Startup Stories: JB Brokaw of Sociomantic

Sociomantic, part of dunnhumby, is an ad tech company that has grown in 8 years from a bootstrapped startup to reach 6 continents, 60+ markets, and employ 250+ team members. We sat down with JB Brokaw, North American President of Sociomantic Labs, to discuss the company’s incredible trajectory.

Tell us about your company’s beginnings. What did you see (or not see) in the market that led you to launch?

Sociomantic got its start in Berlin at a time when online advertising was just taking off. The founders recognized the opportunity to help advertisers cut through the noise and increase engagement with their audiences, and by 2010 Sociomantic made waves as the first European demand-side platform to develop real-time bidding for e-commerce advertisers. The company name is a combination of sociology (study of people) and semantics (study of meaning in language), and represents our ability to help advertisers reach individuals across the globe by delivering personalized, meaningful messaging that inspires action.

Five years in, we were acquired by dunnhumby, a leading customer science company that harnesses consumer data to drive loyalty for retailers. This partnership has offered even more opportunities to provide relevant, personalized advertising at scale.

What were some of the biggest challenges that your team faced at zero stage?

When we launched in the US, the market was already quite saturated. We definitely experienced the “small fish in a big pond” syndrome and had to prove ourselves amidst competitors that were much larger than us in terms of headcount and marketing budget. It was daunting at first, but we soon saw that we can hold our own against the competition, and today the US is our largest market.

We also struggled with having fewer people on the ground here in the beginning; initially our creative service team was based out of Berlin, which posed some challenges as were are often under strict design deadlines from clients. Fortunately, as we’ve grown over the years we’ve built out a strong team here in NYC, including some very talented in-house designers.

Let’s look at the science behind your product. What makes it different from other offerings in this space?

The real-time bidding aspect of programmatic advertising is quite complex and it’s often criticized for its lack of transparency relating to where and how ad exchanges and supply-side partners place ads and spend advertisers’ dollars. One thing that truly sets us apart from our competitors is the Supply Quality Index (SQX), our proprietary bidding algorithm that allows us to grade the programmatic inventory suppliers we work with based on their levels of transparency, performance and inventory quality. Simply put, if they don’t measure up to our high standards, we refuse to work with them.

Another key differentiator is the complete customization of our dynamic creative, an area where we continue to receive rave reviews. Unlike other companies that only provide templates for their banner ads, our creative services team works closely with each client to build custom display ads that are aligned with its brand image. Our designers are constantly experimenting with new types of formats as well, and our portfolio of creative offerings continues to evolve each day.

How do you translate your brand’s message in a way that gets you heard above the noise?

In this industry, there are a hundred different companies all touting that their platform is the best, and when you examine the nuts and bolts, the features all seem rather similar. I’m confident that our technology works and is superior to many of our competitors — after all, we were 100% bootstrapped up until our acquisition, and we would not have survived if our technology was not legit. However, we don’t lead our messaging based off the strength of our technology alone, but on a joint stage with our excellent level of service.

Our commitment to service means that we operate more like an agency, and deliberately assign a select few clients to each of our account managers to ensure that every account is getting the full attention it needs. Programmatic advertising is often mistaken to be synonymous with automation, but it’s the human aspect of the business — analyzing the daily reporting, making data-fueled recommendations on optimizations, and knowing when to pull back spending to avoid unnecessary waste of ad dollars — that is the most important. We find that by leading with service, we keep our clients’ happy and we also get new prospects through valuable word-of-mouth marketing, too.

Let’s talk about brand values. What means the most to your company besides industry success?

I’ve seen a lot of changes at Sociomantic during the four years I’ve been on board, but the company’s continued focus on integrity has remained consistent throughout and has shaped our business model. Maintaining integrity in what we do means being as honest and transparent as possible about our technology, which is why we’ve made it a priority to unveil features on our platform that you wouldn’t see from our competitors. On the other hand, it could also mean turning down potential business that we do not feel would have long-term success for the brand. As a trusted industry partner, we strive to be upfront at all times, even if it means referring brands to other parties that would be better suited for their needs.

There’s always been this rivalry between Silicon Valley and NYC in tech. What are some tangible benefits to being based in NYC?

Silicon Valley may be the tech hub, but New York City has been the advertising capital of the country from the start! We work with advertisers across the country and have team members all over — from Miami to Dallas to San Francisco — but it’s important for us to be here to keep a pulse on what’s going on. Plus, we are an international team, and being on the east coast means we’re only a short flight away from our Berlin headquarters for our annual global department summits.

Name one place in your company’s NYC neighborhood that you and your team just can’t live without.

We just recently moved offices from Flatiron to near the Empire State Building, but one place that we still frequent is the Shake Shack at Madison Square Park. Nothing beats sitting in the park with their burgers and shakes on a sunny afternoon, and we’ve gotten the timing down to avoid the crazy lines.

Learn more about Sociomantic here.

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