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Q&A with BlueLithium's Gurbaksh Chahal

Q&A with BlueLithium's Gurbaksh Chahal Brad Berens

Gurbaksh Chahal co-founded BlueLithium in 2004. Today, the company is able to deliver over six billion ad impressions to over 60 percent of internet users every month for its growing customer base of Fortune 1000 corporations, direct marketers and advertising agencies. Before BlueLithium, Chahal founded Click Agents, a company he created out of his bedroom in December 1998. Within two years, he took Click Agents into a strategic merger, in a deal valued at up to $70 million with its publicly traded competitor, ValueClick, Inc., to create the largest internet advertising network.

Brad Berens: After the bubble, ad networks had a bad reputation, but lately the stock for this sort of business seems to be rising... why is that?
Gurbaksh Chahal: Ad networks have evolved from what they were in the early 2000s. Then, it was all about reach and cheap CPMs. Today, networks like BlueLithium use advanced targeting and optimization technologies to make campaigns perform better than if the advertiser bought the sites directly.

Add this performance edge on top of the traditional cost savings, scale and ease of use advantages of networks and you'll see why ad network buys are becoming the strategic core of so many campaigns for agencies.

Berens: Relatedly, 2005 seemed like a terrific year for Ad Networks-- with a new ad network seeming to appear on the landscape every few days. Why do you think this happened in 2005? And what do you predict for ad networks in 2006?

Chahal: Today, some of the best performing inventory for advertisers is out on the fringes on social networking sites, user-generated content sites, video, multi-media and photo community sites and other places that didn't exist two years ago. Ad networks like BlueLithium give agencies and advertisers a safe, efficient way to access this content for their campaigns. Networks are the best way for advertisers to get at the juiciest, fastest growing parts of the internet. Of course, all ad networks are not created equal. Advertisers want to look for networks that invest in their own ad server, together with sophisticated optimization technology and targeting tools such as behavioral and semantic. I predict that as the web continues to expand and fragment, the ad networks that provide these capabilities will become increasingly strategic to agencies and advertisers.

Berens: Let's talk about differentiating factors among different networks, and this is something that we've been following closely here at iMedia for a while-- as you might have noticed with our Ad Networks Crib Sheet . Without it being too much of a commercial for BlueLithium, what are the three factors that you recommend advertisers think about when trying to choose an ad network?

Chahal: The three factors I'd recommend advertisers look for in selecting an ad network are innovation, innovation and innovation.

Seriously, many of the technologies that ad networks are buzzing about today can be leased, purchased from a vendor or developed in a matter of days by an engineering team. Even among the largest ad networks there's parity among most products and capabilities. What truly sets a next generation network like BlueLithium apart is our commitment to innovate. For example, instead of just providing behavioral targeting, our AdPath solution offers both segment targeting and retargeting. Depending on the advertiser, this can make a significant difference in bottom-line campaign results and overall ROI. We're about to introduce the first predictive semantic targeting solution. This goes well beyond the natural language semantic targeting that Google and other search engines are talking about, and will push campaign performance to a new level. Innovations such as these help an advertiser see which networks are investing in the best people and technology and, therefore, are likely to bring the most to the table as a media partner.

Berens: Let's try again with that differentiation question: sure, it's always great to work with innovative technology partners, but pretend that you're talking with a brand marketer who is dipping a cautious first toe into the internet waters. His media team has been making publisher-by-publisher buys because he got scared out of the network space sometime in 2001. He's confused by the state of the playing field and needs your help: not just to sell BlueLithium but to make sense of the different kinds of networks. What, to your way of thinking, are they?
Chahal: The main distinction between networks is whether they use a rep model or an arbitrage model. In the rep model, the network is simply selling inventory on behalf of the publisher, as an alternative to the publisher employing their own sales force. In the arbitrage model, the network is buying inventory from publishers, re-assembling it into packages that match the audience requirements of the advertiser, then using advanced targeting and optimization technologies to further enhance the performance of the inventory. This is BlueLithium's model. A lot has been written about the relative strengths of each model, but it boils down to this: rep networks provide the convenience of buying a fully-disclosed portfolio of sites with a single IO. Arbitrage networks integrate new capabilities such as behavioral targeting/remarketing, semantic analysis, on-the-fly optimization and audience-centric buys to deliver strong bottom-line performance over and above the name brand value of the sites they run on.

Berens: I recently had the pleasure of speaking with the marketing team at Anheuser-Busch: when I was doing my homework prior to the talk, I reviewed the Beer Institute's Marketing and Advertising Code. It's a fascinating document, and one of the most interesting things about it is that brewers cannot advertise when the audience composition is less that 70 percent of drinking age. Do ad networks -- BlueLithium and otherwise -- have a solution?

Chahal: This is a question we get regularly. The answer is yes. We use data provided by the sites in our network to determine which ones have audiences that would be appropriate for sellers of alcoholic beverages. This data comes from comScore as well as their own reporting tools and user registrations. We carve these sites out into channels that adult beverage manufacturers can target.
Berens: What's in store for BlueLithium in 2006?

Chahal: This year, we're expanding both in the U.S. and abroad. We recently opened a U.K. office, headed by Tim Brown who formerly ran 24/7 in Europe. We're also bringing new technologies to market in 2006, based on investments we've made over the past two years. AdPath, our behavioral targeting solution, is the first to offer both segment targeting and behavioral remarketing. We're also going to be introducing a semantic analysis technology that will redefine contextual targeting.

Brad Berens is executive editor for iMedia Communications.

Travel, tourism, hospitality

LGBT adults spend more on leisure, travel, restaurants, and related products and services, with 23 percent higher median household income compared to straight households and higher discretionary incomes. So it's no surprise that the travel industry has historically taken a more inclusive approach. Hotels, cruise lines, airlines, and booking engines have all directly engaged LGBT audiences to varying degrees for many years. Orbitz, for example, has a perfect Corporate Equality Index Score from the Human Rights Campaign and two GLAAD media awards. The travel site filters hotel reviews by LGBT travelers, provides tips and advice on leading gay travel destinations around the world, and features gay-friendly properties in its booking engine. Another example -- Airbnb advertises directly on the geo-location-based app Grindr, which reaches more than 5 million gay and bi-sexual males in 192 countries. In fact, with 65 percent of LGBT Millennials booking travel via mobile, this channel creates ever-increasing opportunities for travel marketers, in particular, to build relationships with their LGBT customers.


Kimpton: "Life is Suite" 
In the hospitality sector, both boutique and mainstream hotel brands have built loyal followings with an inclusive approach that speaks to LGBT audiences both directly and indirectly. Kimpton hotels, for example, which was recently acquired by Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG), is widely known for its stylish properties, and surprise and delight loyalty program, Karma Rewards. It has been actively marketing to the LGBT community for years, and like Orbitz, Kimpton has a 100 percent rating from the HRC Corporate Equality Index. It's also been recognized by Out Traveler as Best Hotel Chain (2013), maintains a dedicated section of its website for LGBT guests, and even sponsors promotions targeting same-sex couples and newlyweds.


Marriott: #Lovetravels
Marriott's recent #Lovetravels social campaign organically integrates diverse lifestyles in a wider context that "illustrate how people live their individual truths and bring their passions with them when they travel." The campaign, which ended in November 2014, featured a microsite, a shareable portrait gallery, and curated video content. It, too, reflects a wider trend among marketers that take LGBT people out of the "gayborhood" and into the mainstream featuring singles, couples, and families from different walks of life sharing their passion for travel.


Consumer packaged goods brands (CPGs)

Consumer packaged goods brands are not generally the first ones that come to mind when thinking about LGBT audiences. But with same-sex partnered households spending $2,045 more per year on packaged goods and making 16 percent more shopping trips than the average U.S. household, brands including Cheerios and Honey Maid have recently featured real life modern families in their marketing campaigns -- and not without controversy.

"Cheerios Effect"
In Canada, General Mills' "Cheerios Effect" campaign from October 2014 included a dozen videos on the internet and TV, ranging from 15-second to three-minute mini-documentaries that linked the cereal brand with "true stories of human connection." The Cheerios campaign included two gay dads and their adoptive daughter and was designed to encourage social pickup. Marketing Mag reports that "the 'Cheerios Effect' is the colloquial name some have given to the phenomenon that anyone who's eaten a bowl of the cereal knows: when two Cheerios float in milk, they tend to attract one another thanks to surface tension." The approach has generated results. A similar campaign for Lucky Charms reportedly lifted category share by 0.5 percent during Gay Pride, which was "amazing for a 50-year-old brand."

Honey Maid: "This is Wholesome"
Mondelez International, meanwhile, unapologetically defended its recent "This is Wholesome" spot for Honey Maid graham crackers from backlash for its depiction of families of all types -- including gay ones, and the "changing American family dynamic." Haters are gonna hate, and anti-gay groups predictably took issue with the campaign, bombarding the brand with negative comments on social media. Not only did Honey Maid shake it off, but it turned the 10:1 positive to negative sentiments into a follow up campaign showing how the love-mail conquered hate-mail.

Financial services

Insurance companies and banks, with their conservative reputations, might also seem like unlikely champions of LGBT rights, but Allstate, Prudential, Wells Fargo, and others are actively engaging the community. Prudential's 2012/2013 study on LGBT financial experience reported that a majority of LGBTs perceive their financial planning needs to be different from those of the general population and feel underserved by financial services companies. Core concerns among LGBT people include legislation that negatively affects LGBT financial rights, tax treatment of same-sex couples, retirement, and same sex survivor benefits.

Allstate: "Safe In My Hands"  
In June 2014, Allstate launched "Safe In My Hands," a fully integrated campaign that spoke directly to the insecurity many LGBTs feel. The campaign included an animated ad that played on the well-known "Good Hands" slogan with a score by singer-songwriter Eli Lieb, free song downloads, nationwide events at Gay Pride events.

The campaign included a photo sharing gallery (#OutHoldingHands), encouraging real LGBT people to tag photos on Twitter or Instagram, showing affection in public. In addition, Allstate's dedicated web portal connects to agents and provides LGBT-specific tips regarding same-sex marriage/domestic partnerships, home and renters insurance, car insurance, life insurance, and retirement.


Relationship building with LGBT consumers is clearly evolving from hyper targeting and niche channels to a wider, more inclusive approach that reflects shifts in the broader society at large and makes financial sense for brands in these industries highlighted here, and many others.

Hector Pages is VP of client solutions at Response Media.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Rainbow flag on small visiting card" image via Shuttertock.  

A trusted advisor to companies of all sizes and a respected voice within the interactive media industry, Dr. Brad Berens has enjoyed a wide-ranging career that features storytelling as an organizing theme. These days, he divides his time among...

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