Flite Is Out to Build a Better Widget For the Internet Ad Industry
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an authoring interface where brands could drop in their own videos and other media and arrange them within the ad unit—see the video below for a taste of how the ad authoring tool works. The process was so much simper than building traditional rich-media campaigns that Widgetbox quickly signed up CBS, MSN, Bloomberg, Forbes, Federated Media, and other publishers as paying customers. As Flite, Widgetbox has fully transformed itself into a “Platform as a Service” company where users pay for access to the tools and analytics; the startup also stores the ads on its cloud servers and serves them up on demand.
In a weird way, Facebook—which had almost killed Widgetbox by drawing away software talent—is now helping to educate the same customers that Price wants Flite to reach. “In traditional Internet advertising, you have a brand, a brief for a seasonal campaign, a creative agency that builds some assets, and a media buy that sends them across the Web,” says Price. “This is a serial process that takes maybe two to six months. But with Facebook, a brand manager can come in in the morning, post a video to the fan page, share a picture, publish a poll question. It’s very easy for them to program content for millions of people. The brand marketing industry has taught people that you can do intra-quarter marketing, but Facebook has taught people that you can do intra-day marketing.”
As an example of this kind of intra-day marketing on Flite’s platform, Price points to a major technology company that offers a free Web-based e-mail system. (Price couldn’t name it, but its identity isn’t hard to guess.) “Today, you market e-mail accounts by making a banner that says ‘Get 5 gigabytes free’ and it takes six weeks, so everything you put into the market is six weeks old. But say Roger Federer lost at Wimbledon this morning—with Flite you can run a banner that says ‘Federer out at Wimbledon, sign up to e-mail this video to your friends.’ Tomorrow, that is going to be old news. The fundamental concept is that once you have a set of Web-based tools that make programming advertising as easy as programming a Facebook fan page, brands can become more agile and iterative.”
That may not be a message that everyone on Madison Avenue wants to hear. Price says the Flite platform drastically reduces the overhead that goes into building or refreshing an ad campaign. Translation: the role of agencies in preparing Internet ads could be drastically diminished, though someone still needs to shoot videos and write copy. “Where brands are going to need help from agencies is being smart about audiences and how much [advertising] do you buy,” says Price. “But I don’t think they have a lot of value in building the current creative that they’re producing.”
If there’s a weakness in Flite’s model, it’s that the finished ads—which are almost always 300 pixels wide and either 250 or 600 pixels high, to fit in the standard slots for Web ad units—have a cookie-cutter feeling, featuring the same formula of videos, tabs, and buttons no matter what brand is being featured (tour Flite’s ad showcase to see what I mean). Even Don Draper might have trouble making them sexy. But it may be that Flite canvas simply hasn’t yet found its Rembrandt; the first agencies that figure out how to put Flite’s platform to more creative use could be in a good position to offer their own clients a more flexible, responsive set of services. McCann Worldwide, one of the world’s largest ad agencies, is already a Flite customer, so “there is evidence that the creative agencies want to embrace this change,” Price says.
Revenue at the startup quadrupled between 2009 and 2010, and is on course to more than double between 2010 and 2011. Price didn’t share the actual numbers, but he says the company is not far from being profitable. And given the scale of the potential market, there’s a lot more upside for Flite’s investors now than there was in early 2009, before that fateful e-mail from LinkedIn. “I think there is a chance to totally redefine a $20 billion market,” says Price. That’s what you call building a better widget.
Here’s a video illustrating the real-time editing capabilities of Flite’s ad platform.
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