Brett House - Strategy Without Execution is Hallucination: MarTech Start-Up & Acquisition Learnings
“If you fix and align the people around the right types of goals, the right types of organizational structure, you can start to harmonize your data, your stack and have everybody rowing in the same direction."- Brett House
In this special episode of No Hype, Allyson welcomes her new co-host Brett House. Brett is a VP at Neustar where he's responsible for the product and marketing strategy of data, MarTech and analytic solutions.
They get started by reflecting on their time at Nielsen together, Brett’s start-up experience and the cross-functionality of their roles. From Lou Reed to Neustar’s Brave New Worlds, Brett talks about his inspirations and what he’s excited to focus on in the episodes to come.
Allyson Dietz: Welcome to No Hype, the podcast about truth, science and the future of marketing brought to you by your host, Allyson Dietz...
Brett House: ...and Brett House.
AD: Today, we have a special episode of No Hype. We're here today to introduce my new co-host Brett House. Brett is a vice president at Neustar and our marketing solutions business unit and he's responsible for the product and marketing strategy of our data, MarTech and analytic solutions. He's been instrumental in the double digit growth of our business in the last couple of years as well. Before Neustar Brett and I actually worked together at another company that starts with the letter N, Nielsen. Brett joined Nielsen via the eXelate acquisition, where he'd helped transform eXelate on MarTech startup from a data as a service product, into a highly successful enterprise SaaS business, which was acquired by Nielsen.
On a personal note, Brett and I both love cycling, although he's more into the open road, whereas I prefer the peloton. Brett, welcome officially to the No Hype Podcast.
BH: Thanks Allyson. A pleasure to be here.
AD: We're excited to have you. Brett, you've had quite the career in the marketing and SaaS world as I just described. Can you share a little bit about your career path to date?
BH: Sure. I think I'll go back to when I got my MBA, post MBA world and I won't take you through every road, every path that I took along the way, but I really did get my start in the MarTech space in the early rich media world at a company called Uncast, which was like many of the rich media companies point role, eye blaster, eye wonder, eventually acquired by Seismic. That's where I got my start in terms of the digital marketing ecosystem post MBA. I had run a startup that helped get me into my, or get me through my MBA which was also in the marketing technology space but really early days it was even before the advent of ad networks and ad exchanges and DMP and such.
Started in the rich media space, took that experience all the way through to a company called eXelate, which many in the ad tech and MarTech world know a lot about. They were known as a data as a service or a data marketplace comparable to a Blue Chi and they transformed themselves to a DMP shortly before acquisition by Nielsen. So you saw a lot of that in this space with Blue Chi being acquired by Oracle, with Aggregate Knowledge being acquired by Neustar and by eXelate being acquired by Nielsen.
That was a terrific journey to be on, to be in that slightly mature startup space to be acquired by a much bigger organization and then to use that as a launchpad to build and create something new within that larger organization of Nielsen. That was really what brought me to Neustar is that that experience was very comparable to what I'm doing here at Neustar from a MarTech stack data and analytics perspective. That's the long and short of it.
AD: You said DMP in this episode, we won't get it into whether or not DMPs are dead, but it is something that we may talk about in future episodes. It's really interesting to hear you talk about your experience and that path, and particularly, it seems like you have a really strong interest in SaaS and the startup world, which experience would you say had the biggest impact on your career?
BH: I'd have to say it's that experience because when you're in a startup experience there's a lot of agility, there's a lot of speed. Oftentimes you're being reactive to rapid changes and making quick pivots and pretty heavily strategic decisions next to the coffee bar, for example, versus the requirement of larger, more matrix organizations of multiple stakeholders, multiple meetings. I came from that world of speed, agility, quick decision making, quick pivoting, which was eXelate and then joined a much larger, much more matrix organization and had to adjust not only my style, but the way that I worked, the way that I coordinated with other teams, with other people within the organization to really make it work smoothly.
And to also inject a little bit of the speed and flexibility that I took from that startup space into a larger, slightly more slowly moving organization. And there are times when you come across a little bit of friction because you want to push things forward. You want to make quick decisions, you want to have fewer steps ahead of you in terms of getting something, getting an idea to market, for example, but that evolution from startup mentality management style day-to-day in the office work style to a larger, more matrix organization like Nielsen was transformative for me, it taught me a lot about the business world, how to manage all types of teams, how to cross-functionally manage teams across a very big, very complex organization. And it really set the stage for me to going forward. I thought that was pretty transformative experience in my life.
AD: Yeah. It's interesting to hear you talk about a lot of those things. I feel like in our roles in particular, we've had to apply, well, one, we use a lot of those experiences around speed and agility. We get a lot done at Neustar so I can see why that has been relevant, but also you talked a little bit about the cross-functionality and I think one of our roles in particular, as it relates to the function that we play at Neustar is really requires us to work with product, with sales, with senior leadership all different types of individuals within the organization. And so we get to see and get exposed to a lot but at the same time just requires us to utilize those skills around working with different teams and different functions.
BH: Yeah. I think in the startup world, you get exposure to just really in the weeds exposure to every function, the silos are a little bit less deep, so to speak, so you're really closely interacting with the strategy leads, with the partnership leads, with the sales leads, with the product leads, with the head of finance, where some of that stuff might be a little bit more obtuse or a little bit further away from your day-to-day in a larger organization, just considering the layers between you and them.
With a startup you get exposure to all of that. And so it just gets you eat to at finger on the pulse of things that I think that I took from my MBA and finally saw coming to fruition in my professional life, was having my finger on the pulse of pretty strategic decisions being made in all aspects of the business not just a marketing role or a product role or a sales role. I think that's where that experience gave me a much broader holistic view of businesses and how you make businesses successful, how you grow an organization and how it takes multiple people in the same boat to make that happen, multiple functions.
And to do that in a larger organization's a bit more challenging because they're just much larger teams, they're much larger institutions. Getting everybody in the same room, hurting the cats and getting them all moving in the same direction's a bit more challenging, but you have to do that in bits and pieces as opposed to trying to do it across an entire organization which is what you do within a startup.
AD: One of the things that I think it requires you to learn is how to be scrappy and how to get stuff done. There may not always be a playbook that you have to follow and you have to figure out how do you work with these individuals? How do you work with this cross-functional team to make things happen? A great example, I think of being scrappy, I think relates to a lot of the ways that we work and the projects that we take on at Neustar. What would you say has been your most memorable project so far?
BH: I was thinking about this in advance of the podcast, and there's been a bunch and you and I have certainly worked on a lot of very interesting projects together but I'm a builder. Let me quote, Lou Reed between thought and expression lies a lifetime or another way to put that is a quote that strategy without execution is hallucination. I take those terms, which are very lofty expressions, poetic snippets, I take those terms to heart and I say, I've learned the hard way working at startups that you do have to be scrappy. You have to know how to build something.
What the moving parts are. You may not be an expert in every area, but you got to know how to build things and how to collect the resources, the people, and set the plan in place in order to bring that thing to life. And I think a good example of what we've done here at Neustar is Brave New Worlds. I know that's a topic that is near and dear to a lot of our hearts but really it came out of one of those hallway conversations saying we need to have a big blowout event. And then it evolved. We said, "Well, what is this event going to look like? How do we compete with the dream forces and the ramp ups of the world?"
It's not going to be anything of quite that size and scope to begin with, but how do you get something like this started? And what should we be putting together from a content perspective, from a people perspective, from a promotion perspective to really launch this rocket ship, so to speak? The first year we did this, which was in 2020 was a bit of a struggle because I was doing a lot of the tactical work in terms of, "Well, we got to build a website, we've got to build this and we've got our track talent."
I brought the team together and we went out and did a ton of outreach to bring some of the best and brightest in the marketing and analytics space together to try to bring some value to the audience so that it's not just, just like this podcast is really intended to be, it's not about industry platitudes and things that none of us are going to really learn from it's about value creation.
How do we share information through our own lens but importantly through the point of view of brands and agencies and partners and publishers in the analyst community, that's actually going to educate people and make them a little bit better at their jobs. That's where Brave New Worlds came from and I dug deep into my reading past and my jazz listening past to come up with inspiration of how you could make this something spontaneous and interesting and educational all at the same time. And in two years, we've attracted about 5,000 viewers because it's been virtual. It's been a pretty successful launch from scratch and a program that I'm excited to see moving forward.
AD: Yeah. You mentioned virtual because that was one of the things that has been an extra challenge as part of that as well, is that we're trying to drive engagement and making it fun and interesting and a great learning environment in a virtual world. We just wrapped up our second installment of Brave New Worlds as you said and all of that content is now on-demand at bravenewworlds.neustar. Just to talk a little bit more about those sessions and the content. What are some of those sessions that you feel that listeners should not miss?
BH: I was thinking three and I was going to make a comment about the virtual comment is that we're all dealing with virtual Zoom fatigue, video fatigue. But one thing I did learn is how difficult it is to produce a virtual event. In fact, I think it's a lot harder than producing a physical event.
AD: I could not agree more. It was way harder, especially when we had to decide to pivot which I think that's an interesting learning in and of itself is making those tough decisions about pivoting from an in-person event which we are all so excited to do in-person and to get face-to-face with industry contacts and partners, again, as soon as we can, but we made that tough decision to pivot to virtual and that wasn't an easy one.
BH: And within a week, maybe two weeks, we made a complete shift in what we were going to do from a production perspective, who we were going to be attracting to this event, et cetera. And it was a fun, fast, furious ride, but I think you can see the results in terms of the quality of content. Again, the value that it's generating for the people that are watching it. You don't go to something like that to hear platitudes or advertorial content from a sponsor. You go there to learn something and hopefully we amassed a good collection of the people that we think really are leading the way in the future of advertising, the future of analytics. Because our audience is super discerning. They're incredibly smart people that are leaders in their fields, whether it's data science, analytics, content, brand marketing, et cetera, and you got to impress them and that's difficult to do.
AD: Right. We just had Joanna O'Connell on the podcast in the previous episode and I know her session was really incredible. Do you want to just talk a little bit more about what you found interesting from her and maybe some of the other speakers?
BH: Yeah. I was going to mention that was probably, I didn't answer your question directly, but that was probably one of my favorite sessions was the Joanna O'Connell keynote, which interestingly without pre-reading or seeing any of her content ahead of time was very comparable to a lot of the thinking in predicting that we were doing internally around the future of advertising ecosystem, the primary challenges, whether it's data deprecation or otherwise that brands are facing, that the marketing world in general is facing. I thought she was excellent, very down to earth, very no nonsense.
AD: She always is.
BH: Yeah. I love her point where is like, there's no time to waste and I'm going to prove it. Then she goes on to say that you can't just hire someone, you've got to think holistically and you've got to think big because the changes that are happening in our ecosystem, the disruption that is happening in our ecosystem is big and it's tied to all of the data that we've been powering much of our marketing, entirely our addressable marketing in the past. She was like, you can't just hire someone to manage the cookie. Just to get some guy that manages the cookie problem. It's got to be a holistic cross-functional collection of legal operations, technology, marketing, C-suite.
AD: Data science.
BH: Data science. Those are the people that are going to be fundamentally having to answer for why is our audience reach plummeted? Why are we not able to measure effectively across all of these channels? Why don't we really know who our target audience is, or what household they're associated with? The death of the cookie shouldn't spell the end of consumer knowledge for brands. It's the end of one snippet of code that's been placed all over the internet and used for a long time but there's things that are going to replace it. But again, you have to think more broadly in terms of data deprecation across the span of marketing and how that's going to impact all of us going forward and how we should holistically think of our strategies beyond just simply the cookie.
AD: Yeah. I agree. I think she does a really nice job of talking about how historically we used the cookie and it wasn't always the best path forward. It was just what was available and it's what we were using. But we still haven't sorted out things like frequency and you've been obviously talking a lot about reach and how do you reach those consumers effectively, but how do you ensure that you don't keep inundating them with the same message over and over again? She definitely has a really strong point of view about there's ways for us to improve how we engage with our audiences and that customer experience and the future of that customer experience.
BH: And consumer experience I think that can be a hypee term, well, what is consumer experience? What's an omnichannel experience? What is these terms that we use to try to describe something? A lot of times I think anecdotally back to my own life and the experiences that I have with brands that I care about, with advertising, with content and at the end of the day what are we solving for when we're solving for all of these data identity challenges? We're solving for delivering experiences that actually are meaningful to people, that aren't disruptive, that are consented and you're raising your hand because you want to have that exposure to that brand.
If you're not solving for that then you're solving for the wrong problem. I think that's a very important point. It's like, let's bubble this up, let's take it 10,000 feet up and say, what is it that we really want to deliver? And then how do we define that term? You got to define what good customer experience is. It's not just your experience with the UI like an e-commerce website, it's your experience with a brand across every aspect of your life, every screen, physical, digital, et cetera. And it's very hard to do this. We're trying to solve for very challenging problems.
AD: Absolutely. And the world is changing in terms of the way that we do it, but it's also an opportunity, which I think is exciting. Can we also talk a little bit about analytics? As you know, that's what's near and dear to my heart. Were there sessions that were related to analytics that you found really interesting from Brave New Worlds?
BH: I'd have to say the A. Charles Thomas from Facebook who's the head of data science for Facebook. Knowing what's happening in the world with Facebook it's very interesting to hear his perspectives on what his key KPIs are in terms of driving engagement, content engagement, for example, how he sets up his organization for analytics and data-driven marketing success.
Because a lot of this ties back to fundamentally people and the people that are managing this on a day-to-day basis, we could have all the automation, all of the platforms and marketing stacks in the world but if your departments, whether it's your linear media team and your digital media team that are operating in budget silos that aren't communicating to one another as effectively as they should, or if it's your data science department, your marketing department in your privacy legal team, the way that you align people around larger goals of the organization is critical. Because if that doesn't work, everything else falls apart, and guess what it impacts? Consumer experience.
BH: We're going to see the breaks. We're going to see that ad that follows us around on every device for a product that either we're not interested that we already bought, or that we bought on somebody else's behalf. Something's happening here on the human side that's impacting the mouse traps, the platforms that are actually delivering that ad. If you fix and align the people around the right types of goals, the right types of organizational structure, you can start to harmonize your data, your stack and have everybody rowing in the same direction.
I think at the end of the day that drives good customer experience and I think that's really what A. Charles Thomas from Facebook was saying and he's got loads of experience working for USAA and other big organizations running these teams. It's to hear how people think about managing very large organizations and getting people all swimming in the same direction so to speak.
AD: We consistently keep finding that organization and organizational silos is a hurdle for sure. Obviously there's other issues like data and methodologies and just working through some of those technical aspects. But organization continues to be something that we hear and in fact, was a finding that we found in our research that we did with the MMA last year around what challenges do brands have to overcome in order to adopt solutions like multi-touch attribution and complicated analytics, getting your organization and getting everyone rowing in the same direction is really key in order to take those insights and actually take action from them.
BH: A lot of times it's those breaks and organizational setup and within people that block that ability to make a solution come to life. The solution itself may not happen if people aren't all aligned around what the objective, the goal and the output is going to be, what success looks like. People blame the solution instead of looking inward and saying, "Well, wait a minute, did we have everything set up, all the people aligned, all the platforms configured in the right way to ensure that this solution that we thought was going to be the golden goose succeeded?" Oftentimes you'll find a lot of breakages in that organizational structure or otherwise that's really preventing the solution from succeeding rather than the solution itself being a problem.
AD: Right. Let's talk a little bit about what we think listeners want to hear and what we're planning to cover in the upcoming episodes. We've been talking a little bit about looking back and what we've done in the past year which I think is great. And some of the incredible things that you might expect going forward is well, but are there certain topics that you want to see us cover in upcoming episodes?
BH: I think three come to mind. One is the back to the future topic of contextual advertising.
AD: Back to the future. I like that one.
BH: I remember interviewing for contextual advertising jobs 15 years ago when that was a thing that, when that was the next big thing along with programmatic media and what we're seeing is that you can do de-identified advertising that's aligned with the context that people are associating themselves with and start deducing pattern recognition in terms of how interested are they in this content? Hopefully it's a solution that's a lot more interesting than third party cookie targeting where we were talking about this yesterday, where you're thrown into a segment based on a visit to a particular site.
Just because I'm visiting cars.com doesn't necessarily mean that I'm an auto intender or USA Today Travel doesn't mean that I'm planning a vacation. But if you start to connect a bunch of contextual signals in a de-identified world, together you can start to predict intent and consideration whether it's intent to consume more content like that, or if it's intent to buy a product. It does give you some of the same predictive capabilities without all of the problems associated with cookies and privacy.
I think that's a big topic. It to me opens up the door for a conversation around the open web and we know that 80% of media spend is against 20% of total media. Because a lot of it's happening in these premium publisher authenticated environments, the Walt Garden authenticated environments increasingly retail media networks, et cetera. All of these are authenticated environments. What about the rest of the media which is 80% out there that we all interact with every day? Can you target off of that? Can you have marketing programs that reach that scale of audience in an accurate way?
You're not sacrificing accuracy but in a relatively de-identified privacy safe way. I think that contextual play it's contextual 2.0 or contextual 3.0 is really interesting. I think clean room in terms of the topic of this podcast which is the No Hype Podcast and discerning what is real versus what is smoke and mirrors. There's certainly a lot of clean room smoke and mirrors out there and there's a lot of different definitions of what privacy clean room tech really is.
AD: Single party clean room, multi-party clean room. There are a lot of terms being thrown around that I think I'm guessing a lot of our listeners are starting to become up to speed on, but I think it's still a little bit chicken before the egg kind of thing and I think there's an opportunity for us to unpack that and to help everyone understand the hype associated with clean rooms and the role that they're going to play.
BH: We talk a lot about the terms, it's data lakehouse, it's data vault and data bunker and clean rooms, single party and multi-party. I'm like, why are we creating all of these terms to define all of these things that are all without really discussing what are we solving for? We're solving for data collaboration in a privacy safe way which does not involve data moving between point A and point B.
AD: Also, the use cases is so associated with it. We talk a lot about utilizing clean rooms in order to enable attribution or analytics. I think really understanding what is the goal, not just a little bit about what are you trying to achieve but what are you going to use it for and why does the clean room play a role and what is the use case you're going to apply it to?
BH: It's not just a solution, it's a privacy solution. It's partly that, but it's got to be more than that. Again, what is the use case for the advertiser and what is real, what's not, and when should we expect for this to become something that advertisers are actually requesting and asking about? I'm not fully convinced that there's a lot of demand from the market. I think we're a little ahead of the curve. People are still looking to how the hell do I solve the cookie problem?
The clean room problem and solve our identity and all these great theoretical privacy tech solutions, some which have been built, we're not seeing a ton of demand yet, but I think it's skating to where the puck is going. I think that's a really great one to really delineate that and make sure we understand really what this is solving for and why it's important. Then the other one, I think, and this is something that I know Allyson was supposed to your heart is brand health and brand awareness in those top funnel metrics that every big, especially CPG brand, that big brands around the world think about.
Of how do you reach a broad enough audience to put as many people into that top of the funnel so that as you move people through the funnel, so to speak, whatever the shape of that funnel might be, a cylinder or otherwise, that you start with a big enough pie to hit your key revenue targets and KPIs at the bottom of the funnel from a conversion perspective. But I think there's a lot of evolution.
AD: I think it goes beyond that. I think you're talking about short-term objectives and I always say what you're talking about is really how do I make our VP of finance or our CFO happy? I think that there's a lot of initiatives and a lot of things that marketers are trying to achieve which is I want this brand to exist well beyond my time here at this company. That also is how do I spend my advertising dollars in a way that builds brands for future generations?
BH: Thinking long-term versus reacting to the street in the short-term thinking that drives so many decisions in the boardroom. We've got to make a decision because we've got these quarterly goals to hit and are you sacrifice long-term strategy, long-term brand health that is going to have X, Y, and Z benefits for short-term gain. We think about that with children all the time. When we raise our kids, we say the short-term pain for long-term gain.
AD: Are you in the long-term yet? Because I'm still in the short-term with my little kids but I know yours are older than mine.
BH: There's just moments.
AD: You're almost there.
BH: Moments where you're like, I don't really want to have to do this on a Saturday night, give this long talk to my 14-year-old about the value of friendship and relationships and blah, blah, blah. But you know that conversation might be that one conversation that he remembers 15 years from now and it will at least set some foundation or framework that he can go as a guidepost as to how he can alter his behavior for the long-term. Even if in the short-term he's putting up resistance to dad's feedback.
AD: Well, and that's really what marketers are choosing between oftentimes of how do I invest my advertising dollars for the short-term because I know they'll have a quick return versus how do I earmark some of those experiences for a longer term play? I think it's important. You have to do both and you have to do both well. It's not an easy job the CMO has, for sure.
AD: Well, Brett, thank you so much for spending some time with me so that our listeners could get to know you a bit. I'm really looking forward to chatting with you and our future guests soon. I just wanted to say, welcome to the podcast.
BH: Thank you. Glad to be here, onwards and forwards.