Alison Levin, Vice President of Ad Sales and Strategy at Roku
In late spring 2020, Alison Levin was out in her back yard with her young daughter and her golden retriever. They both ran as fast as they could – towards each other for the same ball. Inevitably they collided.
“She went down and we held our breath,” she said. “And then she showed up and just kept running.”
Levin, Roku’s vice president of global advertising revenue and marketing solutions, saw this as something of a metaphor. Roku, where she’s headed the ad sales business since 2015, saw massive rejections at the start of the pandemic in March. Roku dropped companies out of business as advertisers drew or paused budgets across the board.
It wasn’t nice at first. Roku stock traded at $ 127.50 on February 3 before the volatility of the pandemic made stocks plunge. It cratered and lost more than half of its value, hitting a low of $ 63.84 on March 16.
“We worked hard to do what we were there for. We focused on the things that were unique to us: flexibility, precision, real-time analysis, all of these things are important,” said Levin. “Also, the streaming background was booming and the linear breakdown collapsed. We hit hard again and again. We put all this data on the market right away, what happens linearly, what happens when streaming …”
Things were starting to recover. Then the company saw a turning point for advertisers shifting their budgets from traditionally linear to streaming, where they could quickly turn campaigns on and off and where they could swap campaigns based on what was open and what was in that particular state or region was allowed.
It was a big moment for the streaming world and especially for Roku.
“When things opened up in the third quarter … we knew the dam that was going to break and the turning point was going to happen,” Levin said. “I think we were all very pleasantly surprised that marketers were leaning into that moment, and that happened in the third quarter.”
Since then, the stock has been trading at $ 342.97 as of Friday’s close, up 437% from last March’s low. The market capitalization is over $ 45 billion.
Levin, a native of New Jersey, worked for the video advertising network YuMe as an ad seller before Roku recruited her. She tried to talk about what networked television was offering to the industry – and actually selling it – before it really became a familiar topic.
“At that point it was nascent. A lot of buyers had no idea what it was,” she said. “That was before Tubi, Pluto, even had any of those channels – before a lot of people even knew what Roku was. I knew I wanted to focus on connected television because I saw it went there.”
Roku reached out to her in 2014 when there wasn’t even an ad sales team. She said she met with Scott Rosenberg, now the SVP and GM of the platform business, when the company began to integrate into smart TVs as an operating system and was about to partner with Nielsen for audience guarantees. “My head exploded,” she said.
“At that point, all I knew was that if they were able to build a team that could run the products, [that] in and of itself it would be something that the industry has never seen and what the industry needs. So I was sold at that point in time. ”
The sales team was just Levin for a short time. They brought in Jared Lefkowitz, now in charge of the advertising revenue strategy, and then began recruiting.
“People haven’t thought of connected television yet,” said Levin. “We had to build up the industry at an early stage because we didn’t take a piece of the cake, but instead built or baked the cake.”
Roku employees in March 2019 during its Roku Ad Connect event.
Tal Chalozin, CTO and co-founder of adtech company Innovid, recalls the early days of Roku, when he got involved in different business areas with companies like Amazon and Google.
“They were always like that little engine that could fight all these giants,” he said. “They’ve always been very, very nimble. And they’ve always invested in the marketing community before the curve, from building the sales force to going to market to explaining the need for CTV … They were much faster to innovate and too innovate bring it to market. ”
Chalozin said he owed much of that success to Rosenberg and Levin.
“They built better adtech, faster adtech, and made it better and faster and bigger than anyone else,” he said. Levin was able to translate this extremely complicated industry as well as the product and technology for advertisers. “She just has an amazing understanding of the product and technology with the ability to explain it to a business-minded person who ponders the bottom line.”
Mike Law, president of Dentsu Aegis Network’s media innovation and investment arm Amplifi USA, said early on in his feedback on Roku that the company needs to listen carefully to the spend of brands and agencies on the platform in order to compete with newcomers.
“It can’t be easy for Roku to do it that way,” he said. “”[Levin] did a great job bridging that gap and being the voice of the brands in the room. “
David Cohen, CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, said he and Levin signed a contract a few years ago when he was with the agency.
“She’s one of those people,” said Cohen, “who never say no when you can imagine something:” Let’s see if we can make it. “There’s this kind of innovation and curiosity about her that I’ve always found refreshing.”
Roku was so good at ingratiating herself with advertisers in part because she was ready to meet them where they were.
“An agency’s needs are directly different from the needs of the client,” Cohen said. “Auto is different from CPG. So I think she has a very good, keen sense for understanding what we’re trying to solve. She looks into her kind of universe, how she can solve it, and then comes with you back tailor-made solution. ”
For the connected TV room, the pandemic crystallized a shift that had already taken place – but only happened much faster.
Levin said the company gained a record number of customers in the third quarter, although sectors like travel were still in trouble.
“We worked on it for six years, we were ready for this moment,” she said. She said at some point in the year the company looked at the top companies that don’t spend on Roku and still rely on linear television.
“We noticed that many of those customers who stuck to the old purchase were doing it one by one [holding onto that] fell away, “she said.” Live sports was gone, live programming was gone, cable cutting was starting to accelerate, half the time 18-34 year olds spent streaming, all of those things. ”
Levin said certain marketers may have recognized these trends over a couple of years, but the Covid pandemic has accelerated that acceleration to a single quarter.
Cohen of the IAB said the company had been able to build on the work it had done in the past few years to be ready when last year happened.
“I don’t know if anyone would have predicted what happened last year and he was in the right place at the right time with the right wealth,” he said. “They were very smart at adding things to their strategic arsenal. So whether it’s some kind of DSP asset, whether it’s original content, whether it’s Nielsen’s business they’re buying – they’ve been very careful about that Thought about things they’ve gone to market [with]. So I think they have deserved every bit of their growth over the past few years. “
Alison Levin at the NewFronts presentation.
In early March, Roku announced that it would take over Nielsen’s advanced video advertising business, including Dynamic Ad Insertion technology, which enables Roku to offer ads that can be exchanged in real time depending on the viewer.
The move positions Roku more as a one-stop shop for ad buyers in digital and traditional linear television. Needham analysts said the deal added $ 10 billion to $ 20 billion to Roku’s total addressable market.
Levin said the deal will help Roku grow in two different areas. First, she said that the vast majority of linear television advertising is targeting audiences based on age and gender.
“One of the most powerful things about streaming is that you can find the right audience at the right moment,” she said. This brings linear inventory into what Roku already offered and allows publishers to sell advertisements in a more targeted way. “That’s why Google and Facebook work so well. It’s the aspect of data alignment that was missing in linear television.”
Another piece is the measurement of the places where consumers view content. And it’s real time: “So you don’t have to sit here and wait several weeks to get this information. You can actually turn it into action,” she said.
As Roku’s advertising revenue continues to grow relative to revenue, Deutsche Bank analysts expect the company to continue to focus on expanding its influence in the advertising market. The Nielsen deal, they argue, “gives Roku the opportunity to enter the linear television advertising market, although we believe that dynamic ad insertion (DAI) in linear television is unlikely to be a significant contributor to Roku’s revenue in the near future.” “”
The company recently took another strategic move: Roku recently launched a “brand studio” for creating new types of ad formats and television programming tailored for marketers. It also acquired “This Old House” and content from defunct streaming provider Quibi make it more appealing to advertisers who may still want to shop for certain content rather than an audience of consumers buying.
According to Law, this content strategy should help Roku grow.
“What brings people to these platforms is content,” he said. “There are so many people who have a roku, but I still think that some brand awareness is required. There are still opportunities for them to grow in terms of sales. And I think content will add a little to that.” “
On Monday, Levin will showcase the industry’s media investment bigwigs during the IAB’s NewFronts, where companies like Amazon, YouTube, and Twitter showcase reach, new content, and ad innovation to convince them to bring branded spend to their various platforms. Roku’s Pitch is particularly focused on the extent of streaming, the ability to innovate marketing around tentpole events, and the ability to do both brand and performance marketing with Roku.
“We believe the upfront process has changed forever and is not going back, so we can’t wait to show the market what we’re going to bring out,” she said. “We’re really focused on … the other key areas or pockets in the industry that need better data to move faster …”
But outsiders say that there is still room for improvement in networked television overall.
“It’s still nowhere near as easy to make a CTV purchase as it is to make a linear TV purchase,” says Cohen. “There’s still a lot of fragmentation. There are still a lot of people doing things differently, either calling things differently, different creative options, different measurement options, so it’s much more difficult to get the same scale and range and exposure in CTV to get as is [on linear]. ”
There’s also work to promote among the many gamers: “Whether it’s Roku, Amazon, YouTube, NBCUniversal or Disney, they have a universal way of thinking about measuring it and being charged for it,” Cohen said.
Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC.