Adriana Taseva on Reinventing the Advertising Industry

CV VC AG
CV VC
Published in
8 min readSep 23, 2019

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From Chinese Studies to disrupting the gigantic advertising industry: Adriana Taseva was born in Bulgaria and moved to London when she was 15. After diving into Chinese Studies at University of Cambridge, she moved to Bejing to continue the studies at Peking University and learn Mandarine. After a brief stop in the financial sector, she made the not so subtle transition to ad tech and joined Ad Trader, where she helped grow its revenue from $8k to $500k and was part of a class action lawsuit that forced Google to refund $75 million back to advertisers.

In 2018, she embarked on a new adventure and co-founded AdHash with Martin Stoev and Damyan Stanchev with the aim to radically change how advertising works — and who benefits from it the most.

Adriana Taseva, COO & Co-Founder of AdHash

After graduating from the first CV Labs Incubation Program, we sat down with Adriana to find out more about her mission and journey with AdHash.

AdHash aims to bring efficiency, trust and control to advertising by cutting out middlemen from the digital supply chain. What is wrong with the advertising industry today?

Advertising was once simple. It consisted of publishers, advertisers, and users. The introduction of programmatic and specifically real-time bidding (RTB) back in 2009 brought a lot of innovation, it has automated, accelerated, and scaled many of the processes for trading ads online, but has also created fiendish complexities, lack of transparency, and loopholes fraudsters are only too happy to exploit. RTB is a great technology but marred by poor execution.

We cannot fix these problems by simply adding more and more quick-fix solutions on top of an already broken infrastructure. Change has to be made at the protocol level.

Over the past ten years, a slew of ad tech companies have rushed to the scene, each offering a quick-fix solution to one of the many problems. As a result, publishers and advertisers today use over 20 different categories of ad tech middlemen. Each is charging a commission that overall translates into a 70% ad tech tax, while introducing more complexities, latencies, data discrepancies, and more opportunities for ad fraud. Ironically, the solution which many saw in the face of ad tech intermediaries, has only further exacerbated the problem. It is now clear that we cannot fix these problems by simply adding more and more quick-fix solutions on top of an already broken infrastructure. Change has to be made at the protocol level.

On your website, visitors see the typical “Cookie Disclaimer”, except it doesn’t inform users about cookie collection, it actually says you’re not collecting cookies. Why is that?

AdHash is very privacy-centred. Privacy is not only built into the technology we offer, but also into our company culture, hence the “NON-COOKIE ZONE” message on our website. We are building a marketplace that works for all parties. Advertisers want personalisation but they also crave relationships with their customers that are built on trust. Publishers absolutely need to monetise better but it’s also vital for their survival and growth to ensure a pleasant and safe experience for their readers.

With the rise of behavioural targeting over the past few years, user data has been collected, profiled, and sold off to the highest bidder largely without the knowledge and consent of the user.

This has eroded the trust in the ecosystem and has motivated a very valid backlash from consumers concerned about their privacy. Over 600 million devices are currently using ad-blocking software. This has not only hindered publishers’ abilities to monetise and offer free content, but has also pushed brands further away from their customers. The regulatory landscape is also shifting. GDPR, the European Privacy Directive, PEC, CCPA, and other regulations are throwing more light on the shady data practices and demanding accountability. We will see a seismic shift in the way user data is collected, processed, and stored that we hope will bring the trust back and transform advertising for the better.

Does not collecting cookies have an impact on the (your) business?

AdHash employs contextual targeting which does not use cookies or other methods that infringe on users’ privacy. Contextual targeting focuses on the connection between the advertiser and the surrounding article.

Rather than accumulating unreliably interpreted signals, ads are targeted based on what the person is reading right now which can be far more relevant.

We have chosen this approach for a number of reasons. For one, whether ad tech likes it or not, the internet is moving in that direction. Browsers are clamping down on third-party cookie targeting, regulators are demanding change in data practices, and users are signalling their dissatisfaction by installing ad blockers. Two, we strongly believe that it is, in fact, better for publishers, advertisers, and users.

The accuracy of third-party data is overrated. According to research conducted by Nielsen, the on-target percentage for most targeting criteria rarely exceeds 50%, and in certain cases can often fall below 20%. Yet, DMP fees can easily amount to 50% of the total advertising spend. Despite the high price tag, behavioural targeting is not driving substantially higher revenues for publishers either. A recent paper by Marotta et al., titled ​Online Tracking and Publishers’ Revenues: An Empirical Analysis​ reports only a 4% increase in revenue. NYT in Europe stopped behavioural targeting, focusing on contextual and geographical targeting and actually saw an increase in revenue.

Echoing back the topic of trust, customers do get turned off by brands who follow them around.

A recent Harvard study published in the Journal of Consumer Research examined what happens when a company tells consumers how and why they’ve been targeted for an ad. Time and time again, people who were told that they were targeted based on activity elsewhere on the internet became less interested in what the ad was touting than people who were told that they were targeted based on how they were browsing the original site.

There is a huge potential for contextual targeting. The next wave of innovation has already began, with machine learning allowing publishers to create extremely granular and data-driven classifications of their content, organized by custom topic clusters, virality, and even emotional tone. We are talking about a holistic approach that goes beyond the words on the page.

How and when did you come up with the idea to found AdHash, what’s your motivation?

Over the past six years, we have built and scaled two successful ad tech platforms under our AdTrader brand — a Supply-Side Platform for publishers and a Demand-Side Platform for advertisers. We bootstrapped the company and grew to 500 clients across 25 countries. It was a profitable business but our ability to help clients further improve their ROI or monetisation was limited by our dependence on the current ad tech ecosystem. The sheer number of vendors and technologies needed to serve a campaign made the process slow, performance data was often inaccurate, and too much money was wasted on middlemen. We also witnessed a lot of bad practices by leading companies in the space. We knew that we could do better.

Roughly four years ago, we began researching and developing an entirely new protocol for real-time bidding. The goal was to create a more direct, transparent, and privacy-focused transaction channel between publishers and advertisers. Over the past two years we have put all our efforts into building and refining the technology and we are now proud to say that AdHash is the first solution on the market to enable direct ad serving from the advertiser to the user. This eliminates the need for any third-part ad serving, targeting, analytics, verification, and attribution providers resulting in unparalleled cost reduction and enhanced control, transparency, and efficiency for publishers, advertisers, and users. We have been running successful beta tests with a select group of clients and will be launching commercially in Q4 this year.

Reinventing advertising means going up against giants in the industry. Where do you take the strength and motivation from for a journey like this?

True. And it will not be the first nor last time we go up against giants. Back in 2017 while still scaling our company AdTrader, our biggest partner was Google. We began noticing that Google was withholding earnings from publishers for alleged invalid traffic but while it was claiming that every single cent was refunded to the affected advertisers, the money never actually made it to the advertisers. The media buyers were oblivious as there was no transparency between the two systems. But having eyes on both sides of the market, we could track the money flow and verify the wrongdoing.

In December 2017, AdTrader filed a class action lawsuit against Google on behalf of advertisers who were not refunded for invalid traffic. A year and a half later, following a hard-fought litigation, more than 68,000 pages of Google discovery documents, and with a class litigation fast approaching, Google is now refunding $75 million to advertisers for previously uncredited invalid activity.

The WSJ and Business Insider reported on the story back in May when the news broke. This is only scratching the surface and as the lawsuit progresses, we are confident that a lot more will resurface. This year, DoubleClick Bid Manager turns 11 years under Google’s management and it holds 27.20% share of a market that wasted $19B on ad fraud last year. The implications are tremendous. Legal battles, however, are slow and not enough to effect real change in the grand scheme of things.

The industry needs a protocol where transparency and accountability are built into the framework.

What has been your biggest personal challenge or struggle so far as an entrepreneur?

Part of the challenge, but also what I love about being an entrepreneur, is the diversity of skills required to run the show, the dynamics, the fast pace, and that constant feeling of slight unease and productive anxiety that keeps you on your toes, creating and innovating.

What’s your biggest learning or key take-away from the CV Labs Incubation Program?

When we joined CV Labs we had a clear idea of what we were building and what the value proposition was, but we did not necessarily know how to verbalise it in the most coherent way. With disruptive technologies, there is always a period of education where the message and how you present the product to clients in one-on-one meetings or in presentations in front of large audiences is absolutely key. Having a great technology is not enough. People need to hear about it and understand its value proposition. CV Labs helped us immensely in that respect. The program and the team pushed us to practice, iterate, and crystalize our message.

You’re in the process of registering and moving AdHash to Switzerland. What makes Switzerland the right location to build your business?

The market is perfect for launching our product. From an industry perspective, it is a small but concentrated and high-end boutique market, with strong media groups and local and international brands. It is strategically located with good ties to neighbouring markets which helps with scaling the business. And from a technology perspective, it is incredibly open to innovations. It is one of few places where the government and private sector work hand in hand to adopt new technologies and make processes more efficient. The Canton of Zug, specifically, has been immensely helpful and inviting to startups that are looking to incorporate there. The tax environment also doesn’t hurt.

→ Applications for the next CV Labs Incubation program are open! Female co-founded startups are getting fast-tracked in the process. Apply here.

About AdHash

The AdHash Protocol cuts out the ad tech middlemen from the digital ad supply chain to bring efficiency, trust, and control. AdHash rebuilds the real-time bidding framework from the ground up, introducing direct ad serving and first-party data to advertisers and publishers while giving users control over their privacy and browsing experience. https://adhash.org

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CV VC AG
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