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Criteo: AI & Data Sharing Can Help Publishers & Retailers Fight Back Against Tech Giants

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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INTERVIEW: Criteo’s Gregory Gazagne talks AI, machine learning, Brexit and why smaller publishers and retailers can compete with Google, Facebook & Amazon

The publishing and retail industries are but two to have been disrupted by the rise of the tech giants.

Google and Facebook have snared the overwhelming majority of the online advertising revenues that were considered the lifeblood for publishing, while Amazon is expanding its reach by the week, making it more difficult for smaller retailers to compete.

French martech firm Criteo was formed in 2005, back when Facebook was a fledgling startup, but fast forward 12 years and it is building a data sharing ecosystem in which both sectors can thrive.

Read More: Vive La France Tech: The French tech firms taking on the world

Criteo

Creating an ecosystem

The concept is simple. By pooling data about a particular user, retailers can predict who is a potential customer, what they might want and how much they might spend, and publishers benefit from receiving highly-targeted advertising.

Amazon has this because it offers so many different products and can track a person’s journey around its site and see their purchase history. Google and Facebook have vast treasure troves of data.

Smaller publishers may have a niche but lack scope, while smaller retailers may have better goods for a particular user, but can be difficult to find.

“We feel the only way for retailers to compete with Amazon is to partner together,” Gregory Gazagne, Criteo’s EMEA head told Silicon. “It’s no different to shopping at the best place. We have a role to play there.

“No one else can offer [what we do] because of our scale and our focus on commerce. Others focus on more than one industry.”

Better together

It’s not just online retailers that can benefit. By having this data at their disposal, even retailers who make most of their sales offline can understand their customers better as online influences half of all in-store purchases.

“We use our unique cross-device data (700 million users) every month and we want to use that to understand the true customer journey across devices so there is no separate action between desktop and mobile,” continued Gazagne. “Users are asking for customisation. We are able to give that back to our clients.”

The spirit of cooperation makes for unlikely bedfellows but sharing data with competitors is essential to making the most of Criteo’s platform. Gazagne noted that one UK firm didn’t want to share its insights but this would mean it would only receive five percent of the potential insight.

“Amazon is growing and you need to do something,” he added. “You need to partner with someone who has machine learning and scale.”

Machine Learning

Gregory Gazagne CriteoCriteo also works with other online platforms such as Facebook and Google to buy advertising space. Most advertising networks auction impressions to the highest bidder. Criteo crunches its data to make its bids based on predicted purchase, average spend and items, to the tune of 800,000 calculations a second.

Back in 2005, Criteo only predicted clickthrough rate and Gazagne said the advances since then were testament to its technology.

“We all agree it a complex world and we are used to navigating it,” he said.

“With Google search, we’ve been developing an engine that also works with Google Shopping. Google is very interested in helping us build this [and] our relationship with Facebook is good but it is a walled garden.

“Our business is to understand the customer behaviour. I truly believe this is machine learning and AI. The result is a customised ad and that could be as good as a personal shopper. When you look at Amazon, that’s what they do.”

The next step is to go beyond display technology and into other areas, such as sponsored content, with a view to scaling the core product.

UK business

Criteo has been in the UK for almost a decade. Gazagne said the UK is a challenging market because it is often the starting point for US companies, but agreed with the notion that it was the “biggest country” for e-commerce.

“We entered the UK market very early in 2008 and we have a long relationship with major clients,” he explained. “We work with all the major retailers, House of Fraser, New Look, and all the big publishers.

“[The UK market is] especially mobile-driven. It’s amazing how the shift happened in the past few years.”

There are no concerns about Brexit, at least for the time being, with no major changes in talent. However Criteo hails from France, one of the areas looking to provide a home for any tech refugees scared by the UK’s departure from the EU.

Vive la France tech

The French capital has become a hub of tech activity in the past few years and Gazagne attributes this to government support and talent. Like many other tech hubs in Europe, it can be difficult to get the right financial backing when compared to Silicon Valley.

“The first reason would be education,” he said. “We have great engineering schools and engineers. In our business it’s a worldwide competition to attract the best talent. The government is helping a lot on the tax side, growing incubators, tax saving opportunities.

“Successes like Criteo are opening a French mindset that you can develop your business. There are more and more people who are thinking global.”

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