Kerri Pollard took over the helm of Commission Junction as general manager over a year ago. Pollard’s rise through the ranks – starting at BeFree back in the day and then at CJ as director of publisher services – gives her a wide variety of network experience to draw upon. Since Pollard took over, CJ has undergone some changes.
Lisa Picarille: You’ve been running Commission Junction for over a year now. What’s changed at CJ?
Kerri Pollard: It seems like a cliche, but the first order of business was to get the right people in place. Our emphasis is customer focus on the advertiser, publisher and agency side of the business. We didn’t spend a lot of time on agencies in the past. Making sure we had the right people gave us greater focus. Everyone is now aligned and focused. On the agency side, we have a support team and the resources on the sales end. I’m happy to say that coming off CJU we’ve gotten positive feedback about the increased support and partnership. Also, both the advertiser and publisher sides made alignments in the marketing and products teams. There is ownership and accountability within their teams. That is reflected in the product groups. I grew up on the publisher side of the business at BeFree and we have added more support on that side of the business. Mike Ouellette, a former BeFree-er from back in the day, has also joined us as director of publisher developments.
LP: What has resulted from the personnel changes?
KP: Those changes give us a couple of different things. In this business, it’s all about bringing in new advertisers to the CJ Marketplace and retaining them. Organizationally, we are focused on retention and acquisition. We are really trying to re-emphasize customer outreach.
LP: And the biggest changes?
KP: They’ve been on the technology side and the marketing and product sides. We are becoming better at product marketing. We hadn’t been marketing ourselves. We are also able to focus on Web Services. We launched that two years ago, but there are more opportunities for third party developers and to get traction with developers.
LP: Have the changes allowed you to attract more developers, advertisers or publishers?
KP: We tend to err a little more on the conservative side. But we continue to bring in new clients in each quarter when you look at the year-over-year numbers. It’s all about how we track it and we are also very conservative about sharing that data.
LP: Has the fact that Performics is now part of Google impacted your ability to bring in new clients?
KP: No. It’s been no different thus far. That could change. But it hasn’t impacted the sales process of anything with our existing clients. As far as we are concerned, it hasn’t changed from when they were Performics.
LP: Now, the inevitable question about the impact of the economy on your business?
KP: Because our business is tied to the online process we have been looking at the forecasting process. A lot of people are in the dark about what the holidays will bring. Analysts are all over the place with predictions – anywhere from 12 to 13 percent growth, but we’ve also seen numbers as low as just 3 percent growth for online sales. On the positive side, we are seeing that companies are definitely redirecting money from other channels into affiliate marketing because it is cost effective. Even if a company or retailer has laid off workers, they can’t shut down that channel. But they need our help on the services side of the business – especially if they don’t understand that when they pay out more to publishers, that’s a good thing. That it’s tied to increased sales. But it all comes back to the consumer. More and more consumers are coming online and shopping, and the adoption rate will continue to increase. Will that fact offset what is happening with the economy? Not sure. And we definitely won’t know for sure until a couple of weeks into 2009. We are doing what we can, but things like Citi Bank filing for bankruptcy and more consolidations at financial institutions are beyond our control and they do have an impact.
LP: What’s the impact been on affiliate marketing overall?
KP: I do know affiliate marketing is the safest business. It’s measurable and cost-effective. But businesses are also in hunker-down mode. But I think we can grow the affiliate marketing pie. We are helping our existing clients with greater education, so they can really understand performance marketing. We are also looking to areas like BtoB. People tend to take a shot and need the support for publishers. That business can be tracked and we are looking into what role we could play. We are also looking at doing more tracking retail outlets and VARs (value-added resellers). We are having conversations about how, as a business and technology platform, we can track other things within an organization.
LP: And you have the technology to do that?
KP: We have a lot of technology initiatives. We were the first to launch Web Services domestically. We are revitalizing that initiative, making it more of a community and a mashup. We want third party developers and others to make widgets. We are also working closely with some of the other ValueClick properties to leverage their technology – Media Convergence and MediaPlex. We want to move beyond the methodology. ValueClick is already doing behavioral and contextual targeting. The biggest challenge is the amount of heavy lifting involved.
LP: Are you leveraging other technologies as well?
KP: We want to make it easier for existing clients to do business with us. Publishers get excited when it comes to optimization. Big publishers have made a significant investment. We need to make things easier for the great diversity of publishers. We are looking at creating more push network features for new publishers. So, we are looking at the core fundamentals. This is a relationship-based business. There are social networks out there and communities. We also want to have more automation on the reporting side. We are open to leveraging other developers. We don’t have to build everything ourselves. We just launched a pay-per-call beta test with CallWave. It has a branded CJ look and feel.
LP: There have been issues around network compliance and those that continue to override affiliate commissions.
KP: Network quality is important to us and we are very diligent about it -maybe more than anyone else. We’ve put an increased focus on it. Jeff Randall is handling our network quality and developing that even more. Adware and spyware have been difficult and more egregious, but when it comes to adware, there are customers that are still supporting it. We will still continue to watch it and stay one step ahead. In addition, trademark bidding is a big piece to monitor. The focus for us is staying on top of it. To do that, we are adding more regulations and policies.
LP: A while back, you were expanding into countries outside the U.S. Is that something CJ will continue?
KP: ValueClick has a big global presence. CJ launched in Spain this summer. We also have offices in the U.K., France, Germany and Sweden. We are looking to continue expanding in 2009 and looking at different ideas. We are also seeing more client interest in the Asia-Pacific.
LP: What are some of the specific goals for CJ in 2009?
KP: There are economic factors in play, but we’re focusing more on what we can control. In general, we are seeing greater focus on profitability and margins for our customers. We think that by educating our clients and being focused on technology we can grow distribution beyond the scope.
LP: Are you seeing larger affiliates get bigger and the gap between the largest and smallest affiliates get wider?
KP: Large publishers – especially couponers – are having their best year ever. But double digital growth year-over-year is going to be more difficult. It’s getting more difficult to be successful in this business. The small guys are trying to compete, but it is survival of the fittest and there is a huge increase in competition. The changes to search engine policies this fall hit hard for a lot of people. Search engines determined that content was ranked higher based on what was compelling to consumers. That hit the smaller guys hardest.
LP: Do you feel pressure from the CPA networks?
KP: No. Not really. It’s just arbitrage to an extent. They have not made an investment. It’s not a relationship. I see them as here today, gone tomorrow. They are ankle-biters. I think when you think about networks it really comes down to the Big Four.
LP: What are the other major challenges for CJ over the next 12 months?
KP: It’s been an interesting year. I’m excited about all the things that we’ve been able to do. It’s like we’ve been cleaning up the stable and the horses are ready to hit the racetrack. We are making sure that we stay focused on the customers and the products and services they need the most.