For most executives looking at digital advertising optimization, personalization, retargeting or programmatic buying, Criteo is likely on the consideration list. A Wall Street darling in the heady days of rapid ad tech investment, it would be easy to assume that Criteo had fallen into the disruptor-now-the-disrupted category.

Admittedly, Criteo has been on a bit of a roller coaster ride. Amazing capacity for retargeting and programmatic. Rough headlines over the past five years have rocked the brand from allegations around ad fraud to hits on stock price. Now, the cookie could be Criteo’s biggest blow in the wake of Google’s public pondering of a ban of 3rd party cookies a couple years down the road.

But the big black advertising box showed signs of embracing the needs of today’s marketing leader, showcasing innovation outside of its traditional advertising lane and into the cluttered realm of buyer/shopper intelligence. There is a delicate balance that needs to be struck in understanding the needs of the brand-building, precision marketer and the privacy-aware value-driven consumer. The question will become if Criteo can understand both of those needs.

Top thoughts from my time with the team in Boston:

  • Bringing on a strong CEO with serious street cred in marketing, media, operations and security isn’t an accident. Megan Clarken, a seasoned veteran of Nielsen, News Corp and Akamai, is credited as an operational leader with successes in massive transformation including the Total Audience Measurement strategy shift at Nielsen. But it isn’t just her impressive background that got me leaning in—it was her refreshing honesty about where Criteo is today and the new attitude Criteo will need to be a bigger player in the marketing technology game. Don’t discount her insights into video measurement and her savvy with mobile…or the fact she is a battle-tested partnership builder. If you can change measurement at Nielsen, I’m pretty sure you can sell ice to an Eskimo.
  • Criteo is talking—a LOT—about its plans to enable brands to engage with consumers in the “upper funnel”. To be frank, I am not sure this is Criteo being ironic or Criteo not seeing its own potential to help marketers looking to move beyond the archaic vision of a linear funnel that neatly organizes customers into buckets that predictably exit a highway in a uniform, orderly, standardized model. Criteo’s legacy in understanding behaviors, intent and motivation triggers and signals is powerful, regardless of where in the “funnel” a customer sits. It will be interesting to see just how the solution comes together and how much value it brings to the CMO looking to better orchestrate the chaos of a profitable journey instead of trying to classify customer buying stages in a straight line.
  • As a public company, Criteo is exceptionally susceptible to big hits when big alphabets make even bigger announcements. The reality is that nobody in the industry ever thought the cookie would ever crumble. In the same way the single point of attribution has given way to something more powerful, elegant and meaningful to the business, so too will go retargeting, and dare I say, personalization in advertising. I wouldn’t count Criteo out just because of a 3rd party cookie. I was especially interested in the capacity to tap into 1st party data, including the import of CRM data and enterprise customer listening intelligence, as brands seek to refine the relationship and not bombard a target.
  • Criteo will need to get transparent and plant a stake in the ground about ethics in their machine learning if they are going to be truly trusted. Criteo is pushing their Shopper Graph along with their ability to apply machine learning and deep learning to data to best understand and act. In today’s conversation of Ethics in AI and the inherent trust in transparency, Criteo will have to take a stand. This could be an uphill perception climb with old rumors of alleged ad fraud continue to populate news feeds, despite Criteo taking steps to deliver trusted traffic. But trust in traffic and metrics is vastly different than ethics and trust in AI and ML based intelligence. Transparency in HOW decisions and calculations are made could go a long way, especially as the world (read: legislative bodies) continues to regulate AI and data on the fly. It just won't be enough to be certified for ad metrics...marketers will want to understand how intelligence is being compiled and calculated.

I’m certainly not ready to make a definitive ruling about Criteo—will it sink or will it soar—not entirely sure. There is an awful lot on the roadmap that was confidential and, ergo, the burning part of what this marketing gossip wants to share. But, in the end, after a day in Boston, I fully understood that the Criteo of old won’t be the Criteo of tomorrow. And THAT, ladies and gents, could be one heck of a story to track.