For Facebook's Top Ad Exec, 'People Are the Operating System'

Ad Sales Chief for the World's Largest Social Network Talks Brand Building, Revolution and Being 'Always on'

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David Fischer often speaks in packed sentences with a penchant for parentheticals, betraying his roots as a policy wonk. But he's always clear in what he means, and his straightforward demeanor underlies the fact that he is a genuine and unwavering spokesman without slickness or hyperbole. That may not seem so odd, except for the fact that he happens to be the top sales executive for the world's largest social network.

David Fischer
David Fischer Credit: Gabriela Hasbun

As Facebook's VP-advertising and global operations, Mr. Fischer is ostensibly in charge of selling humanity's every flirtation and whim, its every thought and pitch that continues to propagate willingly and virulently on one of the web's biggest destinations. But at the same time, his unvarnished speech is right in line with the Palo Alto-based company's positioning as a technology concern and not a media one. He represents a new breed of media executive, eschewing the old system where publishers connected directly to its audience and its advertisers. He and Facebook might be all about connections, but only as they relate to business for themselves.

The 38-year-old Boston native -- once a journalist for the U.S. News and World Report, where he covered the 1996 presidential election, and also a former deputy chief of staff to Lawrence Summers when he was Secretary of the Treasury -- talked to Ad Age about his ever-changing role at Facebook.

Ad Age: You were at Google, where you were VP-global sales before joining Facebook. What prompted you to make that transition?

Mr. Fischer: What motivated me to come to Facebook is the evolution that's really going on across the globe. It's rebuilding the web around people. Search has been an incredible advancement, but the opportunity for brands that the web has always represented -- there's an opportunity to fulfill that through Facebook that you hadn't had before.

Ad Age: What do you mean by the opportunity that the web has always represented?

Mr. Fischer: To build your association around people. The web can be the best branding opportunity if you think about creating associations around people -- that's what I mean.

Ad Age: Were there personal reasons for the change?

Mr. Fischer: I've always been attracted to dynamic environments where I can have an impact on people and the future. You can see that with what's happening in Egypt and Tunisia, and what's helping around the world.

Ad Age: How much do you and the executives at Facebook see that revolution in the Middle East happening as a result of social networks like Facebook?

Mr. Fischer: The core of our mission is to make the world more connected and enable people to communicate and share. When individuals see that opportunity -- [people] who had no voice can now speak for themselves. All of a sudden to see people to be able to do that around the world, it's ... very sobering.

Ad Age: Right now companies who want to advertise on Facebook can purchase ad space on the home page through your sales team, or they can buy it in a self-serve auction system for the rest of the site. But that can't be the only ad strategy.

Mr. Fischer: As we build out the social graph, there's an opportunity for brands to rebuild their businesses themselves. Marketing is key to that, and so is customer acquisitions and customer relationships. If you build a brand like Coke, which has 22 million fans on Facebook, or Starbucks with 19 million, those millions of connections are not the end. It's just the start. Those millions are the means to the end. It's a way to build relationships with those people, and then to tap into all those people's friends. It's an opportunity to do word-of-mouth marketing at scale.

Ad Age: So once I have millions of fans, what's the best way to maintain that relationship?

Mr. Fischer: The two words are "always on." You have an always-on strategy. In the world of marketing, we think about paid media, owned media and earned media -- all three exist on Facebook. We encourage people to set up pages -- they're free, and will always be free, but it's always important to keep talking to your fans. When you have a product launch, and we see more and more people are doing that, you can reveal it to your fans first. The way Ford revealed its new 2011 model on Facebook -- it didn't happen at the auto show, it happened on Facebook.

Ad Age: You recently launched a new ad product called "sponsored stories" so that when a user "likes" a business, that action gets turned into an ad, complete with the user's name and image. What is the strategy there, and were there any concerns of backlash from the users?

Mr. Fischer: The direction we're going in is really around building brands. We've proven that having an ad for a given brand with a friend's name at the bottom of it-- it might say, "David Fischer likes Coke" -- that impact of having a name will increase brand awareness by 68%, and it has a four-times increase in purchase intent. That really is the power. And that's the kind of brand associations we're trying to build for companies. Branding should happen around people.

Ad Age: Any backlash?

Mr. Fischer: We haven't had real issues with that. It's still early days. People are finding it's largely positive. What "sponsored stories" does is it simply takes what's already in the news feed, and it's only shown to their friends.

Ad Age: Though I'm not a heavy Facebook user, I have to say I don't really notice advertising on the site all that much. The ads are small sizes -- to your credit.

Mr. Fischer: We hear the comment, "I haven't seen the ads," but we do want the messaging to pop. At the same time, we're careful to avoid an intrusive experience. We would never do a home-page takeover.

One thing I would hit on there, it's really important to note for marketers that it's not just the size and shape of the ad. It's really about the holistic strategy across all of Facebook. If you look at the time it took Starbucks to go from zero to 10 million friends, as you build up more connections, each thing you publish, you can build more and more ongoing connections. Marketers have to understand the opportunity goes far beyond the particular box on the home page. During the World Cup, Nike's "Write the Future" campaign showed a three-minute video ad, and it was an incredibly well-done creative, and they built up over 3 million connections. So now they got a boost through earned media.

Ad Age: Are you limiting the amount of home page impressions someone can buy?

Mr. Fischer: To start, we only have one ad on the home page. We work with each advertiser around their needs. We might limit to five impressions. But more and more we're seeing marketers saying that over a week period, hitting certain demos, they will want to hit people 10 times.

Ad Age: It seems like buying the home page is akin to TV ad buying with specified times and inventory.

Mr. Fischer: The analogy to TV is a really good one in the sense of the ability to target people in a way that they're very actively engaged. But the way we divide up the inventory offerings is not based on TV. We do what we think will be appealing to markers and be useful to our users. That's why we don't sell home page takeover for an entire day.

Ad Age: More and more websites have installed Facebook Connect on their pages so people can "log in" to the site via their Facebook identity. Are you guys looking at the possibility of selling advertising off Facebook and onto participating websites?

Mr. Fischer: It's not something we're planning at this point. But the idea comes up periodically.

Ad Age: Before Google, you didn't have much technology or sales experience. How did you end up in Silicon Valley?

Mr. Fischer: I was a journalist in the mid-'90s at U.S. News and World Report. And then the Treasury Department before Google.

Ad Age: That's where you met Sheryl Sandberg, whom you worked with at Google and now at Facebook.

Mr. Fischer: Yes, I met Sheryl at Treasury. We worked together. She was Larry Summers' chief of staff, and I was the deputy.

Ad Age: Is that how you ended up at Google, when she moved there?

Mr. Fischer: Actually, we were both at Stanford Business School together, but eventually, I moved to Google.

Ad Age: It's an interesting transition to go from journalism to policy to business to Facebook.

Mr. Fischer: Part of what's so exciting about Facebook, it's clear that what drives change and motivates people to act is other people. When I was at U.S. News, I realized all the facts and figures aren't as compelling as how people feel about it. I covered the presidential campaign in 1996. When you watched Bob Dole and Bill Clinton, it was obvious it wasn't just about policies, it's about how you connect to people. It's about how you tell stories through people. That can be much more meaningful.

People, really, is the operating system that drives all of our behaviors. It's the organizing principal that drives us. I'm seeing that come to life via Facebook. That's why I came here.

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