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How will MediaMath’s new owners Infillion chart the long road ahead after its $22 million acquisition?

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MediaMath, widely regarded as the industry’s first demand-side platform, has a new owner: Infillion. 

Why it has a new owner, however, remains a mystery. 

It’s unlikely due to the allure of the MediaMath brand, which has suffered its fair share of tarnish. Neither is it solely for the business itself as MediaMath – once touted as one of ad tech’s billion-dollar unicorns – wasn’t exactly raking in the ad dollars, as evidenced by its recent bankruptcy. 

So why did Infillion drop $22 million on what is seemingly a busted flush?

Honestly, there’s no clear cut answer, but what is obvious is that Infillion will attempt to rollout the latest guise of MediaMath in a marketplace where the tectonic plates are shifting. 

Perhaps the intrigue lies in its untapped potential? Maybe, but the ad tech vendor does compete in a commoditized market, and Infillion’s takeover comes at a time when MediaMath’s peers are attempting to redefine themselves.

To survive, much less prosper, those companies have been redefining and expanding what they do, while furiously encroaching on the markets of their rivals. Navigating MediaMath through these currents will demand meticulous planning, innovative differentiation and a candid acknowledgement of the skepticism surrounding the business after its financial struggles.

The scale of this challenge isn’t lost on the Infillion c-suite.

In court papers, Infillion executives offered insights into their plans for a MediaMath rollout, including $30 million in operating losses over the next three years, a period in which it envisages a headcount of approximately 150. 

Evidently, these plans are already in full swing. 

“There’s an intense effort already underway to re-recruit former MediaMath staff – especially the senior talent there,” said a source, who exchanged anonymity for candor on their knowledge of those plans. 

Convincing those former staffers to rejoin the business won’t be easy – or cheap for that matter. Many of them remain uncompensated weeks after the company flamed out, so they won’t necessarily be chomping at the bit for a reunion. However, if Infillion is serious about revitalizing MediaMath then it will need to lean on the expertise of the people who know its strengths and weaknesses intimately. Get it right, and it makes the uphill battle of convincing former clients and commercial partners to buy back into MediaMath redux a bit easier. As ever, money can play a persuasive role in this endeavor.

“This recruitment drive won’t be cheap,” said another exec anonymously, who did not want to jeopardize ties they had to execs close to this deal by commenting on the record. “People lost equity, wages and more when MediaMath went bankrupt so Infillion is going to have to make any role they’re hiring for very attractive from a financial perspective. 

Whether former MediaMath CEO Joe Zawadzki would be one of those to return remains to be seen. A lot of moving parts would have to align. Chiefly, how his own influence over rebuilding MediaMath would mesh with the wider Infillion business. For now, Zawadzki remains an advisor on the rebuild rather than an active participant in it. But if he does rejoin the business then he should brace for an arduous, expensive slog. 

Rob Emrich, Infillion’s founder and executive chairman, noted how it would seek an additional $40 million working capital, and spoke of his vision to “resurrect the MediaMath platform to its former state.” 

As unlikely as this resurrection sounds, it’s not impossible. MediaMath did have some things going for it for the marketplace, as hard as that might be to believe. 

Notably, a range of services and technologies that advertisers and agencies can build on top of (think integration into a CRM stack, for instance). Moreover, there’s the versatile products it has developed over the years including its transparent programmatic supply chain Source. 

Add it all together, and there’s an intriguing pitch: an ad tech vendor that can go narrow and deep with clients at a time where those relationships can be very one-sided. 

Come to think of it, these strengths could cut both ways.

Would advertisers (or agencies for that matter) want to go back to being so entwined with the ad tech vendor given how hard it’s been to move on? Some of them have already tried and failed. Rolling the dice on what has become a very complicated relationship might be a step too far for many.

Then again, it could be a gamble worth taking if those execs could be persuaded to believe that MediaMath is now financially stable. Clearly, that’s going to be tricky for a business that’s just gone bankrupt. Nonetheless, it is going to be crucial to Infillion’s bid to resurrect MediaMath. 

One way to do so would be for Infillion’s management team to candidly outline its financial strength, thereby setting the stage for a more certain future.

Doing this and giving ad execs a clearer understanding of MediaMath’s financial standing might sway some doubters to believers. Everyone has a soft spot for an underdog story, after all, especially one as pertinent as this. 

It’s not that the market is averse to embracing another robust demand-side platform on a larger scale. Quite the opposite, given the changing sentiments toward The Trade Desk. Nonetheless, what the market yearns for is another substantial DSP that also guarantees success. 

Needless to say, Infillion has its work cut out. 

Consider this: even if it nailed all of those aforementioned points there’s a chance it might not be enough to convince the market to buy into MediaMath 2.0. Its downfall left a mark on the ad tech landscape. Thus, before discussing the future, acknowledging the past and offering a mea culpa are prerequisites for Infillion’s management team. 

In other words, they’re going to have to make a lot of concessions, which are never cheap in this market. This is likely to hold true for MediaMath too, especially if it has to deviate from industry norms around sequential liability and possibly payment terms to reduce the perceived risk for potential clients.

“MediaMath won’t get any good payment terms from the SSPs they want to partner with immediately so they’ll need to find a financing partner to finance their buys,” said another ad exec, who declined to speak on the record so as not to jeopardize their working relationships with others involved in the deal. “The thing is, though, that Infillion is doing at least $70 to $100 million in media buys annually, which is a big number that could go some way to convincing the market that they can make the financials work.” 

Again, Infillion is going to have to spend a lot of money to be in with a chance of making any. 

“Over the first three years, we expect to spend around $445 million on traffic acquisition costs and another [$]102 million in other operating expenses,” said Emrich, further estimating that MediaMath will outlay “over a billion dollars in inventory traffic, data fees and hosting contracts over the next five years.”    

Ad tech will probably look very different by then – something Infillion is counting on. Emrich said as much during the  August 21 auction hearing. He cited Infliion’s “verticalized walled garden as a service” as a rebuild vehicle for MediaMath, noting retail media networks as a potential route to recovery.   

In many ways, this isn’t too much of a departure from what MediaMath was already doing. However, it could be more attainable now that the ad tech vendor is unencumbered by its earlier debt to investors. 

“Previously, they [MediaMath] had a product that was probably trying to do too much,” said Wayne Blodwell, CEO of media consultancy TPA Digital. “They could actually take the crux of that technology and build something that is market-ready.”  

For instance, many buy-side players need help integrating with the growing number of data cleanrooms, added Blodwell. Additionally, buyers also need help with the subsequent workflow processes required by new cleanrooms – a need that is only likely to proliferate as Google remains on track to sunset the use of third-party cookies next year.

Additionally, MediaMath’s 2019 transparency initiative Source could also prove a point of differentiation, particularly as some question how rival DSPs prioritize what ad inventory. 

“There’s definitely some skepticism over things like OpenPath, and how that means that The Trade Desk prioritizes inventory,” explained Blodwell, “And you’ve always had concerns around things like Google and AdX, Yahoo with the Yahoo Exchange, and Microsoft [with its Xandr DSP] and Microsoft Exchange … they could trade off that alone.”     

However, as it currently stands, all of this remains speculative.

Infillion hasn’t said anything outside of what was in those court documents. Even Digiday’s inquiry into the specifics of its plans for Mediamath went unanswered. 

That said, there’s no denying that it’s starting to assert its presence. 

For instance, during Cannes Lions this past June the company was conspicuous. It was hard to overlook, with its execs participating in panels and its claim over one of the most sought-after outdoor spaces on the Croisette – the garden at the Mondrian Cannes hotel. As one exec put it out: “It felt like they were everywhere at that event.” 

This, alongside its acquisition of MediaMath, underscores Infillion’s efforts to  move beyond conventional ad tech boundaries. The first signs of this came when Infillion’s overlords merged TrueX and Gimbal in 2020. Two years later they launched the Infillion brand name. 

Like so many of its contemporaries, Infillion realized the future of ad tech will be a return to vertical. 

https://digiday.com/?p=516153

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