‘She gets stuff done’: Why Criteo tapped a Nielsen vet to turn around its business

For years, France-based Criteo was the darling of publicly-traded ad tech companies. The poster-child of retargeting, it consistently outperformed its ad tech peers as retailers poured ad dollars into the company’s performance ad platform.

But then Criteo hit a cookie-shaped speed bump, as Apple and Mozilla made moves to severely limit ad-tracking on their browsers, and as new privacy regulations — including Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation and the forthcoming California Consumer Privacy Act — promise consumers more control over how their data is handled by ad companies.

The France-based ad tech company has introduced a range of new products in recent years as it looks to reduce its reliance on retargeting, and on Wednesday announced it has appointed Nielsen’s chief commercial officer, Megan Clarken, as its new chief executive to lead the company through its next stage of transformation.

Clarken, a 15-year veteran of Nielsen who has also worked for News Corp and Akamai Technologies, joins Criteo on Nov. 25 and will relocate from the U.S. to Paris. Nielsen does not plan to replace Clarken’s role this year.

Speaking on Criteo’s third-quarter earnings call Wednesday, outgoing CEO and co-founder Jean-Baptise Rudelle said Clarken “has a lot of experience in transformation” and will help the company forge more partnerships.

“I think Megan’s going to help us in building the right partnerships with the measurement ecosystem, and I think that’s going to be super useful,” Rudelle said on the call. Criteo declined to make Rudelle or Clarken available to comment.

At school in New Zealand Clarken was a track and field star. She qualified to compete in the long jump in the 1988 Seoul Olympics but she was forced to drop out through injury. Her drive for sports transitioned into her work. “There’s a reason she was an Olympic athlete: she gets stuff done,” said Dave Morgan, CEO at advanced TV ad company Simulmedia.

Morgan, who has worked alongside Nielsen for more than a decade, describes Clarken as a well-liked and smart “operator.” Clarken worked her way up the ranks from product roles through to leading the measurement firm’s commercial teams as the business transformed from being a hardware and research company to focusing more of its efforts on software and data.

“Nielsen was not a company that was friendly to the market. It was a company with a dominant market position that said, ‘You get what you get and don’t get upset’,” Morgan said. “She realized they needed partners.”

Clarken will arrive at a difficult juncture for Criteo, and she must work to rebuild key advertiser demand and shareholder confidence. Criteo’s stock has plummeted from almost $60 in 2014 to trading at around $17 at the time of writing (Wednesday, Oct. 30.) The company’s revenue guidance for the 2019 fiscal year was revised down. Meanwhile, in the third quarter, revenue (excluding traffic acquisition costs) was down 1% year-on-year to $221 million and adjusted net income fell 2% to $35 million (or up 15% to $21 million on a non-adjusted basis.)

Clarken will be required to quickly get large marketers onboard with its newer slate of non-retargeting ad products, such as its “Web Consideration” product that charges on a cost-per-impression or cost-per-thousand basis rather than its usual cost-per-click model and its retail media business. Given her background at a large TV measurement company, Clarken will also likely look to help Criteo make in-roads in the nascent advanced television advertising space — an area largely shielded from “death of the cookie” impact.

As evidenced by Roku’s $150 million acquisition of ad-tech company DataXu last week, it seems every ad-tech player is attempting to be the Google of the advanced TV space right now. Rudelle said on the earnings call that Criteo is currently “testing the waters” in this area, largely thanks to a partnership with LiveRamp to use its audience identity product for ad targeting.

Criteo’s expansion away from being a one-trick retargeting pony is still in its very early days. Rudelle himself had only returned into the CEO role in April 2018 to turnaround the business — his second time in the role having moved back to being executive chairman in 2016.

Matthew Thornton, director of equity research for digital entertainment and digital marketing at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey said one of the biggest questions still hanging around Criteo’s new CEO appointment is: “Why now?”

“The stock is extremely inexpensive, [Criteo] generates cash, is profitable and has a large blue-chip client base. This is clearly worth something,” Thornton said. “[But] we haven’t seen any evidence or green shoots yet that this is going to turn around.”

Update: This article has been updated to correct an earlier misheard quote from Matthew Thornton.


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