Criteo CEO has a feel for Olympian challenges

Ms Megan Clarken, chief executive of Criteo, knows a thing or two about tackling adversity.

As a teenage star athlete in her native New Zealand, she held the women’s record for long jump and had qualified to represent her country in the 1988 Olympics when a crunching knee injury sustained on her jumping leg put her out of contention.

Three decades later, after a 15-year career with Nielsen, where she rose to be chief commercial officer, Ms Clarken thought she was all set to be given the top role when the directors decided to bring in someone else.

She made her disappointment plain, but said she would stay until a strategic review Nielsen was doing got completed.

Once that was done, she took the job at Criteo, an advertising technology company that works with Internet retailers.

“I love Nielsen and had been very loyal to them for a long time, but it’s very hard to move things there.

“They are a whale because of what they do,” says the 53-year-old, who next month completes a year in the Criteo job.

“So, going into a very agile, adaptable environment was also something I was craving. I felt like an old lady moving into that environment. I think the average age (at Criteo) is 32.”

Ms Clarken had barely got enough time to know key staff at her new workplace when a business-critical issue erupted unexpectedly.

Google announced in mid-January that it would join Safari and Firefox in blocking third-party cookies in its Chrome browser, shaking up the marketing world, which was now required to adapt to the new privacy environment and build marketing and analytical tools afresh.

Criteo’s shares tanked, wiping off two-thirds of the value of the stock.

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Then, chief financial officer Benoit Fouilland – whose eight-year tenure saw Criteo move from a US$200 million business to a US$2.26 billion (S$3.1 billion) enterprise and a Nasdaq listing – announced he was leaving. He would turn up as CFO of Firmenich, the world’s largest privately owned perfume and taste company.

And, of course, there is the pandemic, which just won’t go away.

“I have thick skin, so all this is, ‘Okay, let’s get on with it’,” says Ms Clarken, speaking from her home in upstate New York, where she has been ensconced since March, away from her Paris headquarters, thanks to Covid-19.

“But Covid flexes a different muscle group that everybody has had to experience.”

Criteo’s shares, currently trading at US$13.83, have more than doubled from their 52-week lows, but given the turbulence all round, there is much work to be done.

Still, while the economic situation is dismal around the world, there are some tail winds that, caught at the flood, could lead to fortune.

One obvious trend, of course, is e-commerce, accelerated by the lockdowns. While some big retailers have struggled to cope, mid-market players who learnt to adjust appear to have done well.

“Eighty-one per cent of consumers are saying they won’t go back to the old brand and have tried a new one,” Ms Clarken says, citing studies.

“When all this lifts, the big brands are going to have to work very, very hard.

“Secondly, there is a change in behaviour globally in terms of where search for products is being done. During Covid, we have seen this steady increase in searches going directly to retail sites (rather than Google search or Amazon).”

In the Asia-Pacific, she adds, analytics suggest that 55 per cent of shoppers have downloaded at least one shopping app since Covid-19 arrived on the landscape.

No surprise there. The region is a very app-oriented marketplace.

Criteo helps retailers with apps, gathering a fee when a customer installs an app. Although only a small part of the wider business, it nevertheless is an important part of the Asia-Pacific portfolio.

There have been some questions on whether Criteo has been able to maintain its ability to retain big clients. Ms Clarken says that small retailers aside, Criteo has started getting traction with some big clients, including those who are white labelling some pieces of what the company offers as part of their own tech engines.

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White-label products are sold by retailers with their own branding and logo, even as the products are created by third parties.

Now, her challenge is to reposition Criteo from being an advertising retargeting company to the “ad-tech company for the open Internet” at a time when the marketing game itself is changing.

One example: Branding campaigns are moving from product-focused advertisements to human-centred ones.

Gut punch

That’s one challenge. There’s also the matter of consumer privacy and the third-party cookies being blocked by Chrome that delivered a gut punch to businesses such as hers.

Ms Clarken says she understands that Google is responding to pressures to protect people’s privacy and the response is legitimate. But, she adds, consumers have rights too.

“We also believe in the need for the consumer to get the best experience that they possibly can from their digital environment.

“The digital players on the Internet need to work together to come up with what’s next.

“How do we continue to run our businesses and give consumers what they need, while protecting their rights? It is a hard one, but we have to do it. Criteo will work it out.”

If the industry cannot manage that, she says, the ads will not get in front of customers, especially so-called contextual ads.

These are a form of targeted advertising for ads appearing on websites or other media.

“Now you have four or five walled gardens that rule the world,” she says. “So, it’s a systemic problem and it’s a big one for all of us. You probably have read that we’re working very closely with Chrome as well and trying to resolve some of these issues.”

Fast facts

The ceo

Ms Megan Clarken, 53, has been chief executive of Criteo since last November. Raised in Auckland, New Zealand, in a family of four children, she was a champion athlete from a young age and represented Oceania at the 1984 World Cup in Canberra.

Previously, she was chief commercial officer of Nielsen Global Media, president of Watch, Nielsen’s media measurement services, and president of product leadership. Prior to Nielsen, she held senior leadership positions in large publishers and online technology providers, including Akamai Technologies and ninemsn in Australia.

She qualified for the 1988 Summer Olympics in long jump but could not participate after suffering an anterior cruciate ligament injury in a softball game, causing her jumping knee to collapse.

She quit athletics at the age of 25 to find work in computers.

She has led awareness initiatives around International Women’s Day and Pride month since taking charge at Criteo.

With homes in Paris and upstate New York, her hobbies include reading and cycling.

The company

Criteo is a global technology company that works with Internet retailers to serve personalised online display advertisements to consumers who have visited the advertiser’s website previously.

It deploys proprietary AI technology to engage consumers in real time by designing, pricing and delivering highly relevant digital advertisements across devices and environments.

It is headquartered in Paris and was co-founded in 2005 by serial entrepreneur Jean-Baptiste Rudelle. Ms Clarken was appointed to Criteo’s board of directors in August.

Criteo has 2,700 employees worldwide. It had revenue of US$2.26 billion (S$3.1 billion) in the year ended last December and Ebitda of US$299 million.

Criteo built its reputation as a retargeting company, essentially one that hits you with ads until you become a convert and buy a product, or the company figures it cannot interest you more.

Lately, Ms Clarken has spoken of building “demand side platforms” which she describes as something of a dating game between people who buy ad space, or advertisers, and those who sell space.

In this world, artificial intelligence and algorithms will combine to identify groups of people with a high degree of similarity and then pitch those attributes to the highest bidder who could then focus ads on target audiences.

The challenge in advertising is to get the right message to the right person at the right time on the most convenient device.

“The promise of digital is that we can give you something that is contextually interesting to you,” she says. “We have all the capability to do everything up the stack because we have this enormous capability at retargeting at the bottom. We are building out all of the pieces of the program.”

If advertising is so much of a science, where’s the room for creativity? Do influencers matter?

And at what point do ads become an intrusion and a nuisance?

Ms Clarken says influencers matter in any environment and make for effective amplifiers of messages. And she doesn’t mind stirring controversy by saying some of the advertising today can indeed be an intrusion.

However, she adds, a lot of that is because customers are being chased to buy products they already own – ads for shoes following you around for a year when you’ve already bought them or do not need them any more.

Criteo, she says, is determined to make sure consumers aren’t annoyed and have the best experience they can possibly get.

Whether she manages to take Criteo where she wants to will be keenly watched, by the industry and investors alike.

If she succeeds, it will be another layer to a remarkable story of a woman who says she “stumbled through the 20s” to emerge as a computer operator doing shift work for nearly a decade.

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Moving across the Tasman Sea to Australia, as many of her country people are wont to do, she worked in IT for Air New Zealand before moving to ninemsn.

“They were looking for anybody who knew anything about a computer at the time and I could do it,” she quips.

After a stint consulting for News Corp and working for Akamai Technologies, she found her niche at Nielsen, which she joined in 2004. In 2013, she moved to New York to run its media operations.

Among her fortunes she counts having what she calls a close-knit “functioning family” and perspectives on diversity partly gained in the early years in South Auckland, when she mixed with Polynesian children from poor backgrounds.

I asked if there was an athlete she admired most and the response was unhesitating: Martina Navratilova, the winner of 18 Grand Slam singles titles in women’s tennis.

“Some friends of mine are friends of hers and so I had dinner with her,” says Ms Clarken.

“And she is just a wonderful, wonderful human being.”

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