A Year In Review
In one of the near-final paragraphs of an article on Patti Smith, that I read on a morning of one of the near-final days of 2022, I found myself reading and re-reading this incredible excerpt:
“…we must learn to animate the void by filling it with questions, energy, desire, and a language of enthusiasm that is importantly, she says, not a naive enthusiasm or a willfully ignorant optimism; it’s not a turning away from or an avoidance of the pain and hardship we face or see others face. It is, instead, the act of greeting life—with all its grief, difficulty, and deceptively stagnant moments—with a steadfast trust in our ability to ride it, to change, to evolve.”
I am here to greet life. And just as organizations reflect the many people within them and often behave like individuals, I can confidently say that VidMob is here to greet 2023 with a steadfast trust in our ability to ride it, to change, and to evolve.
2022 was unlike any year VidMob has experienced in its short life. We made enormous strides in the development of our platform for intelligent creative, helping many of the world’s leading marketers materially advance in their quest to bring intelligence and agility to all of their digital marketing creative. In doing so, we helped them turn creative into a massive driver of business performance. We heard stories from L’Oreal, Johnson & Johnson, and Marriott about how Intelligent Creative was changing their business. We won numerous awards throughout the year, including Ad Age 2022 Best Places to Work, Digiday’s Best Use of Data (in conjunction with ABI), and IMA Impact 2022 Platform of the Year. We saw multiple agencies begin providing valuable creative analytics for their own clients using VidMob’s software. And importantly, we closed a $110 million Series D in the Fall, positioning VidMob well for the future.
But that’s not the entire story for the year. Like many tech companies who had hired aggressively during the last few years, we were forced to reduce our staff as we evolved from a growth-dominant mindset to one that more clearly balanced growth and profitability. We also decided to focus our product, sales and client success efforts on enterprise marketers, which had the enormous benefit of allowing us to be laser-focused on a segment of the market that we know we can impact significantly. But it meant saying goodbye to a talented and well-liked mid-market team.
Grief. Difficulty. All of the emotions mentioned in the quote at the top. We felt them all. But through it all we inexorably pushed to change, and to evolve along the ride.
I am one of the people who believe that the broader business climate will unfortunately get worse before it gets better. I think the consumer resilience that’s holding things up has its limits, and those limits are not measured in years. If this happens, it seems certain to push the US economy into a recession.
So with that in mind, here are some of the things I’m thinking about as we cinch our saddles and prepare to ride the year that lies ahead:
It may get worse before it gets better, but it will get better. It always does.
This one is simple. Just as winter feels like it will never end, until one day there are flowers poking through the snow, the same is true with economic cycles. It may feel permanent at times, but make no mistake about the role of technology in our future lives – it will only grow in importance. The proper mindset can turn the challenges of the months/years ahead into a forge for greatness in that inevitable next cycle. John Chambers captured this well in his quote about one of his mentors: “Jack Welch taught me that you do not have a great company until you’ve had a near-death experience.” So, if it does come, don’t think of a recession as an unfortunate period of struggle. Think of it as a chance to get great.
Loneliness is a disease, and it’s becoming an epidemic.
Scott Galloway has written about this extensively this year, including in his book Adrift. The number of friends men and women report having continues its trend in the wrong direction.
It’s not just the number of friends. People spend dramatically more time alone today than ever before. COVID didn’t start the shrinking of time with companions, but it didn’t help either.
We must break this trajectory, or suffer the consequences with a more depressed, more emotionally fragile society. It turns out friendship is one of the great cure-alls the world ever served up. And meeting someone face-to-face is one of the most powerful antidotes to hate, intolerance or even simple mistrust. Corporations have a role to play in this, as the force behind how most of us spend roughly a third of our 24 hour day, or close to half of our waking hours. Whether it’s smoking cigarettes or driving without seatbelts, humans have a history of choosing to do things that are bad for our health. I believe choosing to spend every day alone in a bedroom is another of these bad decisions.
Think multiple steps ahead when thinking about pros and cons of remote work.
Many of us loved remote work. But while I think the flexibility it allowed is here to stay (at least here at VidMob), I am getting more and more concerned about the downstream ramifications of full-time remote work on society. First, the impact on city centers is becoming increasingly clear – whether that’s commercial real estate, failing local businesses, unfunded mass transportation systems, etc. None of it really works in an environment where workers are never in, or infrequently in. Second, it creates a new form of classism. Does it really work if doctors, teachers, police, retail workers all have to be physically present, but tech workers are somehow above that? Third, it definitely doesn’t help with the loneliness epidemic outlined above. Fourth, I continue to feel deeply guilty that our industry is somehow failing to grow an entire class of recent graduates in the same way that generations before them (and generations after them) will be grown. And finally, Ben Thompson said something on a recent episode of Sharp Tech that really hit me. He pointed out that globally transferable talent needed to be careful what it wished for. If we succeed in proving that physical presence is pointless, and jobs are just as productive when provided remotely, then how long do we really think it will be before employers look a little further remote, and find all of their talent in markets where talent is cheaper, equally (and in some cases better) educated, and whether correct or not, is often perceived to be hungrier.
Whether it’s in response to combating loneliness, or trying to support local market labor –one of the principles VidMob was founded on– I think finding the right balance between the hopefully permanent flexibility of remote work and the many real benefits of human presence will be key for businesses in ‘23, including VidMob.
Machine-only tech will be commoditized quickly and Human-only solutions can’t keep up. Human+Machine FTW!
In VidMob’s earliest vision decks, we discussed our belief that we would soon be entering the era of “infinite engineering” – a time where yesterday’s moats would be hard to build/protect for pure software businesses. We believed that tomorrow’s moats would be found in businesses that lived at the intersection of tech and human systems, and in doing so, were able to aggregate unique data based on an architecture that upleveled human-in-the-loop to a “services-in-the-loop” product design. This was right. And there are three forces playing out in ‘23 that will accelerate it even more:
- Explosion of compute – it’s getting faster, cheaper and easier to throw large amounts of compute at data. Expect this to continue its acceleration. This will make it easier for every company to be a data company, and harder for them all to differentiate from one another.
- Ease of dealing with unstructured data – Until recently, one of the biggest challenges for extracting value from data was ensuring that the many inflows were all properly structured in order to make them usable. We are increasingly entering a time where unstructured data is just as easy to extract insights from. Much like the point above, this will make the analysis of data a commodity. Unique data will become increasingly valuable, and a properly structured “services-in-the-loop” model will stand apart in its ability to deliver truly differentiated insights/solutions.
- The age of generative code – Lastly, ChatGPT’s ability to write code is just a sign of what’s to come…very soon. Turning ideas into code is going to get easier, quickly. Couple that with the fact that the MAMAA (formerly FAANG) companies all have tens of thousands of engineers, and I’ll happily bet a dollar against anyone’s belief in uncapped value from a software-only vision. Worked in the past. Won’t work in the future. As we enter this era of infinite engineering, two things will happen. First, tech will be everywhere, even more so than today. And second, value (moats) will shift to businesses that are protected from commoditization. Complex human + machine systems FTW!
Expect to see more businesses to follow in the footsteps of companies like Salesforce and Crowdstrike, both undeniably software businesses, who are expanding service operations and moving them closer to their software center.
Creative is the last frontier.
This one will be specific to marketers, until it isn’t. We’re transitioning from an internet that was easy to communicate on (text) to one that will be far more difficult (video, AR, Metaverse, beyond). This will necessarily see creative friction join payment friction and security friction as omnipresent factors in everyclick life. For marketers, this is particularly acute, because it also coincides with an increasingly privacy-centric world that’s making much of their media-oriented ad tech investments to-date less effective. We are moving from an ID-based marketing world to a mindset-based marketing world, and this dramatically increases the importance of creative intelligence and agility. Put simply, as media levers lose efficacy, creative just has to work harder.
Many of the smartest marketers have already discovered the value of intelligent creative. They are connecting accounts, building stores of information on their own brand best practices; by platform, by audience, by format, and by objective. This is leading to lower media costs (as intelligent creative is favored by auctions) and higher performance. This gives them a competitive advantage over peers still operating with the practices of the past. And here’s the thing, because culture will always move, they will always continue investing in this new first-party data asset, making it more and more valuable. Those who haven’t started yet will never catch-up; it’s just a question of how far they will always be behind.
As I think about these big expected trends for the year ahead, my natural inclination is to translate each of them into something personal. Since it’s planning season, maybe we can call these my personal OKR’s for ‘23. Be an unwavering force for positivity, even in a dark period. Do what I can as a leader to combat loneliness, both in policy and as simply as reaching out to people one-by-one. Fight for the lasting attractiveness of local market labor. Show that humans plus machines are better than either alone. And finally, always, believe in the power of human creativity. In this last one, my own belief won’t do much for the world. But if VidMob can enable the accelerating spread of intelligent creative, measure it, and prove the resultant value to our clients, then the rest should work itself out.
Returning to Patti Smith, I see no naivety or ignorance in being optimistic about the year ahead even if we know that it will be hard. We will greet it. We will ride it. We will change. And we will evolve into an even stronger company.