James Rooke, General Manager of Effectv, joins Cross Screen Media CEO Michael Beach to share his thoughts on topics including how the industry should be approaching proof of performance, breaking down the silos between linear and digital, and the future of addressable TV. Watch our latest ScreenBytes Executive Interview here and read the full transcript below!
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Michael Beach: Hi James, welcome to the show.
James Rooke: Thanks for having me.
MB: Excellent. We’ll start you off with an icebreaker that we ask all of our guests. What was your first job?
JR: For my first real job out of college I joined Ernst & Young in the UK out of the London office and joined their consulting practice, really because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and I thought why not go and get a broad set of experiences, getting to see lots of different companies, and maybe that would help me understand what I wanted to do next. The specific team I joined was a hardcore team that was focused on 10 and 12-week analysis and design projects, which is going to companies and do current state analysis of what’s going on, identify pain points of root causes, go do future state design of what the answers should be, business case and implementation plan. I did that across all different types of industries, like oil and gas, financial services, and retail. That was my introduction and my training ground to start my career.
MB: How did you get from the consulting side to the media space?
JR: I got an opportunity to move from the UK to the US. I’d never been to New York before and I got a call from Ernst & Young saying, “Your skillset is needed in the US. Do you want to come over for a year?” I was going to say no and my dad said, “The worst thing that could happen is you go over there, you don’t like it, you come back,” so I said yes. It has been 18 years that I’ve been here. I moved across with Ernst & Young to join their media entertainment practice doing those same types of projects as I did in the UK and then spent the next four years working across the whole media supply chain.
I lived in LA for three years working within Warner Brothers to help scale their home video division, as DVDs were the hot thing at the time back in 2003, then working with Walmart as they were looking to stand up their first digital video store, and then into book publishing, cable networks, and MVPDs. Digital was the common theme across all of them. 2003 to 2008 was the time where this thing called digital was becoming a word that people were scratching their heads and saying, “I guess we’d better do something about this.” My work was with more traditional companies that were looking to understand what this word digital meant and how they should pivot their businesses accordingly.
But after a while, I decided that I didn’t want to be a life consultant, and so I moved, as we say in consulting, to the client-side and joined Time Warner Cable in their media division running the strategy business, the strategy practice. From there I went to FreeWheel, decided I wanted to go work at a venture-backed company and go scale something. I got the opportunity to join FreeWheel in around 2011 or 2012 and spent the next seven years of my career there.
MB: That’s great. And that was pre-acquisition to Comcast?
JR: That was pre-acquisition. I got brought into the executive team to set up a new business, which was an advisory business. At the time, the board was looking at ways to diversify revenue, and FreeWheel was still pretty early. They wanted someone that had been in consulting, that understood the client base that FreeWheel was going after, which was the larger programmers and MVPDs. I was silly enough to take a big pay cut and come in and try to scale something. It was three years prior to acquisition. I built that team. Then FreeWheel asked me to build out the marketplace business, which is now the largest part of the FreeWheel business, so I did that. I then became chief revenue officer at FreeWheel.
Then the acquisition happened, and after that, a couple of other acquisitions happened, so I was asked to take the FreeWheel software business, the sell-side software business, and really the ad server business. We made an acquisition of a supply-side platform called StickyAds out of France, and then VisibleWorld, which was a company focused on household addressable advertising. I took those three assets, merged them together into a single global sell-side software entity, and managed that until I left at the end of 2019.
MB: That’s great. What a tremendous success. FreeWheel’s all the way back to being a great acquisition. Would you mind giving our group a sense of where Effectv fits, today, overall in the Convergent TV industry, and then more about your role there?
JR: Sure. I’m responsible for running Effectv. We’re a 3,000-plus person media company that works every day to bring our assets together and deliver audiences for marketers more effectively than they can get from other places. We do that across 66 markets across the US. The Effectv business is part of Comcast Advertising.
Comcast Advertising has two major companies: one is FreeWheel, which we just talked about, and the other is Effectv. FreeWheel is primarily focused on software, both buy-side and sell-side, and the marketplace business. Effectv is the media entity. We bring together a scaled, premium inventory that’s both television and streaming inventory, and leverage the first-party deterministic data assets that we’ve got. So, we’re able to go to clients, enable them to plan, target, deliver, and then prove performance wherever that audience is.
MB: Excellent, and how do the two companies work together?
JR: Firstly, they’re both under the same umbrella of Comcast Advertising, but they’re separate companies with separate capabilities and separate missions. That’s important because FreeWheel, as you know, has such a significant role to support television and its evolution as the world moves from traditional into IP-based video execution. The neutrality of FreeWheel for the industry is critical.
On one hand, our relationship with FreeWheel is exactly the same as it is for any other MVPD or programmer, or anyone else that uses FreeWheel from a software standpoint. They’re a strategic software to us, they’re our ad server, but we treat them like that and they treat us like that, so FreeWheel can continue their mission as being software for the industry. That’s number one.
Number two, however, is that since I came from one side to the other, I’ve got the privilege of understanding both businesses. There’s a lot that I’m trying to do to cross-pollinate learnings from across the business as it pertains to the transformation that I’m driving Effectv on, as I move it from being a more local ad sales company to an audience delivery company. There’s a lot of experiences that the FreeWheel team has that I think our team can benefit from.
For example, in 2020 we started to light up our inventory so it could be executed with national holding companies and with some political agencies through programmatic pipes. That’s not something that Effectv’s done before. FreeWheel has lots of experience, not just from a technology standpoint, but from how you set up your operations the right way, and how you think about yield and inventory, et cetera.
I think the ability to cross-pollinate learnings where Effectv can move faster at driving against the pivot points that we need to is great. The underlying reason to want to do that is that we’re all under the Comcast Advertising umbrella. It’s really great for our talent to learn from each other in ways that are good for career development and all the above. That’s the second thing I’ll say.
The third thing is there are examples, not many, but there are examples where clients say, “Hey, we know that Comcast Advertising has a number of assets that sit under it.” Recently the sales capability of Xumo, which Comcast acquired pretty recently, came under the Comcast Advertising umbrella, reporting up to my Effectv team. And the client says, “We want to be able to simplify how we work with you against a broader relationship that covers software and media.”
So, we collaborate there, but only through the lens of how to make it easier for a client to engage with us, recognizing there are sets of different companies that sit under Comcast Advertising. In the same way, you think about Comcast as a broader entity, we partner closely with our sister company at NBCUniversal and look for ways that we can simplify how marketers engage with Comcast more broadly based on the assets we have under the overall umbrella.
MB: Excellent. I definitely want to dig into the addressable, and what you see the future there in a moment, but one thing first. A couple of months back, you and I both presented at the 4A’s Decisions conference, and you talked about a three-part framework for buyers and sellers in a cross-screen world. Do you want to walk us through your thoughts on that?
JR: Yeah. Firstly, I enjoyed our conversation at the 4A’s. For me, there are a series of pivot points that I’m driving the company against, and they all fit under the umbrella of moving Effectv from being a local ad sales company to an audience delivery company. It’s an easy statement to make, but what does that mean in reality? There are three, as you said, core pillars or pivot points that we’re driving across that we think matter for Effectv, but more broadly that matter for our clients.
The first one is accelerating the shift from buying content as a proxy for audience to buying audiences, so moving from content to audience-based executions enabled by quality data. The second one is moving from linear and digital video, seen as two separate things, to delivering everything against multi-screen inventory. In other words, taking away the concept of linear and digital for those that say, “I’m a marketer, I want to reach an audience, and I want to deliver that audience wherever that audience is, agnostic of the screen that it’s being delivered on.”
Then, the third one is if you’re going to live into that value proposition, you have to be able to move from a world where GRPs are the currency of how buying and selling take place to impressions because impression is the equalizer. It’s the only thing that enables you to scale an audience based on multi-screen execution. So, that’s the three-part framework that I think about every day with regard to how we move our company and move the industry along those pivot points. And the reason why is because I strongly believe that doing so is going to set up the television industry, those that are in multi-screen video as a marketing format, to be able to deliver better results for the marketers that we serve, and that’s good for marketers and obviously good for those that serve those marketers.
MB: How do you grade the industry overall on the progress toward each of those items?
JR: In terms of a pivot to audience, I would put that as the highest grade, but probably still a B, B minus. What was interesting is that during COVID—I can only speak for our company—something really fascinating happened. As programming schedules changed and people’s viewing schedules changed with everyone working from home, sports programming started going away. Many of our clients came to us and said, “Hey, how are we going to find those viewers? Where have our viewers gone with sports programming going away or with viewing habits changing overall?” That was actually really helpful, not just for us but for the industry because it accelerated the conversation around trusting the data and how it has to be good quality, first-party, deterministic data to be sure. There’s lots of data out there, but it’s not all created equal. And trusting the data is essential to enable marketers to continue finding and delivering to their audiences despite those shifts taking place. What we found is that the conversation changed through necessity, and that has had a lasting effect in terms of the percentage of executions that run through us that are executed against an audience relative to just buying content as a proxy. Now, buying content will always be there, particularly around high-value programming like sports and others, but we’ve seen a significant shift, so I think I’d rate that the highest.
The second highest—because I think it’s easy for people to conceptually understand—is the lines bleeding between linear and digital. The challenge there is that we will be, for a number of years, living in this hybrid world, where there are different tech stacks. Tech stacks built for linear advertising delivery versus digital, different measurements, different buying teams still on the agency side, and people on both the buy-side and the sell side that come from different perspectives, those that have grown up through a more linear channel and those that have grown up through a digital channel. All have different expectations and different baselines. It’s going to take some time for those lines to completely disappear and it’s just inventory and audience, but I feel very confident that that’s going to happen.
I’ll say, where we’re lagging the most is tipping the industry for moving away from GRP to impressions. The good news is that everybody knows it needs to happen, but the question is how. There’s obviously a lot of news at the moment on this topic. If you believe in a world of audience-based executions against an audience agnostic of screen, you have to move to an impression-based model. I don’t believe in a world where there’s going to be one single measurement provider. I think there will be multiple. I think the ad server itself will be more important in terms of impression count with the right third-party validation. But there is also going to be huge operational benefits on both sell-side and buy-side by moving to a guarantee on impression model as well. It gets rid of the “make-good” issues in many cases that exist on the traditional side. I think we are a long way from where we should be in 2021, but the good news is that I think both sides see the need to do it. It is just a question of how to get there that has back-end as well as the challenges I’ve highlighted. There are also back-end technology considerations and also incentive structure considerations as well.
MB: Yeah, I completely agree with you on the ad server front. Part of this is coming from a digital background originally, but all the focus is on the new Nielsen and really small parts of the conversations about an ad server for the TV world of the future. To me, that’s a much bigger piece.
JR: Yeah, you’re spot on. Although I’ve had a three-part framework, if I was to add a fourth, then the fourth is around the criticality of proof of performance. I feel passionate about this one. The companies out there that focus on more bottom-of-funnel proof of performance have for many years, as we know, been taking credit for the value that more top-of-funnel television or multi-screen video provides. I think that’s a well-known fact. But the challenge is that the television industry needs to do a better job of proving the value and proving proof of performance against the metrics that the marketer cares about in order to earn the incremental share that it deserves based on how the data proves it out.
So, I’m very focused on that, and I think the industry is focused on that as well because, as the tech platform companies become more and more powerful, they have an inherent advantage of being closer to bottom-of-funnel. The opportunity for those that play historically more top-of-funnel is to be able to make standard the proof of performance against whatever ROI metric the marketer cares about as part of campaign execution. Being able to demonstrate the ROI in a more apples-to-apples way, and the halo effect that it delivers on performance marketing spend will rightly remain important. I just think there’s an over-allocation of share there and it’s interesting. If you look, there’s a couple of things that I always bear in mind when I talk to people about this.
One is if you look at the FAANG companies—I think my data is I think out of date—but I know in 2020, the spend was close to around $3 billion from those companies alone, which if you combine them would make them the number one spender on TV. Those companies are really smart, and they know that television works. The other data point is that the aggressive spending happening from direct to consumer companies was nearly $4 billion dollars in 2019 from the top 125 B2C companies porting to TV. The reason that’s interesting to me is that I spend a lot of time talking to direct-to-consumer companies. They have some of the most sophisticated attribution models out there, and they were all born online. They grew their businesses on Instagram and other social platforms, and now they’re sort of running out of reach and running out of audience, and they’re allocating more and more money into multi-screen TV. Their attribution models are showing that it works. So, there’s really interesting proof points out there. Now the onus is on us to be able to better prove proof of performance day in day out with our marketers so we can earn the share shift that we think will be valuable for the marketer in terms of delivering them better overall ROI.
MB: Yeah, I mean, that’s what we find. When you get to direct-to-consumer they know their customer acquisition costs and their lifetime value cold, and the Facebooks and the people like that have been able to almost price their inventory in a completely different way because it meets the CAC goal of the advertiser. What we find is that a lot of times the premium, if you look at it in the impression levels, is really high, but on the TV side, we haven’t yet been able to prove that performance, so we’re kind of stuck in this whoever offers me the lowest CPM. In reality, there’s probably a lot more value in those impressions than the marketer knows.
JR: Yeah, you’re spot on. We should talk more on this topic because you’re right. At the most basic level, it comes down to the effective CPM, but even that is too simplistic. I think what you hit on is something that we’re really passionate about as well, and that’s quality. That leads to asking what the future of measurement looks like as you move to an impression-based model. And not all impressions are created equal, and quality does matter, so I think that’s going to be part of an industry conversation that’s going to take place as marketers rightly look for equivalency across how they transact with the platform companies relative to the TV industry. That’s the right goal for marketers. We in the TV industry have to ensure that that equivalency doesn’t put us at an immediate disadvantage. It would be if quality isn’t a consideration as part of how you equivalized impressions, in my personal opinion.
MB: One question I want to ask you about is local. Having experience with both local advertisers and national advertisers under the Comcast umbrella you have NBCUniversal all the way down to Effectv, do you find local more interested in measurement or national? What else is unique about local?
JR: The highest level, the thing that’s powerful about local from our standpoint is twofold. One is that we are able to target specific audience segments down to specific geos to enable those marketers to reach their target customers in the catchment area that they care about, in their own backyard. So, that has benefits in terms of how you manage reaching frequency the right way at the geo level.
That’s nice and helpful, but we also find that in a world that is so wild west, we live in this incredible period in the media industry. Both you and I are operating businesses at a time where there is more change than there’s ever been before, and it’s fascinating to see how it’s going to play out. Our local clients—same as other clients, but at the local level—are inundated with companies trying to help them with advertising. They’re looking for fewer trusted consultative partners. What I like about our company and others like ours is we have a 1,100 or 1,200 person sales team, and those sellers are living in the same neighborhoods as the clients that they serve. They have built deep-rooted relationships in those neighborhoods and with those clients over many years. So, we see a big opportunity to be able to go arm in arm with our local clients to help them on the journey. We go on the journey together, as we drive against the pivot points together. For me, I think the consultative relationship side is as important as the technical capabilities that can be executed at a local level.
MB: Well, one area I think local has been ahead is in addressable, powered by the cable company in recent times. There’s a lot of news about national addressable. What are your overall thoughts on that and the overall outlook for national addressable TV?
JR: Yeah, I’m very bullish on addressability overall, in that—if you’re going back to what we’ve talked about earlier—if you think about the full purchase funnel, the opportunity for media companies is to be able to partner with marketers to provide full-funnel solutions running from the traditional, “Hey, we can give you great, broad reach at top of funnel to drive awareness,” through mid-funnel more data-enabled audience executions, which I think becomes the standard. That drives mid-funnel consideration and intent all the way to addressability and supports, much more household targeted level closer to bottom of funnel.
I think about addressability. I think about addressability as a subset of a broader set of full funnel solutions that media companies, both national and local, are able to bring to the table. That’s good for the television industry overall because I think it makes it more competitive with the platform companies that are coming after those dollars. That’s number one.
Number two is that at Comcast we have a couple different roles as it pertains to addressability. As an inventory owner, we enable addressable capabilities as part of the solution set that Effectv takes to the table. We’ve been doing that for a long time, as have many other MVPDs. Actually, Effectv recently launched what we call audience addressable, which is allowing our buyers to, for the first time, have a single impression goal that they can plan, target, deliver on report against, across both streaming inventory and linear inventory, all executed through the FreeWheel ad server, down to the household addressable level. I was excited about that because I think it’s a proof point on the board around a couple of the pivot points we mentioned. We’re moving toward audience-based executions, which addressable is a component of that and executing everything multi-screen. That’s the inventory side.
Then there’s the enablement side. On the enablement side, Comcast has been very loud and very consistent for a number of years about how we see the industry as stronger together, and we want to do everything to be able to empower and enable the TV ecosystem to get smarter about how it serves marketers. One of those areas is enabling national programmers with the ability to bring addressability onto the inventory that they own. We played our duo role, and we’re so proud of playing that duo role because we know that if you’re a marketer, it’s a patchwork of different footprints and the marketer wants to simplify how they buy at scale. That’s why, as I talk about the concept of TV as a platform, TV is historically a set of federated states that have been competing with each other, and now you look up and those federated states actually have to worry about competition for their business coming from the outside, from the FAANG companies and others. Therefore, one thing the tech platform companies do really well, and credit to them, is they make it simple to transact with them. Television needs to do the same. One area to do that is around addressability and ensuring we have, where we can, common sets of standards and ways of executing and measurements so that a marketer can do that. That’s how I see the world of addressability and the role the MVPD plays.
MB: What’s one major thing that you think is really important that nobody is talking about?
JR: I probably wouldn’t tell anyone because I’d take advantage of it. I think one thing that’s being talked about, so I’m not answering your question, but there’s a lot of talk about data. All data is not created equal, but there’s also the reality of how to scale data-enabled executions across multiple data owners and do it in simple ways that enable marketers to be able to execute at scale across different inventory partners, leveraging different data sets including their own, while respecting the privacy requirements of any given data owner and the likely regulation that is going to continue to come out of DC. The concept of decentralized versus centralized architectures for executing is something I’m watching really closely.
I’m personally a very big believer that decentralized models will play out for a couple of reasons. One is that I think centralized models only help empower the walled gardens, which is why they want those. But second, I believe that there’s the psychological challenge to overcome with centralized models, that decentralized models can overcome. I’m very excited about the different players out there in the market, including Blockgraph, which is a joint venture between Viacom, Charter, and Comcast that was borne out of Comcast, that is thinking through what the future operating systems look like for data enablement in privacy compliant ways. So, that’s a topic that is really important, and yet, there’s no clear path in terms of how that’s going to play out right now.
Curious, what would your answer be on that one?
MB: We started Cross Screen five years ago, coming from the buy-side. One theory was that that was peak fragmentation and that things were going to simplify from there. I think if anything, today it’s more complicated for both buyer and seller than ever, and I don’t see that changing in the next three to five years with privacy regulations and with companies moving from an open to a closed environment. There’s just a huge pricing inefficiency overall in the market because people evaluate inventory sources with, A), different currencies, and then B), some platforms are just so easy to use than others that they don’t realize. I was talking to somebody and since 2016, Facebook’s gone from two million to 10 million advertisers, and they were able to survive that boycott with the prices still going up because of the long tail. And that long tail just keeps driving the prices up, but people really don’t realize it because they price their inventory off of a CPA or some kind of cost per action, and they don’t really know what it costs relative to anything else. I think that’s a big complication that the market’s behind on.
JR: It goes back to my belief that there’s an over-allocation toward those performance marketing companies. But, you know what, good for those performance marketing companies like Facebook and others because they’ve set up a model and a construct that gives them an advantage. The opportunity is there to create more equal footing. The good news is the data proves it. So, as I always say to our company, it’s good when the truth is on your side. That’s a really solid foundation to build a business off. But then, you’ve got to build the business, you’ve got to scale it, and you’ve got to prove it. That’s the opportunity ahead.
MB: Great, well, I’ll get you out here on one more question. We ask all of our guests if you could get everyone on your team to read one book right now, what would it be and why?
JR: Probably not a good person to ask this, but I’ll admit that I pivoted more to podcasts and blogs, Stratchery is an example, to help broaden my reading. That said, there was a book I read recently that I think is really relevant for our employees, which is Atomic Habits from James Clear. The essence of the book is how you break bad or legacy behaviors and then a system for how you build new behaviors.
It talks about the power of compounding, like compounding trust, of how many small actions, if you maintain discipline at them over time can lead to significant change, which for me really resonates in my personal life. Hey, you haven’t been, for example, to the gym for a while, it feels like a big effort to get out of bed at 5:00 AM and go to the gym and just get straight back in it. But actually, with that gym example, it talks about even just getting out of bed and going and stretching in your living room is better than not doing it at all because it’s an incremental change. The reason I raise this for the company is that it’s reflective of the state of the union of all companies that come from the more traditional media side and are looking to make the pivot to become a next-generation media company.
As we look to move from being local ad sales to audience delivery and talk about all the pivots we have, it requires breaking down legacy behaviors, it requires building new muscle. That takes time, it takes discipline. It’s not easy, as you know. So, I think there are some incredible lessons in there that are applicable for everyone in our company, and really for those that are looking to embed real sustainable change that enables you to make the pivot as a company and be successful in the future.
MB: Yeah, it’s a great recommendation. I got to read that a few months back and just how he starts off his story by getting hurt was pretty incredible.
JR: I think we can talk a lot about technology change and workflow change and policy change, which we’re talking about every day in our company, but ultimately, you have to set the cultural foundation and the mindset to go on that journey together. So, I think you’re right, there are lots of lessons in that book about how to be in the right mindset and have the right system in place whereby you can actually walk the talk, which is what we all need to do.
MB: Well James, I appreciate your time. I’ve enjoyed the conversation, and I know our community is going to love it, so thank you.
JR: Thank you so much, and I appreciate it, and I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation.
See the rest of the ScreenBytes executive interview series here!
James Rooke is general manager of Effectv, the advertising sales division of Comcast Cable. In this role, he leads the company as it embarks on its next chapter and mission: to become the world’s smartest audience delivery company by combining the targeting and measurement of digital with the reach and impact of television. James oversees a 3,000+ nationwide team across sales, operations, product, engineering, data innovation and insights, and customer experience to pioneer and unlock new opportunities for growth, innovation and industry leadership. Additionally, he cultivates Effectv’s relationships with external stakeholders and industry organizations, including sitting on the Board of the Video Advertising Bureau (VAB) and the New York Interconnect (NYI).
Previously, James was a general manager at FreeWheel, a division of Comcast Advertising that provides global technology solutions for the future of TV advertising. At FreeWheel, James oversaw the company’s global business unit that provides purpose built software and services to enable media companies to maximize the value of their advertising inventory across all screens and sales channels.
Prior to the company’s acquisition by Comcast, James was chief revenue officer of FreeWheel, where he led global revenue and client services. Before becoming CRO, he was responsible for launching FreeWheel’s first video marketplace. James first joined FreeWheel in 2012 as vice president of advisory services.
Prior to FreeWheel, he was vice president, strategy and execution for Spectrum Reach. He also served as head of strategy and transformation for the media and entertainment practice at Capgemini Consulting and as a consultant for Ernst & Young.
James has spoken at many major industry conferences (4A’s, Advertising Week, IAB) and has been quoted and featured in leading business and industry media, including Business Insider, Advertising Age, Adweek, AdExchanger, Broadcasting & Cable, The Drum and more.
He earned a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Birmingham’s School of Business.
James resides with his family in the New York area.
Cross Screen Media is a marketing analytics and software company helping brands, agencies, and networks succeed in the Convergent TV space. Our platform creates a common currency across linear TV, digital, and CTV views so ad buyers can build a single optimized plan and sellers can prove the value of their inventory. For more information, please visit our website.