The acquisition of Rocket Fuel by Sizmek is not so much an example of ad tech consolidation as it is one of the power of the Facebook/Google duopoly to quash competitors, this time on the buy side.
Now, it’s not as though Rocket Fuel didn’t make mistakes. To start with, they are part of an increasingly commodified environment where marketers, if they work outside the duopoly, recognize little differentiation among the competitors. At the outset, Rocket Fuel deployed a black box strategy that clients found increasingly unacceptable as a wave of transparency swept the industry. Their much-vaunted billion-dollar IPO required that they reveal the margins they were charging clients, reportedly as much as 60%, and that sent clients running. In an effort to evolve market perception, Rocket Fuel prematurely positioned themselves as a marketing platform (see Forrester Wave: Real-Time Interaction Management, Q2 2017). And their lack of table stakes tools in their self-serve ad buying platform (see Forrester Wave: Omnichannel Demand-Side Platforms, Q2 2017) alienated many. This combination of factors set the company on a path of decline that, despite their acquisition of DMP/DSP X Plus One and their innovation in machine learning and artificial intelligence, they were never able to reverse.
Rocket Fuel’s savior is Sizmek, sort of. Sizmek, is a company best known for its ad serving capabilities and mobile focus. It, too, has experienced upheavals and a definite downward valuation trajectory fueled by declining market interest in rich media. But Sizmek, is owned by private equity firm Vector Capital, which paid $122 million for Sizmek in August 2016. Vector’s stated goal with the Sizmek acquisition was to create an independent, global ad management platform. Combining the strengths of Sizmek with those of Rocket Fuel, as well as some of its other holdings, like Emarsys and Cheetah Digital, gets Vector closer to that goal. At a combined cost of $267 million, Vector paid bargain basement prices for what could end up being a compelling and cost-effective alternative to the big two.
Of course, Sizmek and Vector are not alone in this ambition. AOL, part of data-rich Verizon, is positioning itself as the independent and open alternative to Facebook and Google. And it definitely has the array of cross-channel capabilities that marketers, weary of managing multitudes of vendors, are increasingly seeking from a single source (see Predictions 2017: Media Disrupts Itself With New Business Models And Unexpected Partnerships). Why? Because while mobile is growing, desktop is not going away. Video is the channel of choice for increasingly engaged big-budget brand marketers. And omnichannel is the way of the future, fueled by data and machine learning capabilities.
For more on the future of ad tech and mar tech, check out the work of these analysts: Samantha Merlivat, Joe Stanhope, and Rusty Warner. They all contributed to this post.