“It Wasn’t a Job, It Was a Cult!”: An Oral History of DoubleClick

This story ran in the mighty AdExchanger last week attributed to “an external contributor who prefers not to be identified.” I thought more people would suspect me, but apparently they don’t read the Gartner blog network.

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Suddenly, last summer, Google announced it was erasing the DoubleClick name from its product portfolio. So ends 23 years of ad tech myth and legend that coincides with the ad-supported internet itself.

DoubleClick rode the dot-com boom to heights of overcapitalization and came crashing down with everyone else in 2000. It created New York’s Silicon Alley, had outrageous parties and heavenly bills and saw just about every future ad tech luminary pass through its cult.

The iconic sign that loomed over Broadway and 22nd Street during the days of the boom defined an era:

“DOUBLECLICK WELCOMES YOU TO SILICON ALLEY”

It was an ad network and ad server before anyone knew what those were. It provided a sales team and infrastructure for advertisers to buy ads from multiple publishers in a single location, target them using criteria such as location or time of day, insert them into web pages automatically and get reports. It has quietly dominated ad serving since it started and thrived as a brand since being acquired by Google in 2007.

Success is obvious in reverse. But in the summer of 1995, two engineers named Kevin “KO” O’Connor and Dwight Merriman were sitting in O’Connor’s 2,500-square-foot basement in Alpharetta, Ga., looking for something to do. They had cashed out a networking startup in Ohio and moved south to raise families.

Kevin O’Connor, co-founder: Dwight and I came up with hundreds of ideas and narrowed them down. The original concept was a network of publications, like a cable subscription model. Then Dwight looked at how media monetizes and said advertising could be bigger. We flipped the idea into a network of advertisers.

David Gwozdz, sales director: Kevin called me and said, “I understand you’re a good ad sales guy.” I went over to his house to tell him no thanks – and ended up taking the job. Kevin met my wife, and the first thing he said was, “I’m going to make your life hell.” We worked seven days a week, morning to night.

O’Connor: Dwight was coding, and I was learning about advertising and direct marketing from textbooks. I was going to the library reading Ad Age and Adweek to see if we had any competitors.

Gwozdz: At that time, the ad server was an ISDN line and a 486 PC on Dwight’s desk with the cover off, because it kept overheating.

O’Connor: I read in an article that an agency called Poppe Tyson was doing the same thing. I thought, “Holy crap!” and called a guy there named Dave Carlick.

David Carlick, EVP, Poppe Tyson: Our interactive group was called DoubleClick. The name was invented by [Poppe Tyson CEO] Fergus O’Daly. It wasn’t a good name. It’s an old Apple term. A click on a URL is a single click, not a double click.

O’Connor: It turned out they didn’t have any tech yet. It was the classic, “Let’s launch an idea and see how the market reacts.” We were just completing the product, and they had a team of four selling ads. We decided we should work together.

Carlick: There was a long discussion about whether it should be based in New York or Silicon Valley. We decided on New York and started the whole Silicon Alley thing. The story is that when Kevin and his wife saw the tiny apartment they would have to live in, they cried.

After a tentative start, the company started to, um, click but banged into sales teams from websites like Netscape and Excite, which were Poppe Tyson’s major clients. So Fergus O’Daly decided to spin off DoubleClick into a separate subsidiary with Kevin O’Connor as CEO.

O’Connor: We were 50% owned by an ad agency. No one liked that. We tried to sell the company to someone else. There was a deal with Yahoo back in 1996 – we wanted $100 million and they offered $95 million. They wouldn’t budge.

Kevin Ryan, CFO (later CEO): I was thinking about starting an ad network, so I met with Kevin and Dwight. I thought they were very good – they had a six-month head start. So I became employee No. 12. We grew very quickly. Four years later, we had 2,000 employees in 25 countries.

Gwozdz: I was still in Atlanta, in a little office usually by myself. I remember I went to a sales meeting in Colorado Springs, and there were 200 people in the room. I didn’t understand how big this was getting.

O’Connor: Everything started to go through the roof – a lot of revenue, with hefty margins. We needed capital. The mantra was “get big fast.”

Gwozdz: We started picking up pub after pub. We were an upstart with really good tech no one else had. We could target by location, time of day, exclusion. People would light up. They loved the reporting.

Bill Wise, director, financial planning (later VP/GM): KO would get up in these meetings and he was so aggressive – we loved it. He said, “We are the company that is changing advertising and media. We won’t stop until we have world domination.” It wasn’t a job, it was a cult – a feel-good cult.

DoubleClick went public in 1998 on the Nasdaq exchange under the ticker symbol DCLK. It was the beginning of the bubble’s last bleat. The Nasdaq rose 86% in 1999. It soared 5x from 1,000 to 5,000 in the five years before 2000. There were 15-20 dot-com parties every week in San Francisco. About 70% of digital ad dollars came from VC-funded dot-coms. Of course, few people suspected what was coming. They were just trying to find a place to sit.

Wise: There was a temp who was working under [VP of sales] Wenda Millard – a great kid – he was sitting in the hallway. One day somebody put a “Kids in the Hall” poster up behind his desk and crossed out the “s.” He was known as the “Kid in the Hall.”

Brad Bender, director of product management (later VP): They put me where they’d moved a copier out. It was the world’s smallest desk. I was the “Kid in the Hall.” The executive team was right around the corner from me. I remember Kevin O’Connor came by with clients and said, “Look, we’re growing so fast, we even have a ‘Kid in the Hall.’”

Wise: Eventually we maxed out the space and threatened Manhattan that we were going to move to Jersey City. They ended up giving us tons of tax credits to keep us, since we were the founders of Silicon Alley. We built out the space on 33rd Street and 10th Avenue.

Scott Knoll, director of business development (later VP/GM): 33rd Street was a brand-new building. It had a climbing wall, a multimillion-dollar basketball court. We had to build a special platform to muffle the noise for the tenant under us. It was spectacular. There was a view of the Hudson River. Bleachers. Fiberglass backboards, a scoreboard and lighting.

Wise: DoubleClick had the best parties. KO was at sales conferences playing guts and taking stock options as currency.

Ryan: We went all-out at Halloween. Everyone came to the office in costume. One year I showed up as a mummy. I had trouble getting a taxi and I couldn’t get into the building. I had to remind the manager that he knew me. Then 200 of us marched up Fifth Avenue at 10 a.m. in our costumes.

Then the company got a real scare. It decided to merge with Abacus in 1999 for $1.7 billion. Abacus was a consumer data co-op that tracked the catalog buying habits of most US households. Trouble was, it used personally identifiable information, which DoubleClick proposed to map to its (anonymous) cookies.

O’Connor: Abacus was a great company that had a tremendous amount of offline purchase data. That acquisition was about ways to combine offline and online consumer purchase data. We weren’t wrong about it. But we came up against privacy concerns.

Wise: USA Today published a story that DoubleClick was going to try to marry online and offline data. It got picked up by other publications and got a lot of attention.

Knoll: Abacus was frustrating. It was a situation where the influence of media was major but they didn’t have the story right. Nothing had actually been done yet.

Wise: KO took the fall, as a great leader does. He cared more about the company than his own legacy. It was sad how it went down.

O’Connor: I can’t say Abacus was overblown. It is what it is. People were afraid. I left [in July 2000] because I couldn’t see a path to where I could enjoy my job. I’m a product guy and an engineer. I like building things. I was a reluctant CEO. In the end my job was just dealing with politicians, the media and lawyers. I wasn’t good at it. I was burned out. Fortunately, Kevin Ryan loved dealing with those folks, so he stepped up from president to CEO.

What went up came down. In the 30 months after the market peaked on March 10, 2000, the Nasdaq fell 78%. Between 2000 and 2001, the Super Bowl went from airing 16 dot-com spots to three, two of which were job-hunting sites. By one account, CPMs for banner ads fell from $50 to $5. More people were leaving the Bay Area in panic than arriving with hope in their hearts.

Ryan: Most of our publisher clients went bankrupt. It was Pets.com times 100. Those were our clients. We did seven rounds of layoffs and went from 2,000 to 1,000 people. We turned over the entire management team. A lot of them couldn’t do the sixth round and still feel good about it.

Bender: It was a challenging time. It wasn’t clear when we were going to be done with the cuts. A lot of people I valued as colleagues and friends weren’t around after that period. But it was a healthy retrenchment.

Ryan: We lost 30% of revenue but eliminated 50% of cost. So by 2004-05, we were actually profitable.

Ari Paparo, VP, rich media: When I joined [in 2004], there was no structured onboarding. My boss quit on my third day. The layoffs were done, but it was just a crappy company. It was dysfunctional, engineering products that were incredibly bad.

Ryan: In 2005, our valuation was very low, just like everyone. The board felt we were undervalued, so they hired Lazard and interviewed 50 buyers.

Paparo: The company announced publicly it was going to look at strategic alternatives nine or 10 months before [SF-based private equity firm] Hellman & Friedman closed. Even Google bid a fraction of what they later paid.

O’Connor: Google’s perception was that we were a sales company. They thought tech could only be built in Silicon Valley. They were wrong – as they realized later.

Ryan: DoubleClick sold at a 50% premium to the stock price. Kevin and Dwight and I didn’t think that was a good price. We thought the board might be wrong. They didn’t know that the ad volumes had already turned up.

Paparo: David Rosenblatt became CEO. He quickly made some hard decisions. He sold off the mail division, closed Abacus in Europe and sold Abacus, sold marketing automation. The product team was a lean mean machine. There was accountability and process.

Bender: Hellman & Friedman came in and clarified the lines for each of the component parts. They focused on the ad tech use case. They were clear.

Gone was the 33rd Street pleasure palace, aka “Click City,” replaced by a less lavish space on Eighth Avenue. Abacus was sold to Epsilon. DoubleClick was shopped and Google jumped. Its expansion from search into display was not beloved by all. Microsoft objected before the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust that “this acquisition would give a single firm exclusive control over the largest database of information on individual online behavior the world has ever known.”

But the deal closed in April 2007, with Google paying $3.1 billion in cash. By any measure, it was a very smart move, expanding Google’s power in programmatic advertising. It also domesticated the demon.

Paparo: DoubleClick was on the eighth floor of the Eighth Avenue location, and Google was coincidentally in the same building on the fourth floor. When the acquisition happened, the first thing they did was wheel in truckloads of snacks. That was their first impact.

Bender: Google operates like a small company, even though it isn’t a small company.

Paparo: Everything changed under Google. It had a big impact on the company’s culture. It was more engineering-driven but more whimsical. Less business-oriented. Google cut a quarter to a third of the jobs, and they were unwilling to allow legacy tech to survive.

Bender: I brought a couple ideas to strategic planning to fund, including yield management and the ad exchange. The exchange was ultimately brought to fruition by Scott Spencer and Michael Rubenstein and became AdX.

Paparo: There were no crazy parties. No shenanigans. People had kids. The expense accounts were not like they were before the crash. But our class made a lot more money. The early guys had more fun, but they ended up with stock that was worthless.

O’Connor: It is viewed as one of the most successful M&A deals ever. I’m happy it lasted so long and continues today under the Google brand.

Bender: It’s bittersweet for me to say goodbye to the DoubleClick name after 20 years. But it delivered on the mission of becoming the operating system for advertising.

What I Learned from 5 Years at Gartner

Last month, I put this article up on LinkedIn Pulse and went on with my day. The response was extraordinary — far more energetic than I expected. Over 10,000 views, 1,000+ likes, 190 shares and 189 comments (and counting). The comments were particularly fulsome and encouraged me to be more honest in the future. For now, in case you missed it:

Monday — on what would have been my five-year anniversary at Gartner — I left to join Dentsu Aegis Network. It was a good span at a well-run company doing God’s (technical) work. It was simply time.

When I was a management consultant, I couldn’t describe what I did. Not to my parents, not to strangers. Not in a way that convinced them I had a real occupation, and maybe I didn’t.

Try describing what an “industry analyst” does: “Research, writing, 30-minute consulting engagements.”

“But you can’t solve any problem in 30 minutes.”

“Just watch me.”

“You don’t know anything about the company.”

“I know something.”

“But — but — but –”

The assumption most people make is that marketing problems are unique. Perfect knowledge of the context, the company, its tech stack is required to construct a solution. This assumption is false.

Marketing problems are not unique. There are just a few of them, with variations. It’s the solutions that get complicated.

Anyone can make good progress on a problem in 30 minutes, but they have to really know the problem. Most of the time, they don’t.

My particular areas of coverage were ad campaign measurement, including multitouch attribution (MTA) and marketing mix modeling (MMM); other marketing analytics; and programmatic advertising, particularly data management platforms (DMP) and demand-side platforms (DSP).

So most of my inquiries took the form of: “How can I measure the impact of my ad campaigns?” … or, “How do I organize my campaign data for targeting and measurement?”

Those were the real questions. See what I mean: Not unique. Any marketer could (should) ask them.

The trouble is, the way they are originally phrased in the meeting invitation makes them sound like some fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls. “We’re in the process of spinning up a 360 view of the customer and we need to find a universal ID we can map to our CRM and MCCM but the customer files are all sitting in the data warehouse we think …”

Real question: “How do I organize my customer data?”

There is no 360 view of the customer. Give it up. Marketing profiles are by nature incomplete. They should be. We’re not building an encyclopedia. If we did, we wouldn’t have time to read it. We need only one piece of information: the right one.

  • She really wants a pair of red shoes now. She’s not price sensitive.
  • He secretly wants to test drive that Tesla but has to convince his boyfriend it’s safe.
  • The only thing he really loves are Bernese mountain dogs.

These are far from 360 but are perfect for marketing.

Most clients of analyst firms do not use the service enough. They mistake it for a Delphic Oracle that is sometimes wrong, rather than a research tap that is often right. Ask a question in advance. Most analysts — like me — spend time preparing for the call. This is called research-on-demand.

Sometimes I think research is my only real talent. And then I remember that I am also a dog trainer. And then — then I realize I am very bad at that.

Vendors sometimes believe analyst firms do P.R. for them or they can pay their way onto a Wave or Magic Quadrant. I have been deep inside the machine, my friends. This belief is not true.

There’s not even much of a benefit to being a client, unless you want to use the service as a service, like other clients. It can help you craft your story, improve your pitch, not sound like everyone else; anticipate end user needs, murmurs in the market; help you emerge from the bubble wrap of hermetic V.C.-and-conference-speak, which seems — from what I can see — to be much better at building brilliant solutions to invisible problems than at finding problems that need to be solved.

Most marketers are not advanced. The real disease we all have is an inability to admit we have no idea what real gangstas are talking about.

“I just wish I were more technical,” a very well-regarded ad tech analyst told me recently.

“We all do,” I said. And it’s true.

Our agenda this year should be to admit what we don’t know, not promote what we do. Don’t nod along if the point is obscure. The talker is faking it anyway. Nobody knows the difference between A.I. and machine learning or why they’re conflated or how to get to a local maxima or why you need XG Boost today when a simple gradient descent algorithm worked yesterday … it’s okay.

If you knew it all you’d be dead, right? There is perfect knowledge in silence. It takes a lifetime to be a good mystic too.

Most vendor briefings are just not very good. They are too long. They wander from the point. From too many it is impossible — and I say this as an intelligent insider who knows a thing or two about your market — completely impossible to say what the product does, exactly.

You don’t do everything. You don’t sell to everyone. Pick your fight. The best predictor I know of a doomed start-up is not a weak board or a psychotic founder, it is a polished pitch deck.

The best start-ups I’ve met are modest and clear, friendly and fairly honest. They do not spend five slides telling me that Millennials crave experience and mobile is the new Web. They do not say the DMP or email or apps are dead. They do not say anything is dead or that everyone else “just doesn’t get it.”

Above all, they do not say they have no competitors.

Think about it, people. Who has no competitors? Who? I’ll tell you. People who are in a market that doesn’t exist. Delusionals. Hallucinators.

Use 12 slides. Don’t have any set-up. Tell me what you do. Name your three competitors. Say what about your tech is proprietary, original, or interesting. Explain the things you’re going to improve. Describe your funding. I liked a demo, if there’s time.

Maybe once or twice a year, I encountered a new company that seemed to me like a winner. I’m trying to think why. They had very little spin and a lot of technical detail, but not as hype. They seemed to be engineers talking to a blogger rather than sales people who had read some white papers. They were somewhat awkward, informal. And their products all emerged from a technical discovery – a thesis, an experimental approach, an application of some new platform to an persistent problem.

A problem like: “How do I reactivate dormant customers?” or “How can I link records faster?” or “What is the real LTV?”

And they all wanted to learn. What have you heard? Is this thing needed? Are we lost in emotion?

Good products take off fast. They surprise their creators with momentum.

If I can indulge in a reflection, I also learned some things about myself. It is important to manage burnout, whatever your age. Working life is a marathon. I’m not talking about getting enough sleep or eating right or exercising; you know that. I mean in the long run, over years, managing a build-up of stress that tears you down from the inside until — one day — you realize you simply can not make another phone call, write another document.

The only way to recover from this situation is to take time off work. As much time as you can afford.

But don’t let yourself get there. You can avoid it. Take vacations. Cultivate a hobby that has nothing to do with your work. Get a Bernese mountain dog. Get married. Hike alone.

Don’t fight fear. Live bravely. Smile more. What we forget about the Hero’s Journey is that it does not change the world. That is not the point.

The journey changes us. We are our only real problem.

Martin Kihn

Call me Marty. And hello.

I am an author, digital marketer, ad agency alum, former management consultant, and programmatic advertising pundit. I was born in Zambia and moved too often, ending up in Michigan. I consider myself to be a Midwestern Gotham-manque. After college, I stormed NYC and was a fact-checker at Spy, reporter for Forbes, feature writer for pubs like New York, GQ and the New York Times.

My best-known writing job was as Head Writer for a program called Pop-Up Video on MTV Networks. We were nominated for a Daytime Emmy, and my mother has a picture of me and then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani. His tan is smoother.

After business school, I became a management consultant and published an irreverent memoir of that experience called House of Lies. This book later formed the basis of a Showtime series of the same name starring Don Cheadle as a highly stylized version of myself named Marty Kaan. It ran from 2012-2016.

You can see me on the right side of the stage here with the stars and producers of the show:

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My second memoir was a send-up of self-help books called A$$hole: How I Got Rich and Happy By Not Giving a Damn About Anyone & How You Can Too. It was in development for years at Warner Bros. but never quite happened. However, it was a genuine best-seller in Germany, where I hope they caught the irony.

My most recent memoir is Bad Dog (A Love Story). Altogether less snarky and more emotionally satisfying — at least, to me — this book told the story of my beloved Bernese mountain dog, Hola, who taught me how to be a sober man by training me for our Canine Good Citizen certification. It too was in development (at NBC) for a time.

Professionally, I’ve worked on the analytics and measurement side of the digital advertising business since 2004, at agencies in NYC and Minneapolis. Currently, I’m a Research V.P. at Gartner, covering advertising technology and digital marketing analytics.

Much of my professional writing, which has won internal prizes (twice), sits behind the Gartner firewall. I’m also one of the firm’s most-read bloggers, and I contribute pieces from time to time to various worthy sites like the mighty AdExchanger.

My passions in life are modern ballet, particularly NYC Ballet and this person, and Bernese mountain dogs. I live in Katonah, NY with my wife, the singer-songwriter Julia Douglass, our BMD Jordan, and this rather dominating personality, Jerry:

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