Startup Profile: Mobile video ad pioneers, Samba Networks9th January 2015
Long gone are the days where TV advertising ruled the roost. The migration of viewers from gogglebox to laptop and mobile has been fast and cruel to advertisers who could once bank on audiences sitting and watching whatever message they deemed fit to pipe into your brain.
Attempts to harness an audience online have been equally difficult: most users of video sites, for instance, are bored or unengaged, eager to ‘Skip Ad’ as quickly as possible to see if that beaver can really hang-glide.
So what is the future? Well, for Bristol and London-based mobile ad firm, Samba Networks, the solution is simple; get people to request the adverts themselves. Sound like madness? We caught up with co-founder and COO, Neil Patrick (pictured, right), to find out more.
Samba has developed an in-app advertising platform which works on a quid pro quo basis, meaning that users get full control over the ads they watch, and earn perks in return. As Neil explains: “We believe that advertising should be fun, useful and not interruptive, so we offer premium in-app video advertising from blue-chip brands based on a user-select model.
“We currently work with social messaging apps to enable their users to earn credit to make calls or send messages for free. To do this, users simply choose the video they want to watch from a selection of ads. There’s an explicit value exchange between user and advertiser.
“Our model means we can monetise any app anywhere in the world, so the opportunity is vast”
“Importantly, users can watch ads anytime, so they can build up credit when they want and then make calls or send messages without having to watch an ad beforehand, like YouTube for instance. Our model means we can monetise any app anywhere in the world, so the opportunity is vast.”
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Back in 2010, telecoms giant Orange launched a product they called ‘Orange Shots’, which promised to “transform mobile marketing in the UK” by offering free texts and minutes in exchange for SMS ads. But the technology now is so much more advanced, offering Samba the opportunity to tailor targeted video ads to the end-user and, equally importantly, supply plenty of data to the advertisers (with users’ permission of course).
It’s no surprise that both Neil and business partner, Ben Atherton, both have backgrounds in the telecoms industry. In fact, both had previously worked for Orange before a Caribbean relocation brought them both together for this new venture.
“My first ‘proper’ job was as Product Manager for Orange at their UK headquarters here in Bristol,” Neil tells us. “After that role, I headed up the wholesale content team which dealt with ringtones, logos, games, and SMS voting. In fact, it was my team which set up the shortcodes policy for SMS voting with the other networks – the short phone numbers which you now see on X-Factor voting lines and so on.”
In 2006 Neil found himself recruited by a mobile operator called Digicel, which covered the Caribbean and Latin America; a role that would require him to relocate to Jamaica, a tough decision for anyone.
“It didn’t take long to say yes,” Neil says, grinning. “I was still young and had no major ties in the UK, so what a great opportunity to see an amazing part of the world.”
He stayed at Digicel for three years before deciding to try his hand at the entrepreneurial life, keen for a new challenge outside the corporate environment he’d been in for a decade. He stayed in the telecoms business, and Jamaica, and set up a firm providing SMS software to companies across the region. It was during this period the idea for Samba came about.
“The change in behaviour from ‘ad chooses user’ to ‘user chooses ad’ gives people much more control”
“After the company broke-even, I handed over day-to-day ops to my local team and headed back to the UK to set up Samba with another Orange/Digicel friend and colleague, Ben Atherton. We had naturally complementary skills, me with the telco and product experience, and Ben with a fantastic history of ad experience and telco. I didn’t train as a techie, but my role meant I learned it. I’d rolled out a lot of products and new businesses. Samba Networks officially launched in December 2013 and we haven’t looked back”
As with most great products and ideas, the company has evolved since its first incarnation: “We started off providing free, ad-funded mobile broadband to anyone with a tablet or laptop,” Neil explains. “In the US, Hulu offered online content in exchange for watching video ads. No-one was doing this here and we could see the potential of ad-funded models if done in a user-friendly way. This perfectly coincided with the explosion of the mobile data market.
“Our ‘user-select’ ad model proved so popular that we were contacted by app providers who wanted it for their users, and this is now the sole focus of our business.”
With this shift, or to use a more common startup parlance, ‘pivot’, a whole new arena was opened up to the team, offering brands more engagement with the end-user.
“Not only do we have our core ‘user select’ ad grid, but now, at the end of the ad, users can rate and share the video, click through to a website, download an app or sign-up for a newsletter. In fact we can do pretty much anything the advertiser wants as a call-to-action, which is a really powerful way for advertisers to convert viewers to customers in one hit.
“The change in behaviour from ‘ad chooses user’ to ‘user chooses ad’ gives people much more control and ultimately leads to a more positive view of the advertisers themselves. To coin a cliché, it really is a win-win.”
Samba de Brizzle
While the sombre grey streets of Bristol may not have the allure of a Caribbean paradise, Neil loves the place: “Bristol is the best city in the UK for me. It’s got lots of creative people, a rapidly growing tech sector – all good for Samba – and the overall quality of life is great too.
“Bristol’s got lots of creative people, a rapidly growing tech sector – all good for Samba – and the overall quality of life is great too”
“We are expanding, and with more app partnerships and more content partnerships in the pipeline, we’re integrating with some big app providers right now as well as striking ad deals with big global agencies. This will take us to the next level, not just in the UK but in Europe and the US as well. But wherever we expand, I love Bristol, and would always like a base here.”
So what of these partnerships then? Since their launch Samba have already run campaigns from Guinness, Tesco, Paddy Power, Universal Channel, The Guardian, Oxfam and many, many more. But their new partnership with Kik Messenger is particularly exciting for Neil.
“We provide one of the few platforms offering premium brand ads that can reach the ‘millennials’ audience”
“They have 150 million downloads globally, and Kik is heavily used by ‘millennials’, a notoriously difficult demographic to capture – they don’t watch TV, they’re turning off Facebook – we provide one of the few platforms offering premium brand ads that can reach this audience which is hugely exciting to businesses”.
So far so rosy then for Samba Networks. We asked Neil if he had any advice for budding entrepreneurs and startups. His answer was short but succinct: “Everything’s easier in hindsight. However, the one thing I’d say is don’t be afraid to try new ideas – some will come off, some won’t, but unless you try you’ll never know”.
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