CTAM Live: Canoe Execs Chart Ad Venture’s Course


BOSTON—Executives with the Canoe Ventures multi-operator advanced-advertising startup took the stage here to talk about what they’re doing—and, emphatically, what they are not doing.

“One of our biggest concerns is, it’s been taking on a life of it own,” Canoe chief marketing officer Vicki Lins said in a presentation before a standing-room-only audience here at the CTAM Summit ’08. (Click here for more coverage.)

So, what is Canoe? The New York company wants to be a service bureau for cable networks and their advertisers to place and track targeted and interactive TV spots across multiple MSOs and cable networks. The company was formed by Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications, Charter Communications, Cablevision Systems and Bright House Networks, which collectively serve more than 53 million cable television subscribers.

Canoe’s three main product areas will be addressability, interactive advertising and data.

The idea is to bring the kind of ad-targeting and measurability found in the Web universe to cable television. But, Lins said, “We don’t want it to be ‘just like the Internet.’ We want it to be better and different.”

John Collins, Canoe’s vice president of product development, said the basis of any advanced advertising must be a “robust data platform.”

“Data is the foundation for all the products Canoe will be introducing,” said Collins, who previously was group vice president of advanced advertising technologies for Time Warner Cable. “It’s amazingly complex when you talk about the scale we need for full household addressability.”

For Canoe to hit critical mass, it needs the ability to deliver addressable ads to at least 10 million set-top boxes, said Collins, who estimated reaching that goal could take 18 to 24 months.

Canoe hopes, at some point, to work with satellite and telco TV operators as well. “Canoe starts with six MSOs but the reach can be beyond that,” Collins said. “The cable operators had to become comfortable with reaching out into other distribution platforms.”

While the big pieces of the strategy are in place, some specific services and technologies from Canoe have yet to be determined. “We can’t be all things to all people,” Lins said. “In the next seven months we’ll define what we are and what we’ll be to the industry.”

Last week, Lins was officially named Canoe’s CMO, moving over from her position as senior vice president of marketing and communications for Comcast Spotlight in a transition that will be final in January.

Lins began her presentation by describing misconceptions about Canoe—the biggest fallacy, she said, has been that the company would be selling ads itself.

“We are not a sales organization. We were never intended to be a sales organization,” Lins said. “We are not competition to programmers. What we are trying to do is to help programmers tap into the power of cable.”

Canoe also has been portrayed as exploiting consumers and intruding on their privacy. Lins recalled the day after Canoe announced former Aegis Media Americas chief David Verklin as CEO, a blog post by a consumer watchdog group equated him to the devil.

“I was really unaware of some of the extremist attitudes about these technologies,” Lins said. Canoe now avoids any references to “targeted” advertising, instead talking about “addressable” and “relevant” ads.

Before Canoe hits the “holy grail” of fully addressable advertising, it plans to introduce smaller product launches along the way.

One of the first “baby steps” is creative versioning, which will be tested in the next 60 to 90 days, Collins said. Creative versioning allows programmers to extend MSOs’ ad zones to their own advertisers, all off a national spot.

Another Canoe-related project was Elections ’08, which placed political video-on-demand spots across nine MSOs. The service was characterized as a disappointment in some press coverage, but according to Lins, it met the MSOs’ expectations.

“What we accomplished was control, ubiquity and management across the cable footprint,” Lins said. “We got our act together from a technology perspective. That was a big step forward.”

Canoe’s technology platform—called the Common Advanced Advertising System (CAAS)—will be based on best-of-breed components from multiple vendors. Collins noted that the MSOs behind Canoe issued a request for information last September to 60 companies and got a response from 55.

But the technology will be based on standardized interfaces, rather than specifying vendor-specific equipment. “You don’t tell an MSO what to buy,” he said. “Canoe won’t do that.”

Canoe will use standards developed by CableLabs, such as the Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format (EBIF), and it will have to create some standards on its own, according to Collins. “The only way we can achieve scale and reach is with those standards,” he said. “We have to see that the cable operators adhere to those standards.”

Canoe is looking at a variety of pricing models. And yes, it’s a for-profit venture, Collins said: “We’re in this to make money.”

According to Lins, Verklin has forbidden anyone at Canoe from talking about making cable advertising more efficient (i.e., implying a net decrease in ad spend). The correct phrasing, said Lins: “We’re making cable advertising more effective.”

Lins noted that Canoe was never supposed to be more than a code name. “But the press picked up on it, and the next thing you know it caught on,” she said. The name is supposed to connote the MSOs all rowing together in unison.

The Canoe presentation was sponsored by Cynopsis Media.