Clarity’s Kara Silverman sat down with Nandini Jammi and Claire Atkin, co-Founders of Check My Ads, a revolutionary advertising consultancy service that enables brands to set the terms of where they should and should not be advertised on the web.
Part two of their interview focuses on what they’re up to now — that is, driving large-scale and industry-wide impacts to branding, reputation management, and advertising online.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
KS: Switching gears a little bit— one thing that is always really hard for people who are starting a company is establishing a pipeline of customers. One of the unique things that you have is a kind of growing media empire, if you will, with the newsletter. How do you think about that and the role that that plays in building your business, and also just in terms of creating awareness for the issues?
NJ: We’ve been toeing the line between advocacy and entrepreneurship. Our goal has always been to establish ourselves as marketer advocates. That is, we’re the only ones in the industry defending and protecting the interests of the advertiser.
The only “marketing” we do is educate marketers on how the tools and mechanisms they use really work. However, our bigger picture goal is to pave the way for a fundamentally new advertising ecosystem, one that doesn’t rely on invasive surveillance technology and shitty ads that follow you around everywhere.
We want the public to be aware of just how much the advertising ecosystem has really cost them. We want them to understand that it’s not just a coincidence that their local newsrooms are going out of business, that their family members are falling prey to QAnon, that half their town thinks the pandemic is a hoax. We can trace these outcomes directly back to the AdTech ecosystem. We’re looking to pull back the curtain for the general public so they understand the way their personal data is being used against them and start holding the advertising industry accountable.
We’ve taken on an enormous task here. We’re not just building a business, we are creating a new market.
KS: I think that makes a lot of sense. I also think that the tug between advocacy and entrepreneurship exists in a lot of different places, and I think it’s such an interesting thing about your business and about a lot of businesses built on doing good, or holding people accountable, or giving back in some way. They have this kind of tension between wanting to make an impact but also needing people to pay and making enough money to be able to sustain their business.
What have been some of the challenges or things that you all have faced in your first year working together and building the company, COVID aside. If it’s possible to separate them out!
CA: (laughs) The challenges with Check My Ads have been mostly to do with juggling time. BRANDED takes a lot of time, working with clients as closely as we do takes time, and we’re constantly working with reporters, researchers and government representatives. We’re doing a lot and that’s the biggest challenge. When it comes to actual business operations, the main thing that we have that is sort of our superpower is that Nandini and I are almost like two puzzle pieces. We just have such good complementary skill sets and we’re both really grateful for that.
KS: Yeah, I really get that. What are some of the things that you love about doing this together, independently, and as a business?
CA: I think that the thing that I love the most is that we are constantly leveling up, working and collaborating on how to do that. The ocean that is ad tech can feel really big. And I think that going through it together, learning, studying, having conversations, is incredibly helpful. And it’s a communications exercise too; Nandini and I both love to write and edit and make things that are ever-increasingly more engaging and funny. I mean we’re marketers, so our job is to market a problem and solution. That’s what we love.
KS: That’s something that I really loved about the BRANDED newsletter in particular, that it felt very human and relatable. It was one of the easiest things to read on ad tech. Having worked with ad tech in my own career as a communicator for a really long time, I know making the concepts understandable and breaking them down into relatable chunks so people can follow what’s happening is so hard. One of the first things that stood out to me about the newsletter was that it was funny. And used “normal people” language. It was very understandable.
What would be your advice or recommendation to someone who was starting a business, or thinking about taking something that was picking up steam and turning it into their career?
NJ: Talk to a lot of people that really understand the problem, because we did that for nearly a year, and we still when we first launched, we still had to pivot. What I’m really grateful for is that we deeply understood the industry that we entered, and we had developed a lot of relationships before we ever launched anything. I think one of the smartest things that we did was to launch BRANDED first, because it allowed us to talk about the problems that we wanted to solve before we ever launched anything, and allowed people to get to know us and create a platform for ourselves.
CA: Yeah, it also allowed us to get a lot more feedback from folks. Tech people reached out, and they work in the industry, they work for the companies that we were criticizing, and they were supporting us. So it helped us gain confidence that we were on the right track to ourselves, and then we just got a better sense of what kind of brands were signing up to the newsletter and who might want to speak to us about this problem.
KS: In a year or two from now, what is the impact that you hope Check My Ads will have? Where are you hoping the industry will go?
CA: I think adtech has really destroyed original tenets of marketing. Our shift to scalable, programmatic advertising means we’ve really lost the art of connecting with the public in meaningful ways. I think that in the coming years, Check My Ads will help marketers find their way back to the original purpose of marketing. So, what that means to us is that brands will take much more control over where they place their ads. They will be looking for more sustainable and sophisticated KPIs than clicks and impressions. We also think that demand for high-quality publications will grow as advertisers finally realize that they’re wasting a lot of spend on junk.
NJ: Right now, marketing or advertising is a numbers game. So it’s a scale thing. How much can we spend, how can we grow as fast as possible, etc. Our mission at Check My Ads is to accelerate a shift towards intentional advertising. We want to see marketers move away from that numbers mindset and begin investing in systems that aren’t about constantly trying to keep up and play whack a mole with their advertising, but rather make intentional media buying decisions so that they are fully aware of who they’re supporting with their ad dollars, and that it aligns with their brand values. It’s much more sustainable for brands in the long term.
KS: Is there anything I didn’t ask about that you think is important to the business, or that you really want people to know?
NJ: Yeah. What we’re doing for our clients is a total game-changer. Through our training and playbooks, we’re empowering brands to clearly state what their brand values and brand guidelines for the very first time. That’s big for them, because until now they’ve handed that control over to third parties. For the first time they can say “This is where we want our ads to be, this is where we don’t want our ads to be”.
That is such a new concept for the industry. So, we’re in the early days, but we think that just having this document, and for these teams to finally articulate how they want their brands to show up online, is going to help create real change. Every service that we offer at Check My Ads is in service of that kind of empowerment. We may be a small company, but we think we’re onto something big.