How Vibrant Media's Executive Team Vanished in One Day

Company Struggles To Move Beyond In-Text Ads

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You hear about the hirings, the fundings, the skyrocketing valuations and exits. But for every $1 billion dollar IPO, there are dozens of companies that never get close. They spark, they sizzle, and then they go flat, or worse.

One of those companies is Vibrant Media, a former rising star in ad-tech that built a $100 million dollar business selling in-text ads before native advertising and real time bidding rose to prominence. Vibrant is still alive but stagnating, and one day last month the company's problems came to a head.

On a mid-October afternoon, Vibrant's employees were called into an all hands meeting and told that the company's COO Martin Forbes, CTO Tom Iler and CRO Sheila Buckley would all be leaving. The departures of Mr. Iler and Mr. Forbes were voluntary, according to a source with knowledge, while the company's board was behind the ousting of Ms. Buckley and Vibrant's former CEO, Cella Irvine, who had been dispatched weeks earlier.

The group's departure is stark compared to the optimism expressed in their hiring announcements. "Sheila can really help bring Vibrant to the next level," said Ms. Irvine at the time of Ms. Buckley's hiring in March 2012. "She's got a great reputation for building and managing teams, and she's superb at growing revenue."

Cella Irvine
Cella Irvine

The lofty revenue aspirations did not materialize though. When Ad Age asked Vibrant co-founder Craig Gooding if missed sales numbers were responsible for the ousting of Buckley he said "some of that." Mr. Gooding, who is now running the company, added that when he took charge he wanted to surround himself with his trusted generals. "It's not unusual when you get a leadership change," he explained. Mr. Gooding would not say whether the company's revenue has fallen in the past year. "I think it's the same sort of region. It's not substantially different," he said.

All three executives declined to comment and Ms. Irvine did not respond to an interview request. But Mr. Gooding expressed optimism about its future. "This year, Vibrant is looking to get back on the warpath. Feeling really good," he said.

Beyond text ads
Part of Mr. Gooding's optimism is tied to seeing some traction for a number of new ad units Ms. Irvine introduced last year. The units are meant to turn pesky in-text ads into something more consumer friendly by employing features such as a countdown timer before they spring up. "It's taken time, for sure, to get to where we've got to now," Mr. Gooding said, claiming that the fourth quarter of 2013 will be Vibrant's "most profitable quarter for a couple of years."

If Vibrant is indeed going to see a record quarter with the new units in place, it does not seem to jive with the decision to let Ms. Irvine go. Mr. Gooding said the decision resulted from investments in products that will never see the light of day "I think, for the most part, we did a reasonable job of placing our bets," Mr. Gooding said. "Some of them, frankly, were not that great, and the board decided and Cella decided now was the right time to make that change."

A longtime employee of Vibrant, who left earlier this year, painted a far less rosy picture: "In-text is not as valuable as it used to be," he said, explaining that he believes the company needs to pivot dramatically in order to succeed in the long term.

The former employee, who asked to remain anonymous, said the mood at Vibrant changed drastically over the past few years. "We heard about the growth and then we stopped hearing about things," he said. Company parties and trips, a major perk, dwindled and the mood turned sour. "Get out while you still can," is how he described it.

Mr. Gooding did hint that the company would be changing things up under his leadership, including possibly venturing outside of advertising. Having raised $27 million dollars and claiming profitability, the company is likely able to put such plans into action. But an analogy Mr. Gooding used later in the interview conveyed everything you need to know about what the company has been through: "We're very pleased that much like some of the European economy, we're starting to emerge from that kind of development cycle and period of not growing as fast as we've historically done."

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