How Two Ex-LiveRampers Broke Open the Black Box of Mobile Advertising

The actors recreating the event are being played by themselves. Also, that’s Grizzly on the left. He’s a voracious reader.

It’s November 2013 and I’m sitting on my friend Eddie’s couch, checking the Surfline app. The waves look like they’re going to be good in the morning.

“Should I set my alarm for five and surf before work?” I ask Eddie. I hope he says no. I’m not really a morning person.

“Wasserman, no one in their right mind willingly wakes up at 5am.”

Eddie’s flipping through the Moviefone app. “Want to see Dallas Buyers Club tomorrow night?” he asks.

“Ya, if I don’t wake up early.” I say. “But, Eddie, look at the forecast…” I show him my phone. Beneath the surf report, there’s a banner ad for Candy Crush.

Eddie turns his phone to show me the movie times. Beneath them, the exact same Candy Crush ad.

That’s when it hit us.

Year after year, Mashable, along with every other news outlet, had celebrated “the year of mobile advertising.” But mobile ads were still completely untargeted.


That was nearly three years ago, before we started TapFwd. Eddie and I had been working at LiveRamp for three years at that point, spending each day building products that helped marketers use data to better target desktop ads. Our work was paying off — the desktop advertising experience had improved a ton, becoming more and more sophisticated and individualized.

But we’d also noticed a not-so-subtle shift. People were spending less and less time staring into their laptops, and more and more time staring into their phones — while commuting to work, waiting in line at Peet’s, and hanging out with friends.

And while people were reaching for their phones far more than their computers, mobile ad targeting was still years behind desktop.

Since November 2013, when we had that aha moment sitting on Eddie’s couch, mobile advertising has largely remained the same.

In desktop advertising, marketers create tailored audiences based on lots of data, mostly through the use of cookies. For instance, Patagonia can choose to show an aspirational ad featuring Lynn Hill, a professional climber, to active women who live in San Francisco and like to rock climb.

Mobile advertising, on the other hand, is a black box. Marketers hand mobile ad networks cash and mobile ad networks report back cost per click and cost per install metrics. Marketers have virtually no control over who their ads reach. For all Patagonia knows, their ad was shown to a sedentary man in Madagascar, when who they really wanted to reach was an active woman in San Francisco. The only thing Patagonia knows for sure are how many people clicked their ad and installed their app.

From Eddie’s role on LiveRamp’s exploratory mobile team and my time working on strategic efforts with data partners and Fortune 100 clients, we knew marketers were data-driven. They wanted the same level of insight and control on mobile as they had on desktop.

We also knew that mobile ad networks wanted to move away from last-click attribution, where they’re solely judged on whether or not a person clicked an ad.

In the current landscape, neither side could win.

The TapFwd team in our San Francisco office.

That’s why we started TapFwd. We knew bringing person-level data into mobile would be tough, requiring entirely different infrastructure than what powers traditional desktop Data Management Platforms. We also knew that the “no cookies, no data” argument was flawed. There was plenty of data, it just lived outside of mobile. We needed to move it in there, clean it up, and make it actionable for mobile advertising.

So we got to work, spending the better part of three years building large-scale applications to move siloed data into a centralized platform built for mobile marketers.

To date, we’ve brought together billions of data points and helped brands big and small drive meaningful mobile engagement with people who actually want to hear from them.

If you’d like to learn more about what it’s like to work here or explore our mobile-first data management platform, don’t hesitate to reach out. We’ll be here. Unless the waves are good in the morning, in which case… who am I kidding? I’ll still be at my desk.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Alex Wasserman’s story.