The debate around Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been a major talking point in digital marketing over the last 12 months with no signs of stopping anytime soon. In addition to newer entrants into the space and the growth of influence marketing, the performance marketing mix continues to adapt and innovate – but is this enough and where is the next generation of the channel heading?

Ahead of PI LIVE next month, Webgains’ CEO Richard Dennys runs through the business’ progress in 2018, movements in AI and where he thinks the next generation of performance marketing is heading.

It’s certainly been a busy year for Webgains. What have been some of your highlights?

Richard Dennys: Well, yes but I like it that way! I suppose I should say launching over 500 new advertiser programmes to our network portfolio within 12 months is quite a nice headline stat. Then, bringing in around 50 new staff across the world has been exciting and highly invigorating for our business to join an already excellent team in situ; Derek Freer and Karl Wood in the UK as well as revamping our sales team, John Otten in the US, Jochen Heinzle and Sina Holzheu for Germany are particular highlights of those but almost all 50 seem to smash hits so far. 

Launching the new Webgains logo and the #GetTheEdge performance driven branding. Opening our Bristol tech hub and hiring a brand new team who launched the new Webgains advertiser interface in May this year plus a range of product and feature enhancements. Opening fresh operations in Munich and Milan has brought new people, clients and grown our network too. Commencing and concluding our internal account director accelerator programme through the Webgains Academy has been brilliantly inspiring to be involved in. Seeing over 800 people sign up and complete at least one of our free online Affiliate Marketing training modules from every corner of the world is amazing. Gaining ISO 27001 accreditation was a very important block for our overall GDPR compliance.

I guess the best thing is seeing the confidence and self-esteem of our team grow and multiply which has seen some stunning results in the gross sales values of our advertisers and commission for our myriad of affiliates and publishers. We now drive over €1billion of GSV through our network annually via 100 million transactions to almost every country in the world. That’s pretty exciting to see for me but also gives us some fantastic raw material for innovations and insight across our network.

AI has been a big talking point in performance marketing and it has since developed further in 2018. Do you think there are enough actionable examples out there to justify its use?

RD: No, not yet. But these things take time to ferment and reach maturity. We’re still early in the hype curve but solid value-add is just around the corner, of that I am sure. It’s great to see companies like Increasingly take the lead for product and SKU enhancement in the CPA space but there is still a long way to go. Also, don’t forget reaching a level of compliance with GDPR and ePrivacy has definitely slowed innovations in this area.

Webgains has made a big push towards AI technology in recent months, how has it worked for the affiliate channel?

RD: On that, we’re still testing and learning in our ‘Alpha’ phase. But, our internal results are super-positive and we are building intelligence and learning to almost all our new feature enhancements from now on. At any one point in time Webgains has a product database of over 20 million SKUs, learnings from which we’re using to train and teach our AI-driven predictive “Now What” technologies; we are also exclusively partnering with a few more AI specialists building on top of our relationship with IBM Watson to help launch and optimise our affiliate programmes much faster than is currently possible.

With some many components in the marketplace – from new entrants and influencers to emerging technologies – where do you see the next generation of performance marketing heading?

RD: After almost two years of running Webgains, I’m still surprised and almost disappointed by the lack of disruptive technologies from fresh entrants. Yes, we have the likes of Honey, Pouch and RevLifter, however in the first two cases at least this could be seen as merely substitutive than complimentary – replacing more last click driven rewards at the expense of affiliates higher up the funnels; i.e little additional value is being added into the affiliate reward chain. this then feeds back up to the advertisers who start to run things like ‘incrementality’ tests that really question the long-term value of our channel, which may not be a good place to be headed towards. On influencers, we’re seeing the maturity of this branch of affiliates although the recent burn-out stories should be a red-flag on sustainability and cause for industry concern.

But I always work on a ‘3 horizon’ view; right now we have what we have in front of us and innovations around simply on the ‘commission grab’ or basket enhancements. In the mid-term, I see more innovations for ‘intelligent’ attribution and insight and then two to five years away there seems to be a movement and discussion around commerce in and around the crypto-currency and the blockchain. If issues around privacy, credibility and speed are addressed (which they are likely to be) then this could really shake things up for all of us. From Bristol, we are looking at all of these things right now as part of our R&D programmes.

However, we can only really move as fast as our most innovative advertisers and affiliates. I’m constantly bewildered at conversations I am forwarded where our precise (and GDPR compliant) first party tracking and attribution is compared to and questioned versus the free version of Google Analytics, which is often incorrectly installed and misinterpreted when calculating and approving affiliate rewards. This type of friction is and will continue to be for some time, a major barrier to innovation in performance marketing channels.

You’re returning to PI LIVE this year as headline sponsor and will be hosting two sessions. What are you most looking forward to and what can attendees take away from your sessions in October?

RD: I’m most looking forward to seeing the Webgains team and the people they do daily business with together in the marketplace in full glorious hi-performing flow plus meeting new and old friends hearing industry issues and Webgains’ successes first hand. That impression as well as the feeling this channel remains the most valuable and cost-effective at scale is all I hope attendees take away from the whole show. 

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