Media moguls, listen up: Kunal Gupta can solve your problems before you even know you have them.
He did it in 2007 when he offered big publishers a platform to deliver their content on mobile devices (an idea that was greeted by the now-laughable response, “Why would anyone want to read content on their mobile phone?”). Six years later, the 28-year-old CEO of Polar is doing it again, this time serving up a way for media companies to cash in on native advertising – digital-age advertorials that look like content, but are produced in conjunction with or by an advertiser.
“Digital has changed the business model for media companies,” says Gupta. “The way they used to make money – primarily through TV ads, print ads, radio ads – has changed very, very quickly. And the reason for that is their audience is spending all their time online. Be it on a desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone. So the audience has moved to digital devices. Advertisers have now moved to digital devices. Media companies are trying to figure out – how do they create new revenue streams across this digital audience they have?”
The answer, says Gupta, is native advertising. Think of a sponsored post in your Facebook feed or a promoted tweet on Twitter. Those are native ads, and their proven ability to monetize the digital advertising space (almost 90 percent of Twitter’s revenue – over $420-million so far in 2013 – comes entirely from native ads) has cash-strapped publishers licking their chops.
“I think media companies are in a very unique position,” says Gupta. “Over the next few years, either their lunch is going to be eaten by Facebook and Twitter or they’re going to capitalize on this trend and come out on top.”
That “unique position” that traditional media companies have found themselves in of late has proved to be the fuel that fires Polar. Where media companies see a challenge, Gupta and his team see an opportunity, even if it arrives a little ahead of its time.
Eight years ago, while studying engineering at the University of Waterloo, Gupta enrolled for a co-op term in the U.K., where he found himself using his cellphone like he’d never used it before. Later, during a study exchange in Hong Kong, he was able to watch TV on his mobile while in the subway; at the time, most North Americans were just starting to get a handle on text messaging.
- Founder of Impact Entrepreneurship Group, a non-profit youth-run organization designed to promote youth entrepreneurship and leadership at the local and national level
- Voted into Marketing magazine’s Top 30 Under 30 (2012) for the rapid growth and success of Polar
- Ernst and Young Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year (2011)
- Recognized as a Global Citizen by the United Nations Citizen and Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year
That’s when the penny dropped.
“I got exposed to how mobile was changing people’s lives from a communication perspective, but also from a consumption perspective,” he says. “That’s where a lot of the early influences came from, to say, ‘Hey, these aren’t communication devices, these are consumption devices.’ So we started to build the technology to make that happen.”
Of course, selling the idea to publishers at a time when the iPhone, 3G networks and the Apple Store were either new concepts or non-existent was anything but a slam dunk, but Gupta persisted and got buy-in from Rogers Media, where some of the first mobile publishing apps (for Canadian Business and Maclean’s) were launched in early 2008. The Rogers deal served as a case study that Polar successfully pitched to Time Warner (a meeting Gupta arranged while still a student at the University of Waterloo). They’ve since launched over 1,200 mobile applications for over 400 companies in 12 countries with a heavy-hitting client list that includes Time magazine, Sports Illustrated, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, CNN Sports and the Wall Street Journal in Asia.
The next evolution, says Gupta, is the monetization of that mobile platform. And, just like in 2007, most media companies have yet to figure out how to do it. Polar, on the other hand, has already built a solution.
“About a year ago, we started to realize that current advertising formats on mobile devices aren’t working. There are banner ads the size of your finger that nobody clicks on, and more and more usage is happening on mobile device, so we launched a new part of the business called MediaVoice, and that’s a native advertising platform.”
The software serves as a bridge between publishers’ in-house content management systems (where they house all their stories, pictures, videos, etc.) and their ad servers, allowing native ads to be distributed and tracked more effectively.
After a whirlwind sales blitz that saw Polar meeting with more than 140 potential clients over 100 days in North America and the U.K., MediaVoice has been picked up by some big players in the traditional media landscape including The Washington Post, the Associated Press, Rogers Media, Postmedia and The Toronto Star.
“We’re solving a pretty big problem that all these big companies have,” says Gupta.
It’s something he might have said six years ago, before publishers caught on to what he was offering.
“We’re using our six years of understanding mobile, understanding media and understanding advertising. And that knowledge and experience show in how we’ve decided to build our platform.”