Interview with Tony Zito, mediaFORGE

For today's profile, we have an interview with Tony Zito, President and CEO of Salt Lake's mediaFORGE (, a firm in the online advertising industry. We spoke with Tony about his firm to learn a bit more about online advertising retargeting, and how the firm fits into the market.

To start with, where does mediaForge fit into the online advertising market?

Tony Zito: mediaFORGE is a retargeting and ad personalization company. We're actually helping to drive the advancement of the market as a whole. It's a dynamic ad technology that is geared toward remarketing and retargeting website banners. People often abandon shopping on retailer's sites, without actually purchasing products. Our technology helps those retailers find those people again, and re-message and re-market to them so they'll complete their purchase.

What's your background, and how did the firm center in on the retargeting market?

Tony Zito: I've been involved since the founding of the company. mediaFORGE was founded in 2005 as a widget company. A widget is a dynamic application which pulls content in from the Internet, and is very portable. They're quite popular--popular widgets might be a weather widget on your desktop, a stock widget, and so on--and are very similar to what you know as iPhone applications. They are dynamic and real time. We started as a desktop widget vendor.

I joined because the company was looking for a way to leverage that technology to reach into entertainment. I had some relationships in the entertainment space, and brought on some bands, artists, and movie studios, and eventually politicians, as well. We used the technology to reach affinity groups and get their messaging to them. While this was all happening, social media was exploding, and that enabled us to embed those widgets into social media.

So how did you end up in the retargeting area?

Tony Zito: mediaFORGE very quickly learned that the distribution of widgets in social media, is the most challenging part of monetizing them. When we started running widget campaigns for large brands, they always asked us--can you help us distribute more of these apps? So, we had this really great idea, which was to take that widget, and put it in a banner advertisement. That was challenging, because you run into compliance issues with those ads. You can only load so much information in a small space, and you have to be compliant with publishers. mediaFORGE had to overcome significant technical hurdles to get that much content into a banner ad, including multiple videos, audios, and dynamic interaction in real time inside the ad unit. But, we were the first to put a widget in an ad, which we called a widget ad. That was the first step. The next step was realizing that when we applied traditional, retargeting technology to that banner ad application we had developed, we could actually pull personalized products into that widget dynamically. We determined we could create a unique experience for each user interacting with the ad.

The other thing we'd been hearing from all of our clients, is that they don't like the metric of view throughs, which are being used by other retargeting firms to bill clients for conversions. A view through is simply where an ad is served, and a viewer doesn't take an action, but they later return to the site and purchase a product. For example, you might go to Pacific Sunwear, look at swimsuits, and go to the web three days later and happen to see an ad--but don't click on it. If, three days later, you purchase a swimsuit, that's counted as a view-through. It turns out retailers strongly dislike that metric, because it doesn't provide any proof that the advertising actually influenced that sale.

So how much of your business now is retargeting, versus the widgets?

Tony Zito: 95 percent of our business is retargeting. Although we still use our widget technology within the social media environment, and we've developed a very cool and somewhat unique application that allows our clients to run widget ads in their facebook feed--it's not our core focus. Our focus is on retargeting.

There are lots of companies in online advertising, has it been hard to get above the noise to let people know what you offer?

Tony Zito: The way we stand out, is through the two things I called out. One is the ad units themselves, which are very unique. Their widgety function and dynamic nature makes for a great brand experience, and makes the ads our clients run really cool. They also like our business model, in that we don't charge clients for view throughs. The majority of retargets who work with reatilers work on a commission basis and rev-share. They get paid commissions for view-through conversions, even those view through conversions are difficult to prove. The reason is, as wel all know, content can load behold the fold, the ad that is served to the visitor might not even be viewable, but a retargeter can still claim that a purchase saw the ad. However, they can't prove that--they just know they served them an ad. However, that ad could have loaded behind another one, it could be off page, and there are lots of reasons that impressions might not be impressions. There was a great article in the Wall Street Journal lately about publishers who were actually showing invisible ads, an showing advertisers that they'd served them, even if no one actually saw those ads. mediaFORGE doesn't use that metric, and instead we use post engagement. What post engagement is, is when a user interacts with an ad. Because we've developed this widget architecture, we can track interaction with the content, and we can tie that interaction to a conversion that takes place later, to show that the advertisement truly influenced the sale. It's very unique in the space, and we're the only company that does that.

Let's talk about finances--how is the company funded?

Tony Zito: The company raised $1.5M in a Series A in 2006, led by Prospector Equity Capital. The other participant was a firm called Gazelle, the fund led by Greg Warnock and Alan Hall. We've also received additional follow on capital from our venture partners, to continue to build out and flush out our technology.

Finally, what's next for your company?

Tony Zito: We're really excited about the traction we're seeing in the personalization space. The next step for us is additional strategic partnerships. We recently integrated with Coremetrics, which makes it very easy for retailers to flip the switch, and to use mediaFORGE's technology. We look forward to doing more of those types of partnerships over the next six months. There's also a great opportunity for us in the mobile space, and we're excited about the social media tools we're developing, as well as the implications of adding layers of personalization and retargeting within those tools themselves.