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Meet Kevin Weil: Twitter's Ad Architect and Its Killer App

Data Scientist Helping Social-Media Service Speak to Madison Avenue

By Published on . 2

In an earlier life, Kevin Weil was a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford in theoretical particle physics. Today, as Twitter steams toward a public offering, the 30-year-old ultramarathoner is playing a surprisingly central role in turning Twitter into a key platform for advertisers -- and, in turn, a profitable business.

Kevin Weil
Kevin Weil

Mr. Weil had no advertising experience before landing at Twitter in 2009 as a data scientist, yet he is creating the products that make the social-media company money. (It's poised to rake in close to $600 million this year, according to a recent eMarketer estimate.) When most people think of Twitter as a business, they think of Chief Revenue Officer Adam Bain, but it's Mr. Weil who builds the products Mr. Bain sells. Mr. Weil played a key role in the acquisition of TV-analytics startup BlueFin Labs and was just last week named a VP at the 2,000-employee company.

He's an engineer with deep technical expertise and the ability to lead a big team. But he also has something pretty rare in Silicon Valley: the ability to speak fluently in the tongue of marketers. "It's very rare that you find someone who has that EQ/IQ balance in engineering," said Lauren Crampsie, Ogilvy & Mather's chief marketing officer.

"He really proved himself to be Twitter's secret weapon on the monetization front," said Mr. Bain.

Mr. Weil was originally hired as the engineering lead for Twitter's analytics team following stints at small tech firms after he left his Stanford Ph.D. program to find work that felt more contemporary than the study of the universe's formation. When Twitter began developing promoted tweets almost three years ago, he became product lead for the revenue team, largely because of his immersion in Twitter's data sets and grasp of the stories they tell about what makes users happy.

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Now Mr. Weil is playing a much more visible -- and public -- role at the company. He's increasingly being called upon to lead outside of it as well, which entails meetings with marketers and agencies and his first trip this year to Cannes.

Mr. Bain recalled a meeting in New York in late 2011 with Subway CMO Tony Pace and a discussion about how to promote Subway endorser and gold-medalist speed skater Apolo Ohno on Twitter. It emerged that Mr. Ohno was running a marathon during the coming weekend, and Mr. Pace asked Mr. Weil to run with Mr. Ohno. (Mr. Weil agreed on the condition that he be allowed to live-tweet the run.)

"Adam [Bain] speaks a lot to marketers directly," said Mr. Weil. "But there's a parallel story about the way we develop advertising products, the user focus we bring to it -- that we only want to show an ad to users if it's great. We're trying to take the market in that direction, that advertising can be a great experience."

Twitter ads have also become increasingly sophisticated. Recent product launches include targeting for marketers to show Twitter ads to people who've already seen their TV ads and a measurement program with the data giant Datalogix to gauge the offline sales lift for consumer packaged goods marketers that advertise on Twitter.

At Twitter's San Franciso headquarters, Mr. Weil has 15 product managers who report to him. They sit with roughly 130 engineers along with the sales team, and that's by design. "It's the absolute best way to understand how our products are performing and what we need to do to make them better," said Mr. Weil. He also described himself as "joined at the hip" to Mr. Bain.

Twitter's revenue team has always been fairly autonomous, but the company's organizational structure now shows an even higher degree of confidence in Mr. Weil. He previously reported to Othman Laraki, Twitter's VP-growth, until the latter left the company at the end of last year. Now he's on Twitter CEO Dick Costolo's executive team along with company heavyweights like Mr. Bain, chief operating officer Ali Rowghani, and VP-product Michael Sippey, Mr. Weil's counterpart for the user side of the Twitter product.

Chris Sacca, a venture capitalist and Twitter investor, observed that Mr. Weil was hired from the startup Cooliris without any massive expectation of him becoming an executive. Now he's one of the most senior. "There was a vote of confidence made that he doesn't need a boss," said Mr. Sacca.

Mr. Weil is a fierce evangelist of Twitter in private settings, too. Ms. Crampsie initially befriended Mr. Weil by writing back and forth on Twitter and went on vacation to Sonoma, Calif. with him, his wife, Elizabeth -- a former Twitter executive and fellow ultramarathoner who's now a partner at Andreessen Horowitz -- and her own husband earlier this year. Mr. Weil got into a discussion with the tech neophyte owner of a winery they were visiting and proceeded to set up his Twitter account and walk him through using it.

"Wherever he is, he's always looking to enhance the product and talk to people about it," she said.

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