Martech company Zeta Global raises $222.5M in debt

Zeta Global, the marketing technology company founded by David A. Steinberg and former Apple CEO John Sculley, is announcing an additional $222.5 million in new debt financing.

The company has gone down the debt route before — a Series F raised in 2017 combined $115 million funding with $25 million in debt. BofA Securities served as lead arranger and bookrunner for the new financing, with participation from Barclays, Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley Senior Funding.

“For this round, we were able to both refinance our debt and add in a large amount of capacity for current operations and future initiatives,” Steinberg (Zeta’s CEO) told me via email. “We were able to work with our syndicate to capture a low interest-rate and take advantage of the strong credit markets.”

The company emphasizes its data-driven approach to marketing, combining companies’ first-party data with artificial intelligence and what it says are more than 2.4 billion customer identifiers. Steinberg said this approach has only become more crucial, with 2020 delivering “a five-year acceleration” as brands face the challenge of “digitally transforming their business structure to be data-centric.”

“Zeta’s capabilities are helping marketers engage customers across the entire digital ecosystem more intelligently and efficiently, with individualized messages, offers, and content by way of our identity-based data and predictive AI,” Steinberg continued. “Our challenge is to continue to keep up with our customers’ needs and maintain our competitive advantage around data and AI.”

The company’s funding announcement notes that previous loans have been used to finance acquisitions and integrations, including commenting platform Disqus and machine learning-powered marketing platform Boomtrain. Asked whether this new debt will also be used for acquisitions, Steinberg said the company continues to “organically innovate,” with a focus on its customer data platform and connected TV capabilities.

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With $62.5M in debt financing, Road Runner Media puts digital ads behind commercial vehicles

If Southern California-based Road Runner Media succeeds, you’ll start seeing a lot more ads while you’re driving.

That’s because the startup is placing digital screens on the backs technicians’ vans, delivery vehicles, buses and other commercial vehicles. Those screens can show both ads and serve as a brake light — according to founder and chairman Randall Lanham, the brake light functionality is required if you’re putting a sign on the back of a vehicle.

“The way we look at it, we are a digital brake light,” Lanham said. Yes, the brake light is showing ads, but “the driver touching the brakes interrupts the ad.” (The sign can also indicate turns, reversing and emergency flashers. You can see a mock-up ad in the image above, and real footage in the video below.)

To pursue this idea, Lanham (who described himself as a “recovering attorney”) enlisted Chris Riley as CEO — Riley’s past experience includes several years as CEO of PesiCo Australia and New Zealand. And the company announced this week that it has secured $62.5 million in debt financing from Baseline Growth Capital.

The idea of putting ads on moving vehicles isn’t new. There are, of course, ads on the tops of taxis, and startups like Firefly are also putting digital signage on top of Ubers and Lyfts. But Riley said Road Runner’s ruggedized, high-resolution LCD screens are very different, due to their size, quality and placement.

“[Taxi-top ads] don’t have the color, the brilliance, the clarity,” he said. “We can run a true video ad on the screen.”

Riley also said the ads can be targeted based on GPS and time of day, and that the company eventually plans to add sensors to collect data on who’s actually seeing the ads.

As for concerns that these big, bright screens might distract drivers, Lanham argued they’re actually attracting driver’s eyes to exactly where they should be, and creating a brake light that’s much harder to ignore.

“Your eyes are affixed on the horizon, which is what the [Department of Transportation] wants — as opposed to on the floor or the radio or directly off to the left or right,” he said. “That’s where your safest driving occurs, when your eyes are up above the dashboard.”

In fact, Lanham said he’s “very passionate” about the company’s mission, which in his view will make roads safer, and is creating a platform that could also be used to spread public service messages.

“We have the ability to retrofit any vehicle and make it safer on the highways,” he added. “I really, truly believe that we will save lives, if we already haven’t.”

The company says it already has 150 screens live in Atlanta, Boulder, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles, with plans to launch screens in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. in March.

 

Lob raises $50M for its direct mail platform

Lob is a startup promising to help businesses deliver physical mail more quickly and affordably, and with more personalization.

The company estimates that its platform has been used to deliver mail to one in two U.S. households. And today, it’s announcing that it has raised $50 million in Series C funding.

CEO Leore Avidar told me he founded Lob with Harry Zhang nearly a decade ago to “allow people to send mail programmatically.” Over time, the company has become increasingly focused on enterprise clients — its 8,500-plus customers include Twitter, Expedia and Oscar Health — although Avidar said it will always offer a product for small businesses as well.

Avidar explained that in a digital age, there are two main categories of physical mail that Lob continues to support for its customers. First, there’s mail sent for “a regulatory purpose, a compliance purpose” — in other words, mail that businesses are legally required to send in printed form. Second, there’s direct mail sent as marketing, which Avidar said many companies are rediscovering.

“Marketing as a whole is always trying to find a unique channel in order to make their customer aware of whatever their call to action is,” he said. “Right now, social is really expensive, Google AdWords is super expensive, with email you can easily unsubscribe. No one’s been paying attention to direct mail, and the prices don’t scale with supply and demand.”

Lob says that it can reduce the execution time on a direct mail campaign by 95%, from 90 days to less than a day. For the actual printing and delivery, it has built out a network of partners across the country. And other companies like PostPilot and Postalaytics are building on top of the Lob platform.

The startup has now raised $80 million in total funding. The new round was led by Y Combinator Continuity Fund — Lob participated in the YC accelerator and the Continuity Fund also led the startup’s previous funding.

Avidar said the company is planning to triple the amount of physical mail delivered through the platform this year, which means the round will allow it to continue expanding the Print Delivery Network, as well as increasing headcount to more than 260 employees.

“Lob is leading the digital transformation of direct mail, a business process used by every company on Earth that has remained virtually untouched by software,” said YC Managing Partner and Lob board member Ali Rowghani in a statement. “Lob’s platform delivers exceptional value to some of the world’s largest senders of direct mail by lowering cost and improving deliverability, tracking, reporting, and ROI. Even for the most sophisticated senders of direct mail, Lob’s API-driven product is vastly superior to legacy approaches.”

New Facebook ad campaign extols the benefits of personalized ads

Online advertising can be a “pretty dry topic,” as Facebook’s head of brand marketing Andrew Stirk acknowledged, but with a new campaign of its own, the social networking giant is looking to “bring to life how personalized ads level the playing field” for small businesses.

The Good Ideas Deserve To Be Found campaign will include TV, radio and digital advertising. Individual businesses will also be able to promote it using a new Instagram sticker and the #DeserveToBeFound hashtag on Facebook.

The campaign will highlight specific small businesses on Facebook, including bag and luggage company House of Takura, whose founder Annette Njau spoke about the benefits of digital advertising at a press event yesterday.

“What those platforms allow us to do is, they allow us to tell stories,” Njau said. “I can’t tell this story on TV, I can’t tell this story in a huge magazine because it costs money and I don’t know who will see it.”

These sentiments are similar to a campaign that Facebook launched last year in opposition to Apple’s upcoming App Tracking Transparency feature, where apps will have to ask for permission before sharing user data for third-party ad targeting. In response, Facebook claimed that it was “standing up to Apple for small businesses everywhere,” though the social network also pointed to these changes as one of the “more significant advertising headwinds” that it expects to face this year. (Apple’s Tim Cook, in contrast, has said that these changes provide consumers with the control that they’ve been asking for.)

When asked how this fits into the broader dispute with Apple, Stirk said that while Facebook has been publicly opposed to Apple’s changes, this campaign is part the company’s longer-term support for small business.

“There is a degree of urgency in the fact that … small businesses are hurting right now,” he said.

Head of Facebook Business Products Helen Ma added that this is “very much an extension of the work that we did on the product side at the very start of the COVID period,” which included the launch of the Businesses Nearby section and a #SupportSmallBusiness hashtag.

In addition to launching the campaign today, Facebook is announcing several product changes, including a simplified Ads Manager dashboard, new options for restaurants to provide more information about their dining experiences and more information about personalized ads in Facebook’s Business Resource hub and Instagram’s Professional Dashboard.

The company also said it will continue to waive fees on transactions through Checkouts on Shops through June 2021, and will do the same for fees collected on paid online events until August 2021 at the earliest.

Blueshift raises $30M for its AI-based, integrated approach to marketing

The concept of the “marketing cloud” — sold by the likes of Salesforce, Oracle and Adobe — has become a standard way for large tech companies to package together and sell marketing tools to businesses that want to improve how they use digital channels to grow their business.

Some argue, however, that “cloud”, singular, might be a misnomer: typically those tools are not integrated well with each other and effectively are run as separate pieces of software. Today a startup called Blueshift — which claims to offer an end-to-end marketing stack, by having built it from the ground up to include both traditional marketing data as well as customer experience — is announcing some funding, pointing to the opportunity to build more efficient alternatives.

The startup has closed a round of $30 million, a Series C that co-founder and CEO Vijay Chittoor said it will be using to expand to more markets (it’s most active in the U.S. and Europe currently) and also to expand its technology.

“The product already has a unified format, to ingest data from multiple sources and redistribute that out to apps. Now, we want to distribute that data to more last-mile applications,” he said in an interview. “Our biggest initiative is to scale out the notion of us being not just an app but a platform.”

The company’s customers include LendingTree, Discovery Inc., Udacity, BBC and Groupon, and it has seen revenue growth of 858% in the last three years, although it’s not disclosing actual revenues, nor valuation, today.

The round is being led by Fort Ross Ventures, with strong participation also from Avatar Growth Capital. Past investors Softbank Ventures Asia (which led its last round of $15 million), Storm Ventures, Conductive Ventures and Nexus Venture Partners also invested.

The concept for Blueshift came out of Chittoor’s direct experience at Groupon — which acquired his previous startup, social e-commerce company Mertado — and before that a long period at Walmart Labs — which Walmart rebranded after it acquired another startup where Chittoor was an early employee, semantic search company Kosmix.

“The challenges we are solving today we saw first hand as challenges our customers saw at Groupon and Walmart,” he said. “The connected customer journey is creating a thousand times more data than before, and people and brands are engaging across more touchpoints. Tracking that has become harder with legacy channel-centric applications.”

Blueshift’s approach for solving that has been, he said, “to unify the data and to make decisions at customer level.”

That is to say, although the customer experience today is very fragmented — you might potentially encounter something about a company or brand in multiple places, such as in a physical environment, on various social media platforms, in your email, through a web search, in a vertical search portal, in a marketplace on a site, in an app, and so on — the experience for marketers should not be.

The company addresses this by way of a customer data platform (CDP) it markets as “SmartHub.” Designed for non-technical users although customizable by engineers if you need it to be, users can integrate different data feeds from multiple sources, which then Blueshift crunches and organises to let you view in a more structured way.

That data can then be used to power actions in a number of places where you might be setting up marketing campaigns. And Chittoor pointed out — like other marketing people have — that these days, the focus on that is largely first-party data to fuel that machine, rather than buying in data from third-party sources (which is definitely part of a bigger trend).

“Our mission is to back category-leading companies that are poised to dominate a market. Blueshift clearly stood out to us as the leader in the enterprise CDP space,” said Ratan Singh of Fort Ross Ventures in a statement. “We are thrilled to partner with the Blueshift team as they accelerate the adoption of their SmartHub CDP platform.” Singh is joining Blueshift’s board with this round.

Emotive raises $50M to make text marketing more conversational

While more businesses are turning to text messages as a marketing channel, Emotive CEO Brain Zatulove argued that most marketers are just treating it as another “newsletter blast.”

“The reason the channel performs so well is it’s not saturated,” Zatulove said. But that’s changing, and as it does, companies will have to do more to “cut through the noise.”

That’s what he said Emotive provides, by enabling text marketing that feels like a real conversation with another human being, rather than just another email blast. He compared it to the sales associate who would greet you when you first walked into a department store, pre-COVID.

“The online sales associate really didn’t exist,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to provide.”

Emotive saw 466% year-over-year revenue growth in 2020 and is announcing today that it has raised $50 million in a Series B funding round that values the company at $400 million. It was led by CRV with participation from Mucker Capital, TenOneTen Ventures and Stripes.

Emotive screenshot

Image Credits: Emotive

“Never underestimate the importance of building a product that your customers, and your customers’ customers adore,” said CRV general partner Murat Bicer in a statement. “One of the things that struck us about Emotive is the sheer amount of customer love Brian and Zack get from meal delivery services, manufacturing companies and even toddler shoe brands. Small businesses find it easy to set up campaigns and their customers genuinely prefer communicating with someone over text rather than email.”

Zatulove said he founded the company with Zachary Wise after they’d worked together on cannabis loyalty startup Reefer, eventually deciding there was a bigger opportunity here after their early successes with text marketing. He explained that while Emotive works with larger customers, its sweet spot is mid-sized e-commerce businesses on Shopify, Magento, Bigcommerce and Woocommerce.

Since those businesses usually don’t have any salespeople of their own yet, Emotive serves that function. It can start conversations around shopping cart abandonment and promote promote sales and new products, resulting in what the company says are 8% to 10% conversion rates (compared to 1% or 2% for a standard text marketing campaign). Zatuolove said the platform largely relied on human responders at first, and although it’s become increasingly automated over time, Emotive still has an internal team handling responses when necessary.

“We never plan on losing that human touch as part of the dialogue,” he added. “We see ourselves as a human-to-human platform. That’s our biggest differentiator.”

Emotive had previously raised $8.2 million in funding, according to Crunchbase. Zatulove said this new round will allow the company to continue developing the product, to grow its headcount to more than 200 people and to open offices in Atlanta and Boston. Eventually, it could also expand beyond texting.

“Longer term, we see ourselves more as a conversation platform, not just as a text message platform,” he said.

Rokk3r acquires AdMobilize and Matrix Labs for $19.5M

Miami-based AdMobilize and its spin-off, Matrix Labs, announced this morning that they are being acquired for $19.5 million. The buyer is Rokk3r, a Miami-based holding company that invests in creating, acquiring and integrating companies.

AdMobilize quantifies digital advertising in the physical world, so marketers can better reach their target audiences.

“If you’re walking on 5th Avenue and you pass by a bus shelter that has a digital screen, AdMobilize analyzes [peoples’] age, gender, emotion and even how long the person was looking at the ad. We created a platform that mimics the click-through rate. So we kind of created Google Analytics for the outside world,” said Rodolfo Saccoman, CEO and founder of AdMobilize.

The company, which has raised $13 million since its launch in 2012, also has offices in Saccoman’s native Brazil, as well as Colombia and London. 

AdMobilize operates as a SaaS with an average monthly subscription fee of $50 per screen or billboard. 

“Our tech is 95% accurate, and it’s based on undeniable computer vision data,” Saccoman said. If a digital ad screen doesn’t have a camera built-in, AdMobilize can provide one. But Saccoman made it very clear that the company doesn’t do any facial recognition and really is only interested in the data in a broader sense.

Matrix Labs, on the other hand, is a hardware company with products that look similar to Raspberry Pi, but with a lot more oomph.

“Our Matrix Labs development boards give the Raspberry Pi superpowers. It transforms the Pi to be AI-ready for computer vision, sensor fusion, voice recognition and more. It democratizes AI at the edge by removing barriers to entry, shortening the learning curve, and increases adaptability,” Saccoman said.

Rodolfo Saccoman Image Credits: Saccoman

The company offers two boards. One is called the Matrix Creator and sells for $99, while the other is the Matrix Voice which goes for $75.

“It [Matrix boards] enables people to not spend millions of dollars making a piece of hardware,” Saccoman said. In fact, it levels the playing field for developers, he added. “It allows them to create solutions in the physical world with inexpensive edge AI hardware.”

Rokk3r was an early investor in AdMobilize, along with Azoic Ventures, Fuel Venture Capital, VAS Ventures and Axel Springer.

“Rokk3r has always believed in the potential of artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, and computer vision, hence it seeded and helped build AdMobilize. Where we stand today with what AdMobilize/Matrix Labs has achieved, it is clear that the technology created is critical to the future of AI/IOT/CV, and with Rokk3r’s focus on AI/IOT and IP creation, the fit was clear,” said Nabyl Charania, chairman and CEO of Rokk3r.

Saccoman is a Brazilian-born serial entrepreneur who moved to the U.S. to attend college at Cornell in 1995 and never left. He made his way down to South Florida with his first job out of college, where he was head of Digital Innovation at the ultra-lux Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach. While the AdMobilize/Matrix Labs deal is his first exit, his first “venture” was when he was just 13 years old. It was called the PiPi bag. São Paulo, the financial capital of Brazil, is notorious for awful traffic. It can often take people three hours to get to the airport, and when you’re trying to catch a flight, stopping to use the restroom isn’t usually an option. As the name suggests, the Pipi bag was a handheld portable toilet of sorts for those moments when nature calls.

Years later, in 2007, Saccoman also founded a company with his brother who has a PhD in psychology. It was called MyTherapyJournal.com and was the first online journaling platform with cognitive behavior therapy. 

“It would measure your varying emotions when you answered key questions. For example, people could start to understand what would trigger their anxiety. It had early traces of AI,” Saccoman said. MyTherapyJournal closed in 2012.

Of his various ventures, he said, “My mind was always running to find problems.”

Saccoman will stay on board and lead Rokk3r’s AI and IoT division.

IronSource acquires video and playable ad platform Luna Labs

Mobile advertising company ironSource is announcing its second acquisition of the year — Luna Labs, a startup that that’s built a platform allowing app developers to create and manage video and playable ads.

When I first wrote about the startup in 2019, its main selling point was the ability to create those ads directly from from the Unity game engine used by many developers. Since then, it has expanded its platform to support the creation of both playable and video ads (including unlimited variations of a gameplay video), manage their entire ad library, analyze their performance and even automatically optimize them based on install data. Its customers include Crazy Labs, Supersonic Studios, Lion Studios, Kwalee and Voodoo.

IronSource, meanwhile, has built a platform for mobile user growth and monetization. It was valued at more than $1 billion in its most recent funding round of more than $400 million, and in January it announced the acquisition of ad measurement company Soomla.

In a statement, ironSource’s co-founder and chief revenue officer Omer Kaplan said:

Our vision at ironSource is to build the most comprehensive growth platform for app developers, allowing them to focus on content creation and on building a great user experience, while we provide the infrastructure for their business expansion. Creatives are a key part of that and have only become more important as competition for user attention grows. But ad creative development and testing at scale is incredibly difficult and costly. Luna Labs solves that by bringing high quality end-to-end ad creation management to app developers, and we’re excited to be able to add that capability into the ironSource platform.

The financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed. IronSource says that the Luna Labs team (currently based in the United Kingdom) will remain in its current offices, where it will continue developing its technology “under the ironSource umbrella.”

Spotify to launch Spotify Audience Network, an audio ad marketplace

Spotify provided more details today about how it plans to monetize its investments in podcasts. The company said it’s launching a new audio advertising marketplace, the Spotify Audience Network, which will allow advertisers to reach listeners across Spotify’s own Originals and Exclusives, as well as podcasts via Megaphone and creation tool Anchor, and its ad-supported music, all in one place. The company also said it plans to offer podcasts on its self-serve ad platform, Spotify Ad Studio, starting with Spotify Originals and Exclusives in the U.S., in a beta test phase.

This will expand to include third-party podcasts in the future, the company noted today during its live online event, “Stream On.”

Currently, Spotify Ad Studio is being used by advertisers across 22 markets following its 2017 launch, to reach Spotify music listeners with both audio and video advertisements. Spotify said the service is its fastest-growing buying channel, but didn’t provide specific figures to detail that growth.

Image Credits: Spotify

However, the larger news on the advertising side was the launch of the new audio ad marketplace, Spotify Audience Network. Similar to some of its other forward-looking announcements today, Spotify was light on details about how exactly Spotify Audience Network would work — saying only that it’s in the “early stages of developing the offering,” and it expects to be able to share more at a later date.

However, the company positioned the marketplace as a “game changer,” particularly for podcasters looking to make money from ads, as well as for advertisers who want to reach Spotify’s audience of hundreds and millions, both on and off Spotify.

This news follows an investigative report by The Verge earlier this year which found Spotify was the main sponsor for Anchor advertising to date — despite its promises to find sponsors for smaller podcasters. It now appears Spotify has been in the process of building out its ad marketplace and tooling to make good on those promises, and may not have prioritized advertiser outreach in the meantime.

Image Credits: Spotify

Spotify today also spoke about how its recent acquisition of Megaphone would allow it to scale its Streaming Ad Insertion (SAI) technology, launched in early 2020, to publishers beyond its own Originals and Exclusives audio programs. Today, SAI is available in the U.S., Canada, Germany and the U.K., and will expand to other new markets in 2021.

Since its debut, SAI has been rolling out new features like audience-based buying, native ad placements and reporting on creative performance. Later this year, Spotify says it will make SAI available to Megaphone podcast publishers and “leading” Anchor creators.

But Anchor creators won’t be limited to advertising to grow revenues.

Spotify also briefly noted it will, in a few months, begin beta testing a new feature that will allow Anchor creators to publish paid podcast content to Spotify aimed at their most dedicated fans, as TechCrunch previously reported.

 

Acast acquires podcasting startup RadioPublic

Podcast advertising company Acast is announcing that it has acquired RadioPublic, the startup that spun out of public radio marketplace PRX in 2016.

At first, RadioPublic’s main product was a mobile app for podcast listening, and it still supports the app. But co-founder and Chief Product Officer Matt MacDonald said that over time, the team’s focus shifted to products for podcasters, specifically its Listener Relationship Management Platform, which includes an embeddable web player, custom websites called Podsites and more.

“We had a whole roadmap of things we wanted to build, but we recognized that at our scale, we could be better served by partnering up with bigger organizations,” MacDonald said.

And ultimately, they decided Acast made sense as not just a partner, but an owner. Acast’s business still revolves around podcast advertising, but it’s also expanded with new tools like the Acast Open hosting platform, and it says it now hosts 20,000 podcasts, collectively reaching 300 million monthly listeners.

“The acquisition of RadioPublic is fundamentally a partnership of values,” said Acast’s chief business and strategy officer Leandro Saucedo in a statement. “We both firmly believe in the open ecosystem of podcasting and have a shared commitment to aid listener discovery and support all creators. We’re impressed by what RadioPublic has achieved and we believe that now — as podcasting is gaining more momentum than ever before — is the ideal time to bring RadioPublic’s talented team and company missions into the Acast fold.”

The financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed, but Acast says it will not affect RadioPublic operationally.

MacDonald and his co-founder/CTO Chris Quamme Rhoden are both joining Acast (CEO Jake Shapiro departed last fall to lead creator partnerships for Apple Podcasts), and although they’ll be working to integrate RadioPublic features into the Acast platform, MacDonald said the startup will continue to support its own products and mobile apps for “the foreseeable future.”

He added that as RadioPublic works with Acast, the team will remain focused on “strengthening and deepening that relationship, that bond, that affinity between the podcaster and the listener.” In his view, that’s where RadioPublic’s opportunity lies, even as big platforms like Spotify invest in podcasting.

“How do we enable you, as the creator, to control the relationship you have with your audience?” MacDonald said. “We believe that a podcast’s listeners are the podcast’s listeners. They are not the platform’s customers.”