With online advertising slated to outpace print this year, the pressure is on to make those ads pay. Among the hottest areas in the ad world are digital start-ups that cater to advertisers' needs to better target online ads to specific audiences.
Attendance at the San Francisco iteration of ad:tech, a digital marketing conference held in nine locations around the world each year, has more than doubled since 2006, indicating that tech start-up folks in Silicon Valley are moving beyond gaming and social media into advertising.
"The entire start-up ecosystem is exploding," says Brad Berens, chief content officer for ad:tech. "And the vast majority of consumer-facing start-ups are ad tech start-ups."
Aside from search, the jury is still out on what platforms, formats and technologies work best for online ads. The recent decision of General Motors to pull its ads from Facebook opened up a controversy about the effectiveness of social media advertising. Most experts say consumers will increasingly be targeted on mobile devices, but few understand how to advertise on this platform.
Because of such challenges, there is a career to be made in building better online ad technology. Ad technology start-ups complain of a general lack of talent. Celtra, a 50-person strong Boston-based firm that offers companies a platform to deploy rich media mobile display advertising, says that at any one time, it has 10 to 15 open positions.
"Hiring is one of the most important but difficult things for us," says Celtra founder Mihael Mikek. "Every month we take two to three people on board, for which we interview a lot of different people."
So, if you want to try your luck in the world of digital ad start-ups, where should you start?
What's in Demand
One hot area: big data management. "This is a position difficult to find people for because there is so much demand out there," says Mikek.
Mikek says start-ups like his own are partial to hiring people with advanced degrees in engineering, computer science, mathematics, and statistics. They also want to hire people who can interpret analytics, and those with marketing backgrounds who can organize and present data.
Kate O'Loughlin, a former systems engineer for Lockheed Martin and currently the senior director of product development at Tapad—a start-up that allows brands to target customers with unified ads regardless of the platform they are on—says she leveraged her data engineering skills to land her current job.
"I didn't have a network. I had to rely on gumption," she says about her application to Tapad, which is based in New York City and employs 25 people. "I tried to relate how my working with large data sets was going to be applicable to their core technology."
Another area of growth is user experience. Susie Hall, president of Los Angeles based digital staffing firm Vitamin Talent which focuses largely on filling roles at ad agencies, says she has seen "explosive growth" in these types of jobs, which focus on improving customer's interaction with a product's interface. "User experience is huge. Whatever screen you're interacting with, you need someone to create an experience that drives revenues, gains you brand engagement and gets you customers," she says.
Online marketing is another area in which Vitamin Talent has seen a surge in job postings. Companies, says Hall, are looking for a person who understands how to market across all platforms.
For those who want to penetrate the ad tech space by joining existing companies, networking with people at venture capital firms which fund these sorts of companies is one way in, says Michael Muse, co-founder of Local Response, a New York based start-up that aims to leverage data people make public through social media.
"VCs' whole job is to qualify leads and network and connect people. That is one of the best ways you can get put in touch with a start-up. Otherwise, you can spend all day sending cold emails," says Muse. Networking with VCs also enhances your chances of finding a start-up that has recently been funded, and hence is more likely to be hiring, he says.
Organized conferences like An Event Apart, a two-day event that describes itself as being "for people who make websites" are another way to meet people in the industry, although admittedly going to several in a year will make a dent in your pocketbook. Hall also advises trawling mainstream job boards like Monster, as well as more targeted ones on sites like Behance for creatives, and Dice for technology folks. You could also look for local tech meetups that focus on advertising – these are likely to be free.
Choosing to live in a technology hub like Silicon Valley, Boston or New York is also a way to get a foot in the door, says Mikek.
Yet another factor to consider when looking for a conducive environment: the university you attend. "The reason there are lots of successful Harvard dropouts is because the people around them inspire them to do great things" says Nihal Mehta, co-founder of Local Response.
What to Study
While you're in school, majoring in statistics, mathematics, engineering or computer science will likely give you a leg up, although Mehta says degrees like philosophy and psychology are also helpful. "From a marketing perspective, I think philosophy and psychology play a big role in consumer behavior and understanding responses to ads and to marketing," he says. "I used the logic classes I took in negotiating contracts and shaping strategy for my company."
Demonstrating that you have a spectrum of skills is particularly relevant for ad tech start-ups that may be strapped for cash.
"A start-up has so many roles that need to be filled that breadth is really valuable. Our strategy when hiring is we try to fill in as many gaps as possible," says Brian Krausz, co-founder of GazeHawk, which offers eye-tracking technology that can be cheaply conducted with a webcam in order to determine where consumers focus their attention.
For instance, "having someone who is great at stats and can also dive into server maintenance is doubly valuable," he says. GazeHawk's team was acquired by Facebook in March.
For relative newbies to the field, Muse suggests trawling sites like howstuffworks to understand technical jargon like CPA (cost per action) and CPM (cost per impression), to learn more about pricing models, and to understand the types of advertising employed by big industry players like Google and Facebook.
"The biggest challenge with regard to junior ad tech people is they don't know anything about your industry," says Muse. "Being able to hear a company's name and know what type of company it is and a little bit about what they do implies you know where to start."
Write to Saabira Chaudhuri at firstname.lastname@example.org