The Undercover Ad Man
Of all the “if you build it, they will come,” social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, Tumblr seemed the most advertising-averse. Floppy-haired founder David Karp memorably betrayed a visceral distaste for the stuff. It “really turns our stomachs,” he said in 2010, following that up with a vow not to become “wildly profitable” by slapping an AdSense ad on the otherwise elegant dashboard of all 80 million Tumblr blogs. But it seems as though the microblogging site’s methodical approach toward making money has paid off—thanks in part to guidance from Rick Webb, a 20-year veteran of the ad industry and co-founder of digital consultancy Barbarian Group, who was attracted to Tumblr for its aversion to the “crap” ads that permeate the web.
Tumblr, founded in 2007, released its first paid products (Radar and Spotlight) earlier this year, which offered, “exactly what people wanted, the ability to amplify the message to a larger audience—but they hadn’t built a business around it,” he said.
Not long after Mr. Webb’s arrival, Mr. Karp was showing up on Advertising Week panels next to reps from Pepsi, convincingly crowing about the “brave new world” his platform offered for “native” ads—Silicon Alley’s new favorite synergy. (Unlike intrusive interstitials or annoying banners, native ads help brands capture users’ attention by forcing them to act like any other publisher and create content worthy of getting passed around.) “All we do is ask for your birthday,” said Mr. Webb. “We don’t sell ads against you getting a divorce or getting engaged; we’re trying to do it without selling the soul.”
And unlike the fall 2011 Fashion Week flameout, in which brands eager to advertise on Tumblr were turned off by the dearth of ways to measure the effectiveness of their efforts, Tumblr now has analytics options. One is an in-house service that shows off the impact brands can get from ad-spend metrics—like how long your post lives before it stops getting reblogged, which the company is eager to show off. Union Metrics, which offers a similar service for Twitter, has also licensed Tumblr’s firehose of data. Its service, which is currently in beta, helps brands capitalize on where conversations are happening with their product and influence pick-up.
During Mr. Webb’s short tenure, Tumblr hired its first global head of sales, poaching Groupon’s senior vice president of sales Lee Brown. Listed beneath the site’s many job openings for engineers, you now see postings seeking “evangelists” in ad-friendly categories like consumer electronics and home decor. “We’ve had people come up to us like, ‘Don’t ever put ads on the platform!’ Well, we must be doing it right, because we already do,” he said.
As for Mr. Karp’s infamous queasiness, Mr. Webb said that, as a product guy, “David was speaking as individual who uses the internet and watches TV. Every once in a while, one of the TV ads surprises and delights you. How often does that happen on the internet?” Part of the reason, he went on to explain, is that the $50 billion in brand advertising on TV “is not moving over” to the internet, where it’s still direct advertising. But in a way, Tumblr’s insistence that advertisers go native and use the same tools as users—eschewing invasive behavioral advertising or geotargeting—has helped attract big clients like Adidas. Consumer packaged goods and automobile companies are also coming onboard, making Tumblr suddenly feel up to the size of its $800 valuation.
Right now, noted Mr. Webb, it’s “only really appropriate for big brand advertisers looking for a large demographic. Can we ever just buy America? Can we ever just buy Brazil? That is probably a thing they would like to do.”