Harry Dewhirst on Asia plans for new venture BlisMedia, obstacles to growth, and why SingTel’s acquisition of Amobee put Singapore ad tech ‘on the map’

Harry DewhirstHarry Dewhirst is the former VP of advertising at Amobee, a mobile ad tech firm that SingTel acquired for $321 million in 2012. He recently joined location-based ad company BlisMedia, and is looking to expand the business from his base in Singapore.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks, Dewhirst, whose mobile ad buying firm RingRing Media was acquired by Amobee in 2009, talks about how BlisMedia differs to Amobee, his Asia expansion plans, and whether his former company was worth its hefty price tag.

So what is BlisMedia?

We are essentially an audience targeting platform that works across devices – not just mobile but online too. We can apply a third dimension, which shows where people have been and the habits of where they go.

What are your plans for BlisMedia in Asia?

As a company, we’re doubling up on the opportunity in Southeast Asia, North Asia and Australasia, and will be boosting the size of our teams in Singapore, China and Australia, but we’re not ignoring any of the other regional markets. Our APAC hub is Singapore, but I’m quite confident that we’ll build offices across Southeast Asia, into cities such as Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur as client demand grows. Singapore is a great place to build from. We’ll do the same out of our Sydney office, with a view to launching into New Zealand.

What do you see as the biggest obstacle to growth for BlisMedia in this region?

Asia is a large area to cover, so building awareness will be a challenge. London [where BlisMedia is headquartered] is an epicentre for media globally, and we’re known there. But here we have our work cut-out in terms of building our brand. We’re at the cutting edge of digital advertising, and in a nascent industry education is always a big obstacle. But we’ve been through that pain before. Most location-based ad firms are no longer around, so that shows you how far we’ve come.

How different is BlisMedia to Amobee? Is your former employer a rival?

This space is very small, so there’s always some overlap. I’d say that we’re closer to the other demand-side platforms in online and mobile. Amobee offers that to some extent, but it is not their core business, so we’re not a direct competitor.

There’s been a lot of talk in the media industry in Singapore about the huge price SingTel paid for Amobee two years ago – $321 million. Do you think that SingTel overpaid for Amobee?

I would say no. If you look at acquisitions in digital, it [the Amobee acquisition] is not out of ordinary. It is quite significant, but it was a great thing for Singapore, because it helped put digital advertising on the map; it was a positive catalyst to spur other digital businesses to set up a presence in Singapore.

What are your plans for the next 12 months?

We’re a tech firm, and half of our staff are engineers. We want to continue to innovate and develop proprietary technology that helps us stay ahead of the market. We have a small team in Singapore and Australia, and we want them both to be sustainable, and provide great customer service in each market. We want to get a real foothold on the market and become a key partner for agency groups. We want to continue the education process for a new way of looking at audiences. Until now, that’s not been available – at least not with the reach we’ve been able to achieve. We can deliver algorithms that can predict user location with a greater level accuracy.

What do you see as the major obstacle to adoption?

We’re lucky in that most agencies are developing trading desks to automate the buying process. So whilst the market is moving, we’re moving in the same direction. Markets like the US and the UK are more developed, but this part of the world is catching up very quickly, and we want to be at the forefront.

There have been many staff changes at Amobee since it was acquired by SingTel. What’s your take on how well the company has performed since the acquisition?

In business there is always a life cycle, and there are still some incredibly talented people at the company. Mark [Strecker, the CEO], whom I worked for, is an exceptional business leader. I’m sure they’re not disheartened by the way things are turning out.


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