Omar Tawakol knows the power of data. He's co-founder and CEO of Cupertino-based BlueKai, an advertising technology company that's become a leading source of software for consumer brands and online marketers who want to find specific audiences and show them targeted messages.
The 5-year-old company has grown rapidly while evolving from its early focus on selling consumer data obtained from Web cookies. Today it sells tools that clients use to analyze their own stockpiles of customer information, combined with data from other sources, to define audiences who see their ads on websites, social networks and mobile devices.
BlueKai works with Twitter on a program announced last week that lets an advertiser show messages on Twitter to users who have previously shown interest by visiting the advertiser's website. The companies say they aren't tracking individuals by name. But tracking is still controversial, as Tawakol acknowledged in this interview, which was edited for length and clarity.
Q BlueKai started out as a data exchange for advertisers, and is now a data platform. What's the difference and why did you move in this direction?
A We were really good at getting valuable data from different places, separating the signal from the noise and connecting it -- to know that this anonymous person here is the same as that anonymous person there. That was our original business. But we realized that the biggest marketers in the world have all this fantastic data of their own, trapped in different systems, and they weren't able to act on it. So we moved from giving them data to giving them the software that extracted the value of their data.
Q You provide software tools for advertisers and their agencies. How do you work with a company like Twitter or Facebook, that's essentially an advertising medium?
A I don't like to talk about partners except when they make specific announcements because they consider data to be strategic. (But regarding Twitter's announcement,) there's a big opportunity with social media companies to serve tweets or posts that are truly relevant. Data can help make sure it's relevant. So our focus is: If I'm a big brand and I have a bunch of users and fans and consumers, I can port that information into Twitter and make sure I show the right message specifically to them.
Q Some people are wary of marketers tracking their interests. What do you say to them?
A That concern is natural. But I believe there are two ways to move the discussion forward: One is complete transparency. In our first board meeting, we said the data that's known about the consumer should be visible and controlled by them. We created the concept of a registry (a page on BlueKai's website where consumers can look up what's known about them and opt out of being tracked) before others did.
The other way to move the discussion away from fear is to talk about the value trade, which is strong, but you have to think about it. The trade is free content. Targeting (ads) is what pays for the content. When you ask consumers, overwhelmingly they do not want to pay for content.
Q Is there anything you don't track?
A We don't want to touch anything like sensitive financial details, adult material, health issues. Health care is a huge industry, but we'll walk away from revenue because we feel that when it comes to really sensitive categories it's better not to get involved.
Q How is BlueKai adapting to the trend toward mobile devices, where cookies often aren't effective?
A Many sites we are working with, (including some) of the largest companies in the country, are getting to that point where mobile data creation almost exceeds online (traffic on personal computers). So we built up a platform that uses a different set of technologies for mobile.
Q There seem to be a variety of approaches to mobile tracking -- things like device recognition, app registration, account sign-ins. Do you think the industry will eventually settle on one standard?
A That's one of the most fascinating issues for 2014. You don't have third-party cookies on mobile, and there's some notion we might eliminate them on the Web. Our vision for this is we don't believe that one company is going to own the whole mobile and online space.
The big social networks, browser companies, handset manufacturers, wireless carriers -- they all come at the problem with different assets and want to own it. Our goal is to be Switzerland, to say as long as we can provide a translation layer across all these then you, as a brand, don't have to worry: We're going to make sure your information gets to the right consumer.
Contact Brandon Bailey at 408-920-5022; follow him at Twitter.com/BrandonBailey.
Title: CEO of BlueKai
Career: Previously was chief advertising officer for Medio Systems, which analyzes data for mobile companies, and chief marketing officer at Audience Science, a company formed when a startup he founded merged with another firm; also worked at Navio Communications
Education: Earned a master's in computer science at Stanford after getting his bachelor's degree in engineering from MIT
Family: Married; four daughters
FIVE THINGS ABOUT OMAR TAWAKOL
1) He enjoyed economics and philosophy as an MIT undergrad, but his parents urged him to get his degree in engineering.
2) In graduate school, Tawakol says he fell in love with computer science, which he calls "as dreamy as science fiction, with all the theory that makes math interesting, but with immediate gratification."
3) An avid reader of "anything I can get my hands on about behavioral economics," he says one recent favorite is the book "Thinking, Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman.
4) He enjoys running, bicycling and hiking, spending most of his free time with his wife and four daughters.
5) Though he studies consumer behavior, Tawakol said he's not someone who shops for fun: "I'm one of those efficiency guys" who doesn't spend a lot of time browsing at the mall.