A Podcast About Truth, Science, and the Future of Marketing


Wes Nichols – Is Multi-Touch Attribution Dead or Really Just Terribly Misunderstood?


“I think the core piece of digital transformation is having the right data, for one, but more importantly, having the right analytics on top of that data to make accurate decisions going forward.”- Wes Nichols

Wes Nichols, investor and advisor, speaks with Allyson and Devon about some of the existential issues companies are facing in a world without cookies and confront the big question on our minds: Is MTA, or multi-touch attribution, dead?

Listen closely for Nichols’ big prediction on what Amazon is going to do next...


  • The importance of test and learn – What role does it play in the analytics toolkit?
  • Automation’s role within the industry – Automation will continue to be more and more essential, but with so many ad tech elements, and so many players, could streamlining help?
  • The changing relationship between publishers and advertisers – They’re closer than ever, but isn’t the real focus on who has the greatest relationship with the consumer?
  • Who is the new CMO? – A new kind of CMO is redefining marketing, someone who owns all touch points that a consumer has with a brand. But what are their core skills?

Episode Transcript

Allyson Dietz: So, today's guest is Wes Nichols. Wes is an entrepreneur, an investor, and a fixture within the marketing and technology industry. He's an acting board member for numerous companies, including Airship, TrueCar, and of course, Neustar, and a strategic advisor to such notable companies as Snap and Foursquare, and a partner at venture capital firm March Capital Partners. Wes, welcome to the podcast.

Wes Nichols: Thank you. Good to be here.

AD: So, the theme of this episode is really about a polarizing issue in marketing today: the idea that MTA, or multi-touch attribution, is dead in a world without cookies. We thought we'd talk a little bit first about your own personal history and how you've been able to become such an authority in the marketing and analytics world.

AD: One of the things we thought we'd start with is, you talk to so many different marketers in your role, and historically over your career. What issues are large marketers trying to solve with analytics?

WN: I started off very early on in the launch of Capital One, and that was one of the first companies to truly embrace the use of data and analytics to drive better decision-making across marketing and risk and defaults, and all kinds of decisions that the bank had to make. And it just seemed very logical to me, and once I'd looked into other companies and see how they're doing it, through gut or intuition or Excel spreadsheets, or kind of old-school methodologies, it just made my head hurt, and that's really what's been kind of the theme of my career, is helping to bring more science and, excuse me, more data to bear, to help make better decisions, forward-looking decisions. That's something I think is still paramount with companies.

Our world's gotten even more complex. We have more data than we've ever had before. How do we make heads or tails of it? We need to be always on. We're now competing with Amazon. We're now competing with Google. They've got better technology. We're not a technology company. How do we change?

And those are some existential issues that these companies are dealing with, and the digital transformation piece of this is critical, and I think the core piece of digital transformation is having the right data, for one, but more importantly, having the right analytics on top of that data to make accurate decisions going forward.

AD: We’re obviously very proud of what has been built from MarketShare, and has since merged with Neustar. So, I’m kind of curious, if you don’t mind talking a little bit about why you selected to merge with Neustar, and what was your thinking behind that piece? Because you were talking about the consumer journey, and that role, and so it just naturally kind of gravitates towards the idea of cookies and identity and the like.

WN: As we continued to sign larger and larger deals, and larger multinationals, we started getting a lot of visibility by all the big technology companies, and there was a lot of inbound. Actually, interestingly, a number of the technology companies and marketing clouds were actually clients of MarketShare.

And we got to that decision, like do we start to go down the path of an IPO, or do we start to entertain some of these inbound discussions? And all of the sudden, Neustar popped up, and I'd heard of Neustar before, but I didn't know that much about it. But what was intriguing was, I knew, and our whole team knew, five years ago that cookies were going to go away. That at some point, privacy, GDPR, all those things were going to come into play.

So we said, let's create a next-gen attribution system that isn't just MTA, but is looking at what we were calling top-down, the allocation piece, as well as the bottom-up, the customer journey piece. Let's marry those things in a unified analytic method that actually has these things working together. Which was a really big IP breakthrough, frankly, because it could be apples and oranges if you don't know how to connect those dots. What we were finding was marketers were having to Frankenstein these models together from their MMM provider, or their MTA provider, and it just literally got Frankensteined, like resolved, so it didn't work.

So, as we started digging into what was happening at Neustar. We continued to hear from all those big tech companies that they thought Neustar had some of the best identity that they'd ever seen in the industry, other than what they'd seen on their own businesses, and so that was intriguing, that hey, here's an identity solution, device and person-based identity, that we could then start to do planning and attribution against, that wouldn't be relying on cookies.

And so, that was the thesis as we started moving forward. And we saw a company that was small enough that our management team could come in and actually play a role in that, and we did, and put the companies together, and then ultimately took the company private with Golden Gate Capital, which I think was a really smart move, because this company's been making tremendous strides behind the scenes, and thankfully under the cloak of privacy. Some real innovation coming together, which I've been able to enjoy.

Devon DeBlasio: And so, looking at the writing on the walls, I mean, I think we can all agree that when we're talking with clients today, or large brands today, it's almost surprising that they're so surprised themselves that this concept of the cookie going away is actually happening, right? We saw years ago, Safari and Firefox both had made that decision, and now you see Google Chrome taking the reins and saying, this is going to end in 2022.The elephant in the room always, it seems, when we're on a call with a large advertiser is, what is going to happen?

And so, specifically this quote-unquote "cookie apocalypse" and its impact to the analytic base decision-making that we talked about earlier that's so important, and something you saw as kind of a common- sense future state, we have to do this all the time, in terms of the way that we need to run a business. The data that's actually being used to track behavior and conversions, and really impact the performance of marketing across different devices like mobile and display. What are your actual predictions on how you think that will actually shake out? It seems like you saw the writing on the wall, many of us saw the writing on the wall for years, in terms of the cookie going away, but now that it actually is here, potentially in front of us, how do you think that the industry is going to react to that final plug being pulled?

WN: Well, I think it is a result of a combination of lack of education by consumers and an over-exuberance by the technology companies to use data that has led to these issues of privacy concern. And I think the reality is, when I sit down and explain it to family members or friends, they go, oh, okay, that's how it works. But the idea that someone sitting there individually and watching your movements, and checking out what you're buying, and popping off an email to you because they saw that you left something in a cart, that seems kind of freaky if you don't know how it works.

Or you could see it as, hey, that's pretty convenient. Oh yeah, I did forget to make that purchase that I was investigating, because I got a phone call that interrupted me, and therefore I didn't have a chance to finish it. I mean, there are some elements of convenience. There are elements of convenience to being able to link what happens on an app to what happens on a website through your accounts, so you have the ability to look at your activities across touch points.

So, there are benefits that come out of understanding who you are and what your next likely purchase is. I mean, Amazon, I bet you it's going to start to happen this year. Amazon will start to ship out packages of items that they think that you're going to be wanting to purchase, to your house, proactively in the next year, is my prediction.

AD: And you get reminders on Alexa. I mean, I'm sure you guys do, too. Hey, you might be out of X, Y and Z. And we talk about this all the time, as a busy working mom, it's really actually kind of convenient, like oh yeah, I am out of that.

WN: And if you're trying to compete with Amazon, or you're trying to compete with someone that's always on, the role of automation, the role of having real-time decisions pushed through programmatically, through a DMP, into execution engines that then do real time placement, and then course correction, without a human involved, without agencies, middlemen involved, that's inevitable.

And that's the only way to compete, rather than trying to do it in a, let's do a campaign, let's wait three months, let's do an analysis that takes six months to do in Excel, and then let's come back and make decisions, so next year we do it again. Instead, every 30 seconds, we're improving the campaign. That's where the industry is, and where it's headed. I mean, we're going to see a lot of roadkill along the way, and I think what's interesting is COVID has accelerated 10 months of this digital transformation ... or, I'm sorry, 10 years of digital transformation into 10 months. So, I'm really excited about that, because we're going to see just a massive opportunity here for companies to get this figured out.

AD: Yeah, you're describing the holy grail.

DD: So, speaking of roadkill, I mean, I'm just come out and ask, and say it. With all of this destruction, all of this change, is MTA dead, in your opinion?

Most companies have continued to focus on this idea of trying to follow the cookie, and trying to follow the customer online, and then trying to do some simple correlations to sales, and then call that MTA. And those people, those businesses should have gone under 10 years ago, because it's just, it's stupid. The same with MMM, and the idea of looking at in this simplistic manner is, I think it's intellectually dishonest.

And so, that's why I think this whole topic, is MTA dead because of cookies and all that, I think it's irrelevant, frankly. If you think about attribution in what I would call the lowercase A of attribution, if that makes sense, like the simple digital tracking. If you think about attribution in the capital A, what are the true variables impacting this customer activity?

Maybe I saw just a killer series of advertising on television, that maybe two weeks later led me to go to Google and do some research on it, and then maybe go and talk about it on Facebook with some friends, and talk about a brand, and do some brand research. And then, maybe I walked into a store, and I touched and held the object, the product, at a Best Buy, and then I, in the aisle, actually got out my Amazon app and scanned the barcode, and then wound up making a purchase right there.

If Amazon is doing digital attribution, they would capture whatever keywords they were buying at the expense of that keyword, and then they'd marry that to the sale, and then they'd claim credit for that daisy chain of events. And you see the logic flaw of it. It is much, much more complex than we're giving ourselves credit for.

So, I think that's the opportunity, as we continue to educate the market, that hey, you know what, there is a chance to ... Good riddance to cookies. There are different ways of doing this that rely on, that's data-driven from a CDP, that's pulling together true customer identity data, that's looking across devices, that's looking at what they're doing in-store and online, that's looking at the marketing, that's looking into sales incentives, looking at the product innovation. If a company's coming out with a product that sucks, like does happen from time to time, and people don't like it and don't want to buy it, then guess what? No amount of marketing money is going to overcome that.

So, you have to look at the whole constellation of activities and driver variables to start to really understand, ultimately, attribution with a capital A, and then allocation. If you get the attribution right, then you can do the allocation predictively and prescriptively. And then, once it happens, you can then course correct and adapt, and that's where test and learn platforms fit in.

AD: And so, I'm curious what you think about the role of test and learn, and what role does it play in the marketing analytics toolkit?

WN: Yeah. I mean, it's back to the future, here.

AD: I agree.

WN: I mean, literally. One of my first jobs in this industry was creating experimental design templates and in-market tests, and doing the test and learn, and learning from the results and so forth. And that has its place, but it's a plus planning and allocation. You use this unified analytic engine to come up, ultimately, with recommendations, and then you use the test and learn to go into the market to validate those things on a much smaller scale, and then once you validate those things, you feed those results back into the model, and then that course corrects.

What you don't do is, you don't supplant the planning and allocation analytics with test and learn results, because it just won't work. I mean, it's just as bad as sample data, or qualitative research.

AD: Let's hope nobody from qual is listening.

WD: Yeah, I mean, if you look at just the simplicity of doing this kind of consumer research piece of this, and then you try to scale it, they rarely work.

AD: Right, yeah. And it's interesting, because you talked a few minutes ago about automation and its role within the industry, and that's the other gap that's missing. If you don't have that always-on consumer-level insight, you can't then feed that back into an automation process that helps you to improve your targeting. It becomes much more cumbersome, much more people-heavy, to do those test and learns, and not moving towards, migrating towards those more efficient approaches to improving your media spend.

WN: It's like taking very advanced tools and applying a very old-school solution to it. I mean, it's crazy to people who are able to use these very advanced tools, but not have automation in place to take it to the next level. Because then you're just wasting time.

DD: So, from an advertiser perspective, they are going to continue to expect systems to work, and automation to still be there for them using data-driven strategies and tactics to make sure they're increasing their ROI, but without a common or standard currency or token that they've depended upon, what is that relationship going to look like between the media owner, the content owner, and the brand or the advertiser trying to engage and get some sort of message in front of that audience at that time?

I think that the industry has been overpopulated and over-invested in, and as you've seen, we've seen a lot of carnage in ad tech as a result of this overpopulation, and I think that's probably going to continue. We're just going to need to see more streamlining of solutions, and maybe identity becomes that currency replacement to a cookie. There may be some other metric that someone is cooking up that could become that new currency that could be used.

I think the automation piece is going to continue to be more and more essential, but with so many ad tech elements, and so many players in that daisy chain all taking their little piece along the way, that's got to be streamlined as well, and I think we're continue to see consolidation taking place in that space to do that. I think, look at what companies like Trade Desk are doing, and how they're doing it. I think that's a good example of someone who's really pulled together the right elements to make this streamlined for marketers.

Do you expect that publishers and advertisers will become more joined at the hip, and become even closer in terms of sharing of data, or building direct, private marketplace-type engagements? Do you have any predictions there, in terms of maybe removing some of the middlemen and joining the publisher to the advertiser directly a little bit more closely?

WN: I think that we're going to see more and more push towards subscription-based business models than we've ever seen. We've already seen direct-to-consumer emerge and grow and disrupt conventional channels. But I think the subscriber model for product is going to change things.

I think the same for media companies. I mean, hell, look at Disney. I mean, Disney, here where I am in LA, Disney made an incredibly brave and bold shift away from being a content manufacturer and provider to a channel, to being a direct-to-consumer business.

DD: The consumer is king again, right? I think that's where it ties back to. Whoever has the greater relationship with the consumer, whether they're a brand or a publisher or a platform, or all of those things, they are most likely going to win, right? And I think that's the least common denominator we're going to see, is whoever has a better relationship with the consumer and the customer base, it's a no-brainer that they're going to weather all of these privacy and restrictive storms that we are going to continue to see grow ahead of us, I think.

WN: Right. First party data combined with analytics is king, in this era, and if you can then start to establish true, meaningful relationships with your own customers, and as you grow find other customers that look like them and build those relationships, then you can start to continue to leverage these analytic solutions that we've been talking about, and ultimately lead to stable, predictable growth, which the market rewards, and follow that.

I think we're just going to see an ever-increasing gain in efficiency and effectiveness of this. I think the days of yell-and-sell advertising and eyeball-based advertising has been dying a slow death for a while, and it's going to continue. It certainly has its place for some of it, but I think, I look around and look at the number of CMOs who I'm friends with that now own both marketing as well as customer service and customer experience. So, what the macro trend is, we're seeing customer experience and marketing merge together within these organizations, many organizations now.

So, that marketer, the CMO, owns all touch points that a consumer has with that brand, whether it's a call center, whether it's a website, whether it's an app, in-store presence, things like that. That's a big shift, and those CMOs, who tend to be on the more savvy end of things, also have P and L responsibility. They have revenue attached to their role. That means that marketing isn't the traditional call center that it's been, but it is all of the sudden tied to and is an essential element of the business, and those CEOs that get that and hire those types of CMOs and change the organization are the ones that I'm seeing really out there winning, versus those that have kind of the traditional CMOs who just deal with ad agencies and do creative, that kind of stuff. That more tactical CMO, they're being retired out pretty quickly, and this more kind of data-driven, math-centered, revenue-oriented CMO is really redefining the marketing landscape.

DD: Well, Wes Nichols, thank you for being our first official guest on the No Hype podcast. This will be available to anyone on the listening devices that they normally would use to experience their favorite podcast. And hopefully No Hype will become their favorite podcast soon. But Wes, we just want to thank you so much for your insight and your predictions, and what we just felt was a really great conversation, and thanks for being a guest on the show.

WN: My pleasure. Appreciate the conversation

DD: Of course.

AD: Thank you.

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