April 13, 2010
 

Yahoo!'s Influence on John Cecil and iAds.

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By Wendy McHale, Publisher

Yesterday we began PART 1 of a 3-part conversation with John Cecil, whom we call "the Innovator," not coincidentally due to the fact that he is the CEO of Innovate Ads.

That in and of itself would be enough. However, this executive, who started his digital career at a company called Yahoo!, is part of a special "Yahoo! Alumni" crowd; those who grew up as the business was still in its adolescent stage. Many of them such as Mark Cuban, Dominque Vidal, Dan Rosensweig, Lorna Borenstein, Cammie Dunaway, Steve Mitgang and Mercedes DeLuca among others earned their digital bones there. Since then they all have gone on to bigger and better things. Obviously, something special was in the air back then, and still must be, based on Yahoo!' impregnability even from the likes of arch-rival Microsoft.

If you wonder why we refer to John as the Innovator? It's simply because his company has created the newest "post-rich media" TV production-quality solution on the planet. Other companies which try to compete with Innovate - or iAds as John's company's referred to - offer personal service as their primary USP. Innovate Ads offers personal technology.

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Is John worried that a hot new rich media company is going to come in and trump iAds? He says, "Well, you always have to worry. But they'd they'd have to bring a TV production company along, have a team of online video directors on staff, enjoy great relationships with the actor community in Hollywood and hundreds of direct marketing case studies." Then he followed, "They'd also have to have the campaign we did with you and the MadAveJournal in support of MAD Men's recent promotion." I thought, "Hmmm... he's on to something."

In part 2 of this interview, we try to get to what was in that Yahoo air, if not in the neighborhood that has gave him and so many of his Yahoo alums the ability to move the digital business to a higher ground.

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Wendy: During your time at Yahoo!, did you ever consider moving up there? There were so many other Yahoo Brats that you worked with, there surely must have been a temptation.

John: Yeah, but I'm addicted to the ocean. I'm a big surfer and the Southern California lifestyle is in my blood. I always felt lucky when I was working with Yahoo! that I could be part of the dot com era and still live in LA. I think Southern California is an excellent part of the country to keep on top of what's going on in our business, which is why I still here today.

Wendy: What was going on the west coast that enabled so many of you to keep up with the pace of lightening speed change? Silicon Valley?

John: I worked out of LA, but the Yahoo culture certainly introduced me to the buzz being generated out of the Valley. However, I learned early on from working at Yahoo! that Stanford University was - and continues to be - the heart and soul of digital media. Even though we're in Orange County, we always have an eye on their research and innovation.

Wendy: Stanford? Big deal. What other companies today can point to Stanford for their success other than Yahoo!, Apple, and Google?

John: LOL! You're funny. You'd have to ask a cultural anthropologist for an answer to that question. For us, it's Stanford's commitment to R&D which we've made sure has rubbed off on our product.

Wendy: Tell me about it. Whose work have you followed?

John: Professor Byron Reeves.

Wendy: I don't know him.

John: Byron Reeves is a Professor at Director of the Stanford Center for the Study of Language and Information. He co-founded the Media X Program that brings together industry partners to work on innovations in interactive technology. He's published numerous papers and books on the physiological responses to media, attention, memory, and emotion to all sorts of media. One of the books he's co-published is "The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television," and "New Media Like Real People and Places."

Wendy: Impressive.

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John: One of the projects he's worked on that caught our attention was his findings in a study titled "The Benefits of Interactive Online Characters." It points to the fact that automated characters, or in our case, Video Spokespeople" increases the trust that computers have with a person's online experiences.

Wendy: Why?

John: Well, the elevator pitch is that they make online experiences easier for computer users.

Wendy: What do you mean, easier?

John: Okay, let's say there ar 5 ways that absorb information. First is the most distant. They watch TV. Now, let's get closer. Being with a group of people. Being in class or at a show of some kind. It's more personal than a TV since it's live but it's not one to one. Okay, now let's get closer. Your computer screen.

Wendy: Okay, that's three.

John: Right, the next two are the most critical. Being face to face with someone. Dinner, coffee, talking on the phone. That's four. Now according to STanford, the most effective way to communicate on the computer is with what Professor Reeves calls Automated Characters. We call it Video Spokespeople.

Wendy: Interesting.

John: Stanford's research shows that automated characters, or Innovate Ads for short takes you as close to one to one as you could ever get with your computer. Think about it. Imagine an iAd video spokesperson walking out on to the screen, to talk to you personally instead of reading a static page.

Wendy: What else does the research say?

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John: Reeves has distilled it down to two specific points.

Wendy: What are they?

John: First, that human-media interactions are fundamentally social. One example online of course is the explosion in social media, right?

Wendy: Sure, what's the other?

John: Well, in research-speak, Human character interfaces bring social intelligence to online interactions.

Wendy: Okay, now explain that in human terms.

John: He's referring to the fact that the ability to be socially competent is critical for teaching, for doing commerce and for interpersonal relationships.

Wendy: Not in my family.

John: LOL!

Wendy: Go on.

John: When people interact with media - and especially with computer-based media - the more the presentation is social, the more the interaction is going to be successful.

Wendy: Right.

John: Adding interactive human characters to online experiences is an effective method to gain control over the presentation of social intelligence.

Wendy: Okay, I get it.

John: Social intelligence in automated interactions is good business. More than any other platform, social characters can benefit from new technologies than any other form.

Wendy: Why is that?

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John: Because new tech is going to make video spokespeople more practical, more real.

Wendy: Let's talk about your Video spokespeople.

John: Well, the research says that they make social responses inevitable. What rich media can promise that their format will make response inevitable?

Wendy: Not sure. What else?

John: Video spokespeople are perceived as real social actors. Everyone understands that computer generated characters are not real people in the flesh, however they do know they are real people in the computer can still cause automatic social responses as if the characters know how to communicate with the user.

Wendy: Okay.

John: This interactivity increases the perceived realism and effectiveness of characters. Just look at the response with got with MAD MEN.

Wendy: Definitely.

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John: Video spokespeople increase the trust of the information they give. You know how important trust is. It's everything. The presence of a character can increase and sustain trust. Video spokespeople can benefit from the same emphasis on social responsibility.

Wendy: Right.

John: The i-Ads Video spokespeople you can choose from includes an ever growing group of actors that represent brands. In turn, they give your brand personality, especially if it is something technical that has no life form.

Wendy: I know some people who work at a few agencies who act like that.

John: (smiling) Video spokespeople can communicate social roles. It's not just what you say. It's the way it's said. The inflection a person uses in their voice is incredibly important to the context of the message. They express emotions.

Wendy: You mean like when I ask my daughter the first time to shut off the TV versus the third time?

John: LOL! Yes.

Wendy: Anything else?

John: Perfect lead in. Video spokespeople very effectively display and communicate important social manners. Something that printed content has no way at all of doing.

Wendy: And finally?

John: Maybe the most important. Our characters are well-liked.

Wendy: Ahh, the secret sauce.

John: That's not exactly how we look at it.

Wendy: Can you send me Professor Reeves' white paper?

John: Sure. If you buy me a Big Mac.

Wendy: Deal!

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