Q&A: Omar Tawakol, CEO, BlueKai

Omar Tawakol, a self-described computer science geek believes “data provides the intelligence for marketing.” He founded BlueKai in 2008 as a way for marketers to sell and buy online consumer shopping and other behavior data to improve their targeting. He speaks to Direct Marketing News about his thoughts on Do-Not-Track legislation and trends in online data management.

Direct Marketing News (DMN): First off, you operate in a unique industry. Tell people what BlueKai does.

Omar Tawakol (BlueKai): Our goal is to build the infrastructure for a data exchange democracy. Data is more valuable than the media it runs on. There’s an incentive to get people to share it in a structured way. The Web is a stateless protocol. You have to create the rules around it and the classification rules.

The whole mindset we’re trying to get at is to think about people and not proxies like a zip code or a TV show. Not everyone that watches Desperate Housewives is the same person. Marketers spend an incredible amount on getting reports and analytics on their proxies, but at the end of the day, a proxy doesn’t buy your products, people do. Search is not a proxy, it’s a person telling you something. So what we try to do is go directly to the people.

DMN: If I’m a marketer, how does a data ad exchange work?

Tawakol: So let’s say I’m an airline, I’d go to the exchange and I’d say I want all these people looking for flights to Hawaii. You buy a million anonymous cookies and you put those into Google’s ad exchange, you put it into your portals, and you serve ads only to that list of people.

DMN: How accurate is the data that BlueKai possesses, or does it really only let a marketer scratch the surface? For example, it’s not as accurate as the data that I as a marketer could glean from Web analytics on my own site right?

Tawakol: So we looked at the world of search and said we’re going to classify every action. We have other areas called “interests,” so we created this taxonomy, and then we have past purchases, what you bought in the past, or you read about something. Instead of taking a black box approach, we classify in a very granular way and we let the market decide the price of the data, it’s an open marketplace.

DMN: The FTC, and some members of Congress, are pressing for stricter control of access to consumers’ online behavior. If they are successful, will it hurt your business?

Tawakol: It really depends on the form. We came into the offline list world which had your  name and banking records, which was incredibly rich. We said we weren’t going to go that far. We said this shouldn’t occur in the shadows, so we created a registry for transparency. Then we went out and created the Opt Out protector, which we provided to the NAI. Our goal has been to change the behavior of the industry.

Eighty percent of all agency display ads touches a third-party cookie. If you’re an advertiser, you’re just buying pure contextual, you have to use a cookie to track. [The FTC Do-Not-Track proposal] should be called the “I prefer to pay for content” proposal. Advertisers are not going to pay for ads they can’t target and track.

DMN: Where is BlueKai headed? Where are you innovating – will you be bringing new services in the new year?

Tawakol: What we started to see at the end of 2010, we saw the largest companies adopt the data management platform, a unified view of the customer internal and external data so they can become world class segmenters and then apply them everywhere — on their own sites on ad, on video, on their analytics. Be real scientific, and once you get that right, apply it everywhere. We think by end of the year, every CMO will have it on their priority list.

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