A Series of Profiles of Innovators at the Forefront of Consumer Behavior and Business Transformation: Eric Wheeler, Founding CEO, 33Across.
33Across positions itself as the first open exchange delivering only viewable inventory and attention-based advertising. While the biggest players in the industry like Google, The Trade Desk and agency programmatic platforms like Xaxis scoop up the majority of the $50 billion now flowing through automated advertising trading platforms, specialist services have emerged to meet marketers’ needs for transparency and impact.
“Our company is focused on solving the challenge of consumer attention for automated advertising. Our ‘Attention Platform’ is the first programmatic solution to unify high-impact creative, quality supply and true technology-driven scale,” says 33Across founding CEO, Eric Wheeler.
The company name refers to the toughest crossword puzzles that can be solved if you decipher a large horizontal word in the middle of the puzzle. According to Wheeler, in many difficult puzzles these are often around 32 or 33 across. “33Across unlocks the puzzle of quality online advertising,” says Wheeler.
The business began some 11 years ago but didn’t hit its stride in terms of scaling the business until it pivoted to its current specialist positioning to solve the challenges for finding quality ad impressions in the sea of programmatic ad opportunities. “My co-founder, Greg Levitt, Dave Morgan (now founder and CEO of Simulmedia), who was our first investor and I we were sitting down trying to come up with our initial idea. I actually have the napkin that we founded the company around, which is this idea of understanding data. It was a bev nap, as you would expect. And on it, it mapped out the connectivity between people, how they communicate with each other and also that they had a propensity to buy the same products,” says Wheeler.
Wheeler and his small start-up team started to build some early models when they founded the company in 2008, trying to use data to help publishers unlock the value of the impressions they had by uncovering their most valuable data. “My wife named the company. I came home and told my wife I was going to quit my job, my well-paying comfortable job running Ogilvy Interactive, to do another startup. When I told her the idea behind the company was to help unlock some of this targeting, she said oh, ‘it’s just like in the New York Times, when I’m doing the crossword puzzle, right around 32 or 33 across, I get a big horizontal word and it unlocks the whole puzzle for me. I thought that’s brilliant and conceptually a great way to describe the business” says Wheeler.
Working with publishers to understand data, then incorporating social data from a source such as Meebo data, they became one of the first companies to leverage social data to build predictive targeting for brands. The business began to scale and the company grew to 125 people in short order with a Series A venture backing from First Round Capital. The company later brought in Flybridge for a series B, providing the capital to acquire Tynt, a widely-used sharing technology that’s on about 800,000 websites in over 195 countries. “It gave us insights into what 1.5 billion people are reading, searching and sharing across the globe. And so the business at the time was an advanced ad network, similar to high-flying companies like Rocket Fuel. Everything was going smashingly until it wasn’t [laughs],” says Wheeler.
The business hit a wall and revenue plateaued as programmatic buying platforms began to take over the industry. Wheeler and his team knew it was time to rethink the business. “We realized in 2013 that programmatic was taking over and we sequestered a team in our Sunnyvale office to develop a new direction for the company.”
The team came back with the early idea of developing a platform devoted to meeting the challenges marketers had to secure quality, in-view ad impressions. And that’s what they did. Over the course of one year, they took what was an ad network with fast-dropping revenue and started an entirely new business. They downsized the business to about 30 employees and started the hard climb back to growth.
“It was the business equivalent of changing your engines while in flight. And it’s a testament to the grit of the team, our technology, the belief from the board, from every one of these tenacious employees. And it’s expanded super fast. We’ve been growing basically 100 percent a year for the past four years. So now we’ve announced the launch of what we call AttentionX, which is the industry’s first exchange where all of the ads are viewable,” says Wheeler. He believes this is a significant move given that more than 50% of inventory currently available across the programmatic ecosystem is not in-view. Which, in turn, hurts advertiser performance and wastes resources on post-campaign reconciliation.
Today the company is growing again and back to 100 employees, with offices in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles in addition to its Sunnyvale headquarters. Outside of the US, there are teams in the UK, India and Japan. “It’s exciting, because we’re now a global company and we’re doing business with the biggest trading desks, like MediaMath, which are directly integrated into our platform. All the large agencies are buying our inventory and continue to buy it. Renewal rates are over 90 percent, month over month,” says Wheeler.
Wheeler describes the long journey to building 33Across into the success it is today as having started two companies – they just happened to be under the same company name.
Perhaps Wheeler’s grit and tenaciousness are born of his upbringing. He was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His parents met at Alcoa. His dad was an engineer working on innovations like the aluminum can pull tab. “I probably have to credit my parents first and foremost in terms of how we were raised. My parents were foster parents. And so we had 13 foster brothers and sisters. We’ve always been encouraged to just be the best and most authentic we could be as people.”
The family later moved to Bucks County in Eastern, PA and after graduating from Boston University, Wheeler started out in the hospitality software business, teaching yield management to hotel sales and catering teams. He then started in the agency media world working at agencies in San Francisco.
“I was at Anderson & Lembke working with brilliant people like David Yoder. I then cut my teeth on tech and joined CNET early on in ’96, with Halsey Minor and Shelby Bonnie. Actually, Shelby is one of our investors. I was there for a couple years and met some amazing people. Four of five founders of Lot21 left CNET with me to start one of the first digital ad agencies at the time anywhere,” says Wheeler. The entrepreneurial light went on for him during his time in San Francisco during those early, heady days of Internet advertising and attributes it to being in the right place at the right time. Wheeler and his fellow founders sold Lot21 to Carat in 2002. After that, he moved back to the East Coast to take the job running Ogilvy Interactive.
As for the future for 33Across? “It’s so clear that marketers are taking control and so we’re in this amazing middleware tech space where we’re providing a lot of value every day and we can do it in a way where there’s no funny business. It’s super straightforward. And publishers love it. I think we’re going to see ad blocking go down over time because publishers – at least the good ones – are designing better and better experiences that are more opt-in, more native and more welcome,” says Wheeler.