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Why Modern Performance Marketers Need to Think Beyond Clicks | With Sam Mallikarjunan
Episode 173rd January 2023 • The Strategic Marketing Show • Insights For Professionals
00:00:00 00:18:37

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What are many modern performance marketers missing out on?

That's what we're going to be discussing today with a man who's taught advanced digital marketing, SaaS economics, and innovation management at the Harvard Division of Continuing Education. He's the former Chief Revenue Officer at Flock, the former Head of Growth at HubSpot Labs, and the current CEO and Co-Founder at OneScreen - a marketplace provider for buying and selling out-of-home advertising.

A warm welcome to the Strategic Marketing Show, Sam Mallikarjunan.

You can find Sam at OneScreen.AI.

Topics discussed on this episode include:

  • What exists beyond pixels and clicks?
  • You say that many marketers are seeing a diminishing return when it comes to digital advertising - why is that and what can they do to get around that?
  • How has out-of-home advertising changed?
  • What sort of data is available for out-of-home advertising?
  • How do you integrate that data with online data?
  • Can you use data from out-of-home advertising to improve your digital advertising?
  • Can you share a brand that has been using out-of-home advertising particularly successfully and seeing impactful, measurable results?


David Bain:

The Strategic Marketing Show is brought to you by Insights For Professionals: providing access to the latest industry insights from trusted brands, all on a customized, tailored experience. Find out more over at

Hey, it’s David. What are many modern performance marketers missing out on? That's what we're going to be discussing today with a man who's taught advanced digital marketing, SaaS economics, and innovation management at the Harvard Division of Continuing Education. He's the former Chief Revenue Officer at Flock, the former Head of Growth at HubSpot Labs, and the current CEO and Co-Founder at OneScreen - a marketplace provider for buying and selling out-of-home advertising.

A warm welcome to the Strategic Marketing Show, Sam Mallikarjunan.

Sam Mallikarjunan:

Thanks for having me, David.

David Bain:

Great to have you on. Sam. Thanks so much for coming on. Well, you can find Sam over at OneScreen.AI. So, Sam, what exists beyond pixels and clicks?

Sam Mallikarjunan:

Turns out quite a bit. I wish I had known about offline advertising back when I was at HubSpot. Things you probably have seen: billboards and mass transit, things like that.

Things you probably didn't realize were out-of-home: you can get QR codes to fly in a formation and drones to fly in a QR code formation and, you know, light up over your target accounts. You can rent an ice cream truck and wrap it in your branding.

There are so many things that never occurred to me. We had people with projectors targeting the INBOUND event in Boston, they were just wearing projectors and projecting your ad onto the side of the Convention Centre. Well, it's the biggest canvas in the world, right? It is the world.

David Bain:

You say that many marketers are actually moving towards this type of advertising because they're actually seeing a diminishing return when it comes to more conventional digital advertising.

So, why would you say that marketers have seen that diminishing return for more traditional digital advertising?

Sam Mallikarjunan:

It's somewhat ironic for me, by the way, that we call it “traditional digital advertising” now, because you and I have spent the last 15 or 20 years where it was new and innovative and trying to get people to do search engine advertising or paid social media, etc.

It was sort of inevitable, right? You get 20 years of a bunch of nerds like me running experiments, and we've optimized every inch of acquisition that is easy. So, SEO, content marketing, email marketing, etc. We're the only profession where there's a whole industry designed to stop us from doing our jobs, like ad blockers and things like that.

You have two things happening at the same time. You have a decrease in the ability to target and measure. So, the privacy restrictions being added by Apple, and such, are making it harder for marketers to target on Facebook and use some of the parameters they have before. And you have an increased reliance. So, marketers are spending more and more money on those channels, as it shifts away from linear television and some of those other mediums.

So the prices are going up at the same time as we're all able to target and measure less effectively, which means the price goes up even further. There is a point at which it becomes not cost-effective anymore. I can't find my way out of the problem like I was able to back in the day, where I could just hop on Facebook Ads, and nobody else was doing it. Right now, every other brand on the planet is doing exactly what I was doing for the last 15 years.

David Bain:

It certainly becomes more expensive, the more people are trying to do exactly the same thing, and the more competition you've got there as well.

Now, when it comes to out-of-home advertising, you did list quite a few different options there in the first minute or so. I guess that may mean that it's challenging for a brand to know where to get started. Where's generally the best place to get started with out-of-home advertising?

Sam Mallikarjunan:

Yeah, it is very overwhelming. When I first started in this industry, I had spent probably $100 million on internet ads in the past 14 years of my career. I've done out-of-home twice, and once was just to piss off a competitor. Not because I had thought about it and decided not to, but it just never entered my consideration set. Facebook and stuff was easier.

The best place to get started is with an audience-based approach. Depending on whether you're doing Account-based Marketing for enterprise sales: use the data analytics tools that we have, find out the roads that people take to go to and from work, etc. A lot of data that's been used for commercial real estate planning and urban planning historically, now, as we're thinking about the Internet of the real world, becomes surprisingly useful for that.

I would recommend that people probably start off with billboards and stuff before they try and do the wrapped ice cream truck or the drone activation, but the sky is the limit. And I mean that quite literally because we did have somebody targeting the CFO audience, they flew a plane over the US Open. The sky is quite literally the limit.

David Bain:

I guess one perceived drawback of doing this would be a lack of data, or it being more challenging to actually take the data and marry it up with whatever else you're doing.

How has out-of-home advertising changed over the last few years in terms of the data that you're able to get out of it?

Sam Mallikarjunan:

Historically, it hasn't been a very data-driven industry. What’s worth noting is that it's the only traditional ad medium that has continued to grow. So there hasn't been a lot of pressure on the out-of-home industry to add things like data to make it easier to buy. They've doubled in revenue in the past 20 years. It's not like print or linear TV or terrestrial radio.

The move towards data has actually come as more sophisticated brands, who are used to having that kind of data, have come into the space. The data around where an audience is, how they move around the real world, and how can you be a part of their literal buyer’s journey - not a conceptual one. Some of the data comes from places like the US Census Bureau. If you want to target based on job title, they've got that data that we can combine, then, with traffic planning data, with urban planning data, and with mobile device data - seeing whether or not somebody drives past your billboard, and if they're more or less likely to visit your website based on somebody who didn't drive past your billboard.

It's still very much the same methodologies that we're used to thinking of. It's just instead of cookies, which are really creepy because they're highly personalized, it's thinking in terms of audiences, groups of audiences, and how they move around the real world - which is inherently more future-proof. Because Google is trying to figure out how to not be creepy, by trying to figure out “How do I not target David Bain?” Out-of-home doesn't necessarily care or want to target just “David Bain” because you're just part of the audience that they're trying to reach.

David Bain:

You talked about very precise targeting, the kind of targeting that used to be possible with the likes of Facebook. You mentioned digital billboards, and you also talked about buyer journeys, as well.

Where does out-of-home generally sit in a buyer journey? Is this a more ideal medium to target people that haven't heard of you before, and expanding the eyeballs that haven't seen you or heard of your brand before? Or can you actually take data from existing prospects, and then deliver out-of-home advertising just for them?

Sam Mallikarjunan:

You can absolutely use it as a top-of-the-funnel, awareness, brand recognition motion. That's historically what it's been used for, as “We just need to get more people to see us.” It's led to some optimal buying strategies, where you just buy the most eyeballs instead of trying to buy the best eyeballs.

Everybody wants to run in Manhattan and San Francisco, and part of what the platform does is it has almost never spat out that you should run in just Manhattan or San Francisco - because it's crowded and expensive. The audience you're targeting does exist outside of those two cities. The best way to think about it is, if you're trying to create that brand awareness, where are you going to reach the audience in a way that is going to be at a time when they're thinking about it? If you're trying to drive down funnel conversions, though, you can also use it that way.

We're working on a study with Northeastern University to do an academically peer-reviewed study proving that out-of-home exposure has a causal link to website visitation. And that may sound simple, but that is actually a new thing. We're thinking of it as something that can actually get somebody to take an action, or get them to search for a term - using it to drive an increase in branded search term, which decreases your cost-per-click on Google because you have a higher quality score.

It works together with all of your other channels as well. Ironically, targeting people on Facebook ads after they've been exposed to a digital billboard (or out-of-home of any kind) increases your credibility. They know that you're a real brand, they assume you're doing some kind of hyperlocal campaign.

In an era where trust is a bit at a premium, because launching a company and having products and Facebook Ads, Twitter Ads - the internet, in general, is commoditized. Seeing your brand up on a billboard or mass transit or sidewalk chalk is something that people find highly credible, especially account-based marketers. It's the easiest, most obvious thing to do in the world that I'd never thought of. Just pick the office. You want to sell to HubSpot, my old friends there, right? You can use any number of tools, including ours, to just say, “I want to sell to people at HubSpot”, and it'll tell you, “These are the roads they take to go to work or from work. There are 3% of people who go to a liquor store that we have as an advertiser before they go to work.” Super interested to find out who those people are. But then, you're having a real measurable impact, you're really reaching a target account and your sales reps will let you know.

David Bain:

You touched on call to action there as well. Have you experimented with using a web address, maybe even a phone number?

And you also mentioned a search term as well. Is having a search term, encouraging people to search for a phrase, a higher converting opportunity for out-of-home?

Sam Mallikarjunan:

It definitely is, if you have a brand name that will support it, or if you have a branded term. If it wasn't for the fact that they're moving away from just focusing on inbound marketing, I really wanted to get the HubSpot marketing team to just have a Google search box that says “What is inbound marketing?” on the highways going into town and “What is outbound marketing?” on the highways going out of town, because they own all those terms.

If you have a name like OneScreen.AI or something like that, sometimes vendor URLs work really well. We did a test in Boston with, because marketers’ lives have been destroyed by people like me, who have got us in an endless loop of testing and experimentation instead of creativity. And we had a much higher than expected exposure to visitation rate. Granted, it was on the side of a truck that was 18 feet high, but that can work, it can absolutely work.

David Bain:

You said beforehand that you had a couple of case studies in mind that have done very well with out-of-home. Is there another brand that you'd like to share in terms of how they've actually achieved measurable success by using this?

Sam Mallikarjunan:

There are two, actually - ironically, they’re competitors. Brex, which is the B2B payments company. It's probably most famous for launching themselves using billboards in Silicon Valley in San Francisco. Because it's actually a lower cost, lower CPM, higher impact sort of thing to do. And it gets you noticed, right? You're a real legitimate company, is the impression, if you're doing even something as simple as a billboard on the 101 in San Francisco. They really launched themselves as a brand using out-of-home.

Another company (the one that we use, actually) is They've done incredibly targeted events in places where their audience is going to be - Miami Tech Week, targeting airports where people are coming in. They had floating billboards for all the parties that were happening at Miami Tech Week, because they were targeting tech startups where they would be seen.

The interesting thing I think they did really well is, out-of-home is the only ad medium where the ad itself also becomes content. People are taking pictures of it, they're posting it, you can take pictures of it and post it. T Mobile's new TV commercial campaign is basically just them driving around the United States showing videos of their billboards, because it shows the reach that they have, as they kind of travel around the landscape.

I think that type of multi-activation where, one, you can launch your company. Nobody's ever heard of you? They'll have heard of you now, like Brex did. Or, two, being hyper-targeted in something like FinTech, when your competitors are JP Morgan and American Express - incredibly well-capitalized companies with very sophisticated teams - you're not going to start from scratch and beat them on Google AdWords,

David Bain:

Is there anything, in particular, that you can do in terms of designing an out-of-home ad, to make it more likely that people would want to share that kind of ad and take photos of that ad with their friends?

Sam Mallikarjunan:

There are quite a few really interesting things people have done. In fact, there's a whole category of awards called the OBIE Awards, that the OAAA (the industry association) does every year, which I find absolutely fascinating.

There was one campaign, I want to say it was in Montana. It was water conservation, and the whole thing was “more is less”. And so, they only had a fifth of the Billboard actually shown, or they had a mass transit stop but it was chopped off so that was the only part of the bench. There's an impact that you can have when you have this four-dimensional context people are experiencing that you can't have in the two-dimensional context that you have online.

There's another one that’s my favorite. A company called Hunt a Killer, which is a dating game, or a “have a date night with your spouse” kind of game. You hunt a killer, and you get these clues in the mail. They did body stencils around the city of Austin, Texas - in addition to truck wraps and things like that - and they had the hashtag #WhoKilledBeth, who was the subject of their game. And it really looked like there were all of these police corpse (it's morbid, but hey, it’s their company) stencils that were around the city of Austin that people stopped and took photos of. I was waiting for some journalists to actually try and investigate who killed Beth and find out that it was a date night game.

David Bain:

Looking back at, which is obviously a B2B payments type provider. What did they do to measure the success of out-of-home? Was it just about brand uplift or do they try and get more granular than that?

Sam Mallikarjunan:

You can get much more granular than that. You can still put a pixel on your website or on a landing page or something like that, or you can have what we did with, which redirected to a link that we can track. And you can test whether or not a given creative - a given type of unit - is causing people to take a down funnel action.

You're not going to be able to detect everyone but that's the thing about an audience-based approach (or Google was trying their Federated Learning of Cohorts approach for how they could not be creepy) is that you don't need to track everyone, right? You just need to know what's performing better and what's performing worse, even down to the individual units. Like, what this billboard did better than that billboard - showing it this time of day does better than that time of day, etc.

You can track footfall attribution, website visitation, mobile app downloads, etc. All those same things you would normally want to track you can still track.

David Bain:

So, let's move on from what works now to planning for the future. In your opinion, what's the biggest marketing trend or challenge for marketers over the coming year,

Sam Mallikarjunan:

The biggest trend is going to be that we have a lot of things hitting us at the same time. We have the macroeconomic recession that is causing access to capital to be limited, valuations are going down, especially for startups, and at the same time costs of acquisition are going up.

So, marketers, there's a quote that has always haunted me: “When what you're doing isn't working, you tend to do more of the same just with greater intensity.” Marketers have to get out of that mindset and start to think about, how can we find ways to continue growing when you can't have a 24-month customer acquisition cost payback period anymore? Investors won't support that. Even though, just as recently as six months ago, you could have gone and raised a $100 million Series A, if you had good growth numbers and they were willing to accept that kind of unit economics.

Nowadays, I think this is a long-term, rationalization of how the industry should have been. I think we went on kind of a binge there, where we just thought money didn’t matter and we could just have cheap customer acquisition and valuations and payback periods going up forever. That's over. We've got to be a lot more methodical and a lot more, frankly, creative. If you keep doing what everyone else does, you're gonna get what everyone else gets, and most other companies are not doing particularly well right now.

David Bain:

I've been your host, David Bain, you can find Sam Mallikarjunan and over at OneScreen.AI. Sam, thanks so much for being on the Strategic Marketing Show.

Sam Mallikarjunan:

Thanks for having me.

David Bain:

And thank you for listening. Here at IFP, our goal is simple: to connect you with the most relevant information, to help solve your business problems, all in one place.




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