody comes into the system, now that company is listed and that category will be listed. That’s where we’re headed.

MM: You’re almost making it like a Wiki, a community.

BG: It’s crowdsourcing, right? That’s the advantage of the platform, crowdsourced by the community. In addition to that we’re going to add some community features onto the tool that allows agencies to rank media outlets.

MM: Oh, watch out for that one!

BG: So the idea is to let you customize your dashboard, customize your reporting.

We’re always going to be developing, enhancing, and we’ve got that built into the cost of our company. And that’s an advantage to customers, too, an advantage of being a SaaS product. With on-premise software, you develop all this functionality, and then you release it and everyone has to get the old version off their desktops or laptops and load the new version, right, and transfer their data into the new version.

In our world, you don’t have to do that, so we can monthly releases and constantly change based on your feedback to enhance the product. And that’s what we’re going to need to do to be competitive and stay ahead, because again, it’s always changing.

Read more from Brian’s interview on Your Ad Here. Check out part 2, Tell the Courier to Fax Me: Adapting to Changing Technology, and part 3, Tacks on the Wall: Finding (and Fitting) Your Target Audience. Learn more about Avenue Right’s web-based media buying software here.

Fargo a Good Place to Start

Slowly gaining national attention are the technology startup companies turning from Silicon Valley to smaller cities like Fargo, where the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well.

 

Avenue Right is one of those companies, recently highlighted in a BusinessWeek report looking at the benefits smaller cities present to startups.

 

Research conducted for the report focused on 11 factors as they related to a city, among them workforce quality, number of universities, number of patents issued, amount of venture capital, and number of small businesses and startups. Read the full report here and Fargo’s profile here.

 

Fargo’s stats showed 48 small businesses per 1,000 people.

 

As a serial entrepreneur with all companies started in Fargo-Moorhead, Avenue Right Founder & CEO Brian Gramer was interviewed for the article.

 

Here’s what he had to say: “There’s quite a bit of venture capital now compared to 10 years ago. There’s private as well as government funding and they actually work together. They have a tech incubator that I think is outstanding. There’s a lot of technical talent, because Microsoft’s second largest campus is here, and then you’ve got all the universities," Gramer says. "The people in general are very hard working. They’re dependable, they show up on time, they work hard. You hate to use the old Midwest stereotype but it does really apply in Fargo.”

 

Gramer’s first venture was AnyCollege.com, an international niche search engine that helps high school students look for colleges at the beginning of their college search process. Then in 2001 he founded Vtrenz, a marketing automation technology SaaS (Software as a Service) company that was recently acquired by Silverpop.

Advertising technology company Avenue Right was founded in January 2008.

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