CTO Brings Lessons From Wall Street to World of Ad-Tech

Emilia Sherifova of PulsePoint Also Sees a Future Without Cookies

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Emilia Serifova, PulsePoint
Emilia Serifova, PulsePoint

In 1989, then-fifteen year-old Emilia Sherifova was among five Russian kids who got to visit the White House as diplomatic envoys. She also got to meet with Communist leader and future Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev, after writing an essay about Soviet youth. The recently-hired CTO of ad tech firm PulsePoint had tech smarts in her family, too. Her dad helped build the once-super-secret Ekranoplans, massive military aircraft known as "Caspian Sea Monsters" that hovered close to the water in flight.

Though the ad industry is steeped in militaristic terminology such as "targets" and "campaigns," today Ms. Sherifova operates in a decidedly more peaceful environment than her Caspian hometown of Kaspiysk once was. She was brought on board to PulsePoint in May. Her mission: unify a collection of online ad technologies and products used for content creation and syndication, and real-time bidding for publishers and advertisers. In 2011, PulsePoint was formed by the merger of digital marketing firm Datran Media and digital media services firm ContextWeb.

"This is a very exciting challenge for any technologist, as it allows for exposure to technologies at the forefront of high transaction processing, web development and big data," said Ms. Sherifova.

Putting together the right team to help her do that is "the biggest challenge," she said. Last month, PulsePoint named data analyst Eswar Sivaraman as its Data Science Group Director; Mr. Sivaraman previously worked with the United Airlines Enterprise Optimization group. He's tasked with helping the company create more transparency for impression-level data and improve advertiser campaign performance.

"If I'm to be a successful CTO I need to be able to unify distributed teams," she said, noting she works with colleagues in Austin, San Francisco, London, and her home office in New York.

Ms. Sherifova has a graduate degree with a concentration in International Business and Finance from Columbia University, and a software development certification from New York University.

Before moving to PulsePoint, Ms. Sherifova helped build the financial marketplace platform at OTC Markets, where she worked for 13 years. Indeed, she believes the ad industry could learn a thing or two from the data-hungry financial biz.

"It behooves us to learn from the history of the financial markets, if this industry is to accelerate its progressions from the still predominantly human-relationship-driven marketplaces to automated ones," she said.

While her work relies on data gathering and commercial data use, Ms. Sherifova recognizes the importance of consumer privacy. A longtime member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, she noted, "I've always been passionate about civil liberties and digital freedoms."

Ad Age: You have a history in the financial world. When ad exchanges and RTB were just starting, lots of CEOs explained the concept by comparing them to the stock market. Isn't that simplistic? What did you learn from financial data and trading technologies that you've been able to apply to ad tech?

Ms. Sherifova: While these industries certainly have their differences, I see some strong parallels and similarities as to how the electronic markets have developed for each. Both moved from opaque, inefficient marketplaces to ever-more transparent, efficient ones by means of moving into an automated electronic reality. Both leveraged data analysis to provide liquidity and add value to the market participants. But Wall Street has three decades in electronic trading over ad tech. Over its 30-year history, electronic trading on Wall Street has matured and developed certain discipline and standards from which ad tech must learn.

It was with the idea of learning from Wall Street that PulsePoint brought me in. I'm helping PulsePoint to adopt new operational best practices for running a highly technical electronic trading business. I'm also bringing in a discipline of leveraging data, content and analytics to underpin our decision engines for programmatic -- this is also something that financial industry has perfected and ad tech needs to do more of.

Why take the same time and make the same mistakes that Wall Street made? Ad tech can accelerate its development by skipping some evolutionary steps.

Ad Age: Use of multiple devices, particularly increased mobile device use, is resulting in a world in which cookies are becoming less relevant. Some ad tech firms see the writing on the wall and want to develop standards for cookie-less tracking and targeting. What do you think will work as a standard and is it feasible to have just one?

Ms. Sherifova: With third party cookie support fading and consumer's browsing activity exploding as they switch between multiple devices, figuring out creative ways to target consumers in a cookie-less, multi-device reality is a huge challenge for the entire digital marketing industry.

In the short-term, there are several ways firms are looking to address this challenge. "Super-publishers" have growing leverage due to strong first-party user relationships that enable them to use cookies across multiple devices. Meanwhile, fingerprinting techniques also are emerging -- although they can be cumbersome and imprecise, and pose complicated legal and privacy challenges that have not been fully worked out.

Any time a change in technology or the marketplace occurs, there's a tendency to want to legislate or standardize the old way of doing things. We see this in labor-protection rules, interoperability standards, and industry coalitions that form to bar new entrants. Digital marketing in recent years has become increasingly reliant on cookie-based tracking, and there is a temptation to continue further in that direction, to try to simplify our problems to one of gathering more cookies.

Ad Age: As an EFF member you must have opinions about the ongoing NSA surveillance revelations. Lots of execs in the ad industry say there are no ties between corporate and commercial data and the information the NSA gathers through telecom and media companies. What do you think – are there links?

Ms. Sherifova: I don't have insights beyond what's already public, but tend to agree with other execs. Regardless, I think the approach for any company should be to guard the privacy of users in the most ethical, "do no evil" kind of way. User-privacy protection has to be incorporated in a holistic way every level from product design to everyday operational practices to data storage and transfer and this is what we are doing.

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