Based in the Bay Area, Adam Silverblatt tackles complex advertising challenges to get big wins for his team and clients at The Trade Desk in the “Pacific Mountain West” region—a term he coined for the area that stretches from Denver to San Francisco. He was kind enough to share some insights with us into the future of digital advertising, current trends, and how he’s developing a culture of learning at his company.
With a robust background in ad tech, marketing, sales, and agency partnerships, Adam has a valuable perspective on lots of topics–including the shortcomings of last-click attribution and cookies. Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.
What led you to take your role at The Trade Desk?
I had been working in the ad tech space on the data partner and measurement side for a handful of years previously, so I was, of course, very familiar with The Trade Desk. I’ve now been with the company for about a year and a half. I find that at The Trade Desk, we lead from the front of the industry. We are trying to create a better future not just for all of us at The Trade Desk, but for the industry – ad tech, agencies and brands – at large. I was always really drawn to that approach, coupled with the fact that while we are well established, we are also just getting started.
I truly believe that so much of the future and how advertisers will gauge success will be based on things that we’ve barely scratched the surface on. I’m talking about things like shifting linear TV over to connected TV (CTV) or buying TV programmatically. There’s such a bright future, and it has a lot to do with education. It’s about helping marketers and their agency partners evolve so they understand new and better ways to grow their business with more accretive advertising outcomes.
What are you doing to teach your clients about large shifts in the industry, and how are independent agencies and holding companies faring?
I think overall independent agencies have the ability to move quickly and test new ideas with fewer constraints – often as a result of their client profiles and/or size and scale. However, while many are extremely advanced in their programmatic adoption, some are far behind in the sense that they have a harder time initially understanding the value proposition that comes with moving from legacy tactics to new tactics. For example, legacy performance goals, like focusing on the bottom of the funnel, the last click as the only barometer of success, is just archaic. We have tools and resources that illustrate that being present during the rest of the journey drives the outcomes you really desire — not just that last click. … Performance doesn’t just mean social or search, so we have to change the mindset to performance being defined as driving outcomes for a brand.
So the question is: How can we provide the right education, data, and support, so our agency clients can go back to their brand clients and say, “If you’re going to have goals of driving sales or sign-ups, well, just having a social ad on Instagram or SEO in place—that might not actually be right, especially if you are looking to grow the reach and scale of a brand over time.” Historically, these “omnichannel tactics” have been harder to measure, but now we have the capabilities to analyze the entire consumer journey, and measure which steps along the way drive the most impact.
How is The Trade Desk treating identity?
In ad tech, we’ve done a good job in the industry of confusing everybody if they’re not already familiar with Identity, despite the best of intentions. I like to think of identity as anything that enables user-level information that can consistently be used for the various steps in advertising. Historically, the way identity has been thought of is really cookie-reliant, which has created an opt-out internet, where most people have an “I’d like to avoid that” experience. CTV environments are email-based, so you’re logged-in, and you’re indicating, “Hey, this is me. This is what my interests are.” There’s a natural gravitation in those environments to be more sound and privacy-safe, because it is an opt-in environment.
Cookies were created in the mid-90s by Netscape and were never intended for targeting when created. They were intended to create relevancy in repeat site experiences. Cookies were then utilized for targeting and measurement, which is not the most privacy-safe, and it’s not as overtly voluntary as the solutions that we will see moving forward.
What we are doing at The Trade Desk, and what we want the industry to do and marketers and consumers to understand, is how we can all create a new identity space. For us, it is Unified ID 2.0. We’re working with our partners and even our competitors to get everyone onboard with solutions that are opt-in, email-based, and privacy compliant. You can log in once for a multitude of sites and you’ll get more relevant ads in exchange for the quid pro quo of the internet, which is free content. I think we would all agree that we’re in the golden age of content. We have access to the best content we’ve ever had, and it’s important that all of that thrives. In order to achieve that, we have to preserve a highly relevant, privacy-safe internet in exchange for advertising that works for everybody. That’s what we’re setting out to do.
How are you getting new hires up to speed on these issues?
We’ve created more of a dedicated training presence for onboarding in the recent months to help folks accelerate their learning curve. We also have the Edge Academy training program, which includes some incredible content that has been turned over to the industry from which folks can learn. But now we have dedicated programming around various subject matters to make sure everyone becomes an expert. We also make sure we help everyone understand what they should read on a regular basis to stay atop the latest happenings in the industry (even its POVs that are counter to our own). This past year, we had a large group of our Sales team sign up for the U of Digital weekly newsletter (as an example), and a big reason why is because it puts everything that is going on in one place; it’s all consolidated, so it’s way more efficient than reading all the trades everyday. I also love that some of the perspectives in the newsletter are a bit contrarian, which we tend to value at The Trade Desk. We like to hear about the blind spots we’re not aware of and what the objections may be. They help us prepare more and think about what we will face when we talk about this stuff in the market.
We’re really big on the idea of “slow down to speed up” at The Trade Desk, which is different from anywhere else I’ve worked. It’s about getting in, learning a ton, and asking a lot of questions. We really value intellectual curiosity. We often partner new hires with a buddy early on to do regular check-ins, and we really encourage everyone to spend the first few months on the sales side learning, understanding the way we do things—not so that they always do it that way, but so that they respect why it has been done this way and they have all the information on hand if they want to make changes. It’s a slow roll for a bit, because it’s a learning environment first and foremost.
Are there any trends that are overhyped right now?
The legacy way of buying television and upfronts is so overhyped. I do think there are old behaviors that need to continue to evolve, so that at the end of the day, everyone in our ecosystem reaps the best bottom-line outcome. In terms of upfronts, we are already seeing an evolution when you look at how large the streaming players are becoming – for both consumers and networks. Something we’ve been talking about a lot is continuing to push our clients and buyers away from being married to the cost of an exposure. Are you thinking about cost or are you thinking about the return? You can go to the upfronts and negotiate a great rate, but what does that yield you? Are you able to manage your reach and frequency or are you going to waste a bunch of money hitting the same people with the same ad 15 times—people who may never buy your product or already have? If they have already bought your product, and the purchase cycle is such that they won’t need to buy it any time soon after seeing your ad, don’t show them the ad.
You can’t do that with direct linear television, but you can do that with programmatic advertising. I think what has not been fully adopted yet in a major way is a change in this legacy thinking of cost. It takes a lot of myth-busting.
What is the most common myth you have to bust?
If it’s not cost, in the region that I sit, it’s about keeping dollars in the buckets that are best known. So cost aside, with search, you know what you’re getting. Or with social, you’re comfortable. It’s not just guiding to objectives and outcomes as the jumping off points, but explaining the consumer journey and pointing out the gaps that are there when you’re not present in other environments. We can show you with data why old-school tactics in the new digital ecosystem work and how programmatic can be accretive to that. We are truly on a journey to educate our clients about how they need to think about the customer journey differently. That’s something we come up against, but love to take part in, on a regular basis.
What advice would you give to someone who is just getting into digital advertising?
Go on a self-learning journey. Read the trades and read about how the field has evolved. Even in my time at The Trade Desk, I’ve become a historian in programmatic advertising. I think learning a ton is important, as well as finding mentors and friends in the industry that give you an open mic to ask questions. This stuff can be confusing. Think about how you can simplify things and practice looking at it from a consumer’s lens. Don’t just use tech speak. The last thing I would say is to read—read a lot. Don’t just read about ad tech, read about how brands have grown. There are so many great books on leadership and growth in the advertising space.
Any book recommendations?
I read a lot of memoirs on leadership and evolving teams and companies. Some of my recent reads are The Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger, the CEO of Disney. A few nights ago I wrapped up Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, which is just a fascinating story about this scrappy group of friends who started Nike – a lot of it is about how to stay focused and hustle, which is important when you’re getting into a field like this one. And the book that I probably refer to the most is A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life by Bryan Grazer & Charles Fishman.
If you weren’t in your current job or in this industry, what would you be doing?
I would probably want to run a community foundation and center. I grew up in a Jewish community in Pittsburgh called Squirrel Hill, and a big part of my upbringing took place at our Jewish community center. It was really such an incredible foundation that helped make me who I am. It helped me learn a lot about teamwork and grit. I played sports there, I volunteered there, I did activities there. Places like that are really where communities form. For someone who has moved quite a bit in my adult life, I am always looking for community. I’d love to do something like that if I wasn’t in ad tech—running a center that opened up opportunities for camaraderie, learning, and volunteering.