What’s the first thing that pops up as soon as you open a website? A dialog box that says, “Do you wish to accept cookies?”, to which we simply click “Yes” without thinking. The next second, digital minions of the website get to work: they record our online behaviour such as how long we stay on the site, the content we access, our location, etc.

This data is then sold to companies across the world, who then use the information to bombard us with targeted ads. Biting cookies makes brands and tech giants earn billions of dollars. What about our privacy? That’s in the ‘recycle bin’ the moment we said, “Yes”.

But what if there was a way to reach netizens with focussed ads without comprising privacy? That’s what AdSkate does. The ad tech company founded in 2019 offers an “AI solution providing brands with relevant contextual data for pay-per-click and programmatic buying campaigns”.

Finding the gap

The start-up, founded by Akaash Ramakrishnan, Salil Save and Shreyas Venugopalan, graduated from three accelerator programmes (VentureBridge by Carnegie Mellon University, Pax Momentum, AlphaLabs by Innovation Works) and is part of an incubation programme (Project Olympus by Carnegie Mellon University). It is headquartered out of Pittsburgh and has a presence in Toronto, Canada. Recently, it raised $5,00,000 as a pre-seed round of funding.

(From Left) Shreyas Venugopalan, Akaash Ramakrishnan and Salil Save — the team behind AdSkate.

(From Left) Shreyas Venugopalan, Akaash Ramakrishnan and Salil Save — the team behind AdSkate.

Describing how they started up, Akaash Ramakrishnan, says, "Salil and I have known each other for a long time, while Shreyas and Salil know each other because of their time in Pittsburgh. One day, Salil called me and asked whether there was an urgent business need in the ad tech ecosystem that could be solved using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML).”

That led to a discussion on contextual targeting. And then the three of them got on a call setting in motion what AdSkate is today. The trio, Ramakrishnan says, was a perfect match with each having experiences in AI, ad tech, sales and business development.

Contextual targeting

Ramakrishnan describes how cookies changed the way internet advertising works. "But now thanks to laws such as General Data Protection Regulation, people are becoming aware of the importance of privacy. The Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal was a gamechanger too," he says.

Here is where AdSkate comes in. Instead of depending on cookies, their AI and ML technology focuses on "contextual targeting". This is how it works. When a brand reaches out to AdSkate, the start-up uses its AI tech to crawl through a list of target websites that are relevant to the brand. The tech analyses the content on those websites and then suggests where the ads for the brands' products can be placed.

Ramakrishnan gives an example. "Let's assume a sporting brand wants to sell shoes. We would list a collection of websites they should target. Now let's say the brand chooses ESPN. Then we would suggest them to place the ads of their tennis shoes under the tennis content section of the website," he says, adding web content with relevant ads makes it easier for a brand to find niche customers who will be willing to click and buy.

Safety factor

The team even takes in a brand's "safety factor". "Taking the same example, let's assume the content in the website has an article of one sportsman speaking negatively of Indian tennis. Readers here will be naturally upset. In such an instance, we will recommend the sporting brand not to put ads under this section," Ramakrishnan says. "It's essential to consider the mood of the user engaging the content based on which they will react to the ad."

AdSkate has a list of over 800 content topics under which ads for their clients are placed. "We call it the inclusion list and it keeps growing. We take what is most relevant to the brand, the product and then run the campaign," he says.

This form of online ads is new and growing. Convincing clients was initially a challenge. "But while the government is realising the need for data protection, people are slowly becoming aware of its importance and brands are also learning."

Ramakrishnan also says that due to the pandemic, product placement ads within a movie scene are now actively sought after as "brands are seeing the growth of OTT platforms."

The way ahead

While all this may appear to be great from a netizen's point, what do marketers say? What are the challenges ahead in a cookie-less world?

Jessie Paul, CEO, Paul Writer, a B2B marketing agency, says, "For businesses, the implication is that there will be a shakeup amongst those who had non-sticky relationships with their readers and users. The biggest business beneficiaries are those that actually 'know' their customers and have some sort of gating."

She advises, "For marketers, there needs to be a shift towards other ways of targeting customers for example by psychographics and demographics, in addition to data sourced with their consent. We can use context, cohorts and common sense to talk to consumers."