The heart of tech is coming to the heart of the Mediterranean. Join TNW in València this March 🇪🇸

This article was published on September 8, 2012

Engineers: Stop running away from advertising

Engineers: Stop running away from advertising
Todd Garland
Story by

Todd Garland

Todd Garland is the founder of BuySellAds and lives in Boston with his wife and chocolate lab Rusty. He’s a front-end engineer by trade and Todd Garland is the founder of BuySellAds and lives in Boston with his wife and chocolate lab Rusty. He’s a front-end engineer by trade and loves building software for self-serve advertising on the web. For more, follow him @toddo.

If I haven’t lost you yet, and you’re done rolling your eyes, hear me out.

Is it me, or does it seem like the vast majority of engineers are turning their backs on the very foundation that led to their fancy salaries, foosball tables, and Aeron chairs? Jumping on the anti-advertising bandwagon these days is about as cliche as saying “Microsoft sucks,” without blinking an eye; like advertising or Microsoft had nothing to do with putting them in their Aeron chair that rolls so nicely over to their foosball table, where they flip a few shots, all while their paychecks stream in via ACH.

Perhaps I’m just as bad, casting a stereotype that all developers hate advertising, while trying to argue that advertising shouldn’t be stereotyped. But let’s face it, advertising-bashing threads on Hacker News are about as predictable as the Pope going to church on a Sunday. Debate is good. Bandwagons are bad.

The truth is, there’s an incredible amount of opportunity in online advertising, and we need more developers innovating in the space. There are some very real, complicated obstacles in the industry that need to be tackled. This is interesting stuff. I’m not suggesting that our best engineers should stop building spaceships. What I am suggesting is that advertising has been, and will continue to be, a significant force in our culture. And now is the best time to be a part of its evolution on the web. Changing the world doesn’t have to mean solving world hunger or finding a cure for cancer.

Despite the best wishes of the haters, and the never-ending stigma that advertising is beneath most engineers, online advertising is a 40 billion dollar (and growing) industry that isn’t going away. The only time I’ve seen that many zeros evaporate off the face of the earth was, well, during the Facebook IPO. And I think we can all agree that the Facebooks and Instagrams of the world are few and far between. Let’s do something about it. Let’s build the products, services, and platforms that will help advertising evolve, and stop our bitching. Especially since not enough of us are ready to open up our wallets and pay the content creators what they deserve.

Advertising technology business models are rock solid

Advertising companies are notoriously capital efficient. Money comes in, money goes out, and they tax it each time they touch it. What this usually means, for the bravehearted, is that outside capital isn’t necessary to get started. The other day, an early stage private equity firm told me “we see more profitable, bootstrapped advertising companies than any other type of company.” My company, BuySellAds, is bootstrapped, profitable, and proud. We started the company with about $1,000, and three years in, we’re one of the fastest growing companies in the US, as recognized by Inc. Magazine, on the 2012 Inc500.

It’s incredibly scalable, and scalable businesses have hard problems to solve

That’s why an engineer is an engineer, right? To solve hard problems. Advertising is littered with hard problems. Ever tried serving billions of something per day, per hour? Then providing real-time analytics against all of that data from each impression, each click, each conversion? Kinda hard. There’s nothing more ‘internet scale’ than building something that runs across thousands of websites.

An intersection of technology and creativity

One of the main challenges in online advertising is figuring out how to make it more effective. Clearly, it works well enough for folks to spend 40 billion in 2012, but it still feels primitive compared to what the industry could become. It’s still early, and nobody has cracked the code on how to blend the top creative minds of Madison Avenue with the most talented engineers of Silicon Valley and beyond.

I believe advertising on the web is evolving towards custom sponsorships. A custom ad is specific to the medium and property (website, app, etc) in which it’s being displayed. The ad acts much more like content than an ad, not to deceive the user, but to fit in better with the overall site design and experience. Creative is the biggest challenge with custom. How is an advertiser supposed to create 10, 20, 30, 40 different ads, each with 2-3 variations for split testing, and manage all of that across multiple networks, platforms, and mediums? The best value, audience, and engagement opportunities for advertisers exist in the mid-tail of content on the web, but reaching them through custom ads, at scale, is an incredibly difficult challenge.

What about publishers? How is a mid-tail publisher expected to abandon their existing plug-and-play revenue streams for the promise of better, “custom,” days ahead? That’s a difficult proposition. At BuySellAds we help thousands of indie publishers monetize their direct relationships with advertisers more efficiently so that they have more time to create content and grow their communities. If we try to change this on them too quickly, chances are it will bog them down and backfire.

The simplest solution for both advertisers and publishers is to provide them with the absolute best self-serve tools to help them get from Point A to Point B with the least amount of friction. Give them the tools to build, manage, and serve the highly custom ad units we all dream of, while still supporting the traditional, standardized ad formats that are the foundation for display campaigns today. The true challenge is to do this at meaningful scale.

It’s true, we’re not curing cancer or putting a spaceship on Mars, but we are innovating on one of the greatest measurable mediums of influence in the world. It may not feel as warm and fuzzy inside, but it’s real. You can touch it, you can see it, and helping innovate and evolve online advertising is one of the greatest cultural opportunities of our lifetime. This industry is a huge force in our society, so help us push it in a better direction.

Image Credit: Chris Langley

Back to top