Episode #16 – The Performance Marketing Spotlight with Steven Brown

About Our Guest

From initially founding buy.at – the technically innovative affiliate network – through to advising and scaling several publishers and ad-tech businesses since, my experience gives me valuable insights into the complex balance of serving clients to grow a business, while ensuring it is technically sound and has a handle on all the components necessary for fast growth.

As founding chief executive, I led buy.at to be one of the UK’s fastest growing businesses (9th in Sunday Times TechTrack, and the highest ranked profitable one) to a size of critical mass (60+ employees, £30m revenue) and through two transactions including its ultimate sale to AOL’s advertising.com in 2008, an achievement recognised as VC Deal of the Year.

I was presented with the ‘Industry Ambassador’ award at the ‘Performance Marketing Awards’ in 2016, whilst my work life started in a very different sector as a research physicist at the UK’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, followed by five years at KPMG.

I also help in businesses where I can add a difference and I’m passionate about what the company is building.




Welcome to the latest episode of Performance Marketing Spotlight! In this insightful episode, our host Marshall Nyman sits down with Steven Brown, the CEO of Moonpull, to discuss the intricacies of performance marketing and the importance of tracking within the industry. Steven shares his journey into the space, sheds light on the challenges, and offers valuable insights into the future of performance marketing. Join us as we delve into the complexities of tracking and learn how Moonpull is working to streamline and enhance the relationships between publishers and advertisers. Don’t miss out on this engaging discussion with a true industry expert!



Marshall Nyman [00:00:04]:
Hello and welcome to the performance marketing Spotlight. I’m your host, Marshall Nyman, founder and CEO of Nymonco. Each episode I will be bringing you someone with deep experience in the performance marketing space, where they will highlight their experiences within the industry. Today I have Stephen Brown, who is CEO of Moonpool. Welcome to the podcast, Stephen.

Steven Brown [00:00:25]:
It’s great to be here, Marshall, nice to be sharing it with you.

Marshall Nyman [00:00:28]:
Very excited to have you today. And it was great seeing you a week ago at affiliate summit and ready to get to it. So why don’t you introduce yourself to the audience so they can get to know you.

Steven Brown [00:00:38]:
Okay. As you just said, I’m CEO of Moonpool. Prior to that, I ran Buyat affiliate network for approximately eight years ending in 2008, which seems an age ago now. And then I’ve done various other things in performance marketing. So I’ve run an SEO data business and been involved with a couple of publishers as well.

Marshall Nyman [00:00:57]:
So how did you get your start in the space?

Steven Brown [00:00:59]:
So I started in the space in probably 99, 2000, and I was with my brother. We were looking for a project to do and I’d actually worked on the Internet for quite a few years before then in a previous life as a physicist, which just showed me the potential I just needed to do something.

Marshall Nyman [00:01:20]:
Well, I think that takes a cake as most interesting start into affiliate marketing. Most people usually saying they got started on the network or publisher, think physicist takes the cake right there. And so what is Moonpool and what led you to create it?

Steven Brown [00:01:36]:
So Moonpool is a business where we look at tracking as a component of helping publishers and advertisers work together better. So it’s about taking the friction out of the relationships between principally the publisher and the advertiser. But crucially, you’ve got networks and agencies in the middle as well. And affiliate sometimes is unloved and we want to help. Cmos love the channel more. And one of the things we’re doing is looking at the tracking side of the industry. And what made me set it up is working at a network. You know that tracking is complicated.

Steven Brown [00:02:17]:
It’s an art and a science, and it just underpins the relationships we’re trying to form. And if you can get more tracking upside, if you can get publishers getting 5% or 10% more revenue, because things track more reliably, that is 50% 100% on the bottom line. So it’s a no brainer to help people to make this effort to get tracking working better.

Marshall Nyman [00:02:43]:
I really like what you said about making cmos or really anybody in the organizations love affiliate. I think that really says a lot because a long time ago I think it was hard to get people in the organization to love affiliate. So I think there’s definitely a tie turning. People are looking at it differently. So I think having efficient tracking and knowing that your tracking is working is definitely going to help lead to more credibility within the channel. So awesome that you’re working on that. So what type of errors is the system looking for?

Steven Brown [00:03:14]:
So we follow from what we call the handover. At one end, which is where a publisher uses an affiliate link, typically redirects through a network and lands at the advertiser’s landing page. Then much more prevalent now than a few years ago. You’ve got consent platforms that users can click on and then that delivers the actual starting point for that user’s experience with the brand. So that’s one part of the affiliate journey. At the other end you’ve got the confirmation page that has the code in, that talks back in the ether through to the affiliate network. And between the two, you need something that joins the dots, and that’s what we call the memory, which is typically a memory cookie or local storage. So what is moonpool looking at? We’re looking at the earlier two parts of that journey, the handover, the setting of the memory.

Steven Brown [00:04:13]:
What moonpool isn’t yet doing is looking into what goes on at the checkout page. But because that’s a secure page, it’s unlikely that code gets fiddled with very often. So tracking issues generally occur at the earlier part of the journey.

Marshall Nyman [00:04:28]:
And I think it’s safe to say at that earlier part of the journey, there’s a lot more friction in the process than there was a few years ago. Everybody’s serving a pop up. There’s the GDPR pop up. So with all those different elements creating friction, are you seeing a lot more loss in tracking because of that?

Steven Brown [00:04:47]:
I wouldn’t say we’re seeing more because people know they have to put more effort into it. At the moment, we’ve got the issue of the deprecation of third party cookies on chrome six months or so away, and that really is focusing people’s minds. And one of the things that we’re seeing is a realization that the old way of tracking, using third party cookies, which are therefore typically set on the network redirect, that’s a very reliable way of setting the memory cookie to be read at the checkout. So actually that fallback is mopping up a lot of the issues that may be there in the first party method. Of tracking. And you’re absolutely right. The first party method of tracking has more moving parts, so it requires parameters to be passed in URLs. Typically it requires perhaps a piece of JavaScript or a JavaScript tag to read it.

Steven Brown [00:05:54]:
Advertisers like to add in additional complexities, so they might want to go through someone like double click for tracking attribution purposes as well. And it all adds up to a complicated environment that needs to be kept running by the marketer. And it isn’t just one size fits all, or you can put it in into one place and forget about it, because it has to be present on every landing page on the advertiser’s site. Whether they’re new pages, whether they’re old pages, whether they’re pages where there’s been a bit of a redirect tweak over time, and that just adds additional complexity. And then if I come back to the third party tracking for a sec, that’s a cookie being dropped on the redirect that covers everything. That moment, after a lot of pieces.

Marshall Nyman [00:06:47]:
Involved in the puzzle. So obviously easy for something to maybe just slightly break and you don’t have perfect tracking, and even just a few percentage points off is significant when you’re talking about paying publishers and you want to make your program as exciting as possible for someone. So I think being able to understand where maybe there is an issue with your tracking and being able to resolve it is really critical to scaling an affiliate program.

Steven Brown [00:07:11]:
Yeah, and you asked the question, what sorts of things do we see? A moment ago we see the obvious one, which is a tag not being present on pages, and often it’s new pages. So we often say the most unreliable page is a brand new page. So it’s that Valentine’s Day offer, for instance, that isn’t tagged properly because everyone loves the creative at half four on the Friday afternoon, but they’ve forgotten about the tracking. So that’s one sort of issue we might see. You talk about small changes. We literally have seen first party tracking break because a redirect changed a parameter from having one character as a capital letter to one character as a lowercase letter. And computers require things to be precise at times, and that’s one of the times where it requires them to be precise.

Marshall Nyman [00:08:06]:
I couldn’t get into a system yesterday and I just realized it was because my email address had my first initial capitalized. So yeah, sometimes the littlest thing can then throw something off. I love the name Moonpole. It’s a really great name. What was the onus behind the.

Steven Brown [00:08:21]:
So it comes back to wanting to make partners work together better. So it literally is from the phrase rising tide floats all boats. I mentioned the physicist earlier on that you picked up on. Say you study physics, you know, the tides are created by the pull of the moon. So rising tide floats all boats. It’s the pull of the moon. Hence moonpool. And the SEO person in me that I mentioned earlier, if you typed in the word moonpool, there was virtually nothing on it.

Steven Brown [00:08:49]:
So we had a good head start on SEO for our business.

Marshall Nyman [00:08:53]:
Well, usually the first thing that you have to decide before you go on your business name is if the domain is available. So that’s usually the first thing. And then, yeah, I think the second thing is looking at that search history, making sure there is nothing there that might be negative. You never know what you’re going to get yourself into.

Steven Brown [00:09:08]:

Marshall Nyman [00:09:09]:
So we’re talking about tracking. Obviously, it’s such an important piece, but why is it so important?

Steven Brown [00:09:16]:
I think all relationships require trust and confidence. And the affiliate piece, you’ve got publishers who are out there promoting advertisers, you’ve got advertisers who are investing in relationships, wanting the right publishers. And we talk about the commercial side of the relationships. How much am I going to earn? Creative gets exchanged. But actually the whole relationship requires the measurement to give rise to the commercial side of it. So without the tracking, the publishers may feel shortchanged. Equally, the advertisers don’t want fraudulent traffic. So not that moonpool looks at that, but that’s all part of the trust in the channel.

Steven Brown [00:10:07]:
And if I’m a publisher, I want to know that I’m reasonably going to get paid for the traffic I send. If I’m an advertiser, I only reasonably want to pay for the traffic I should be paying for. And tracking helps underpin both sides of that argument, both sides of that equation. You on mute, Marshall?

Marshall Nyman [00:10:29]:
I think tracking is the most important part of an affiliate program, because without tracking, you just don’t really know how things are performing. So I think it’s essential to really know, is it right, is it wrong? An affiliate network, I mean, that’s everything that you’re know. So if you don’t have your affiliate network working the right place because you don’t know what’s happening on a tracking standpoint, you’re kind of operating in the blind. So I think it’s really important to really understand what’s happening with your tracking. Really great insights on really what’s going on with tracking and how you can leverage Moonpool to make sure there’s no breaks in your system.

Steven Brown [00:11:02]:
Yeah, and I think you say it’s the most important part. And I think there’s two sides to looking at tracking. So at Moonpool, we help, principally networks and agencies look at is the tracking set up, so you can audit the tracking set up on a weekly basis. And if you spot something that’s broken, you can liaise with the advertiser to fix it. Although breakage isn’t always at the advertiser’s end, sometimes it could be the network isn’t actually forming the outbound URL in the way the advertiser is expecting. Sometimes it’s even the publisher making an error in how they construct their URL. So you’ve got the sort of moonpool looking at, is this specific link broken or not? And that’s one side of it. The other part of Moonpool is we’re providing tools to agencies of which you’re one, which is for certification that an agency advertiser combination takes tracking seriously.

Steven Brown [00:12:02]:
So that’s certification over looking at our 50 links a month or more being reviewed for their tracking efficacy and then for helping agencies promote their advertisers programs. We now have what’s called Moonpool link assurance, where a specific affiliate link specific to a specific publisher can be tested. And Moonpool will do a one page that can be sent on to the. Or the URL for that one page can be sent on to the publisher. And it confirms that, yes, the handover is assured, or the handover is assured, needing consent, or sometimes the handover is not assured, which clearly the agency is going to go back double quick to the advertiser to ask for that to be fixed. So we’re developing the side of Moonpool for helping the proactive building of relationships as opposed to just looking under the hood.

Marshall Nyman [00:12:58]:
What do you see as some of the biggest challenges currently facing the performance marketing space.

Steven Brown [00:13:02]:
So the performance marketing space has always had challenges. You’ve got overlaying it, you’ve got things like Google and Facebook take 80%, 75%, whatever the figure is of the revenue of online marketing, and that really influences what’s left. And that’s a point of frustration. So if online marketing could get a small fraction of that back, it would grow very nicely. You’ve then got the affiliate side of online, and I think its reputation holds it back a little bit. But why does its reputation hold it back? And I think over the last few years, it’s become more evident that internally in big brands, they want a single source of truth. And that single source of truth measures differently to affiliate networks. And I think that has been a big point of contention, because if the affiliate manager goes to this CMO and the CMO says we’ve got a 30% discrepancy, again, can you explain it? And you can’t really explain it.

Steven Brown [00:14:19]:
The CMO is going to say, well, I’m going to invest in those bits that I understand my single source truth is right for. And so I think that holds it back. And tracking is a little bit of that as well, for sure.

Marshall Nyman [00:14:32]:
Any predictions on the future? Performance marketing?

Steven Brown [00:14:35]:
So predictions for the future. We’re very much looking at what’s happening in 2024, and what we’re seeing is there’s going to be a flight to quality amongst publishers in choosing the advertisers they’re going to be working with. And that means that if they’re looking forward to the end of the year and you’ve got the problem of deprecation, we haven’t massively spoken about user consent impacting on online tracking, but of course that’s going to be massive here in Europe and increasingly in the US. So if you’re looking forward to saying, I want at least the same revenue at the end of the year as I had at the start, which is what most businesses want to do, and they’re looking at deprecation, shining a light on first party tracking, then they’re looking at how user consent is going to overlay. At the moment, publishers don’t really know which advertisers to double down on because they don’t really have the answers to the question on does this one have good first party tracking? Does this one have a friendly consent platform? Does that consent platform control the setting of the first party tracking? And that’s of course vital because the deprecation is taking away the fallback tracking. The publishers are just looking at it saying, I’m not sure which advertisers to double down on in. The publishers that we talk to at Moonpool are saying we can now use the moonpool platform to understand those that have good tracking, they’re ones that they’ll want to double down on. Those advertisers that may have a tracking they want to investigate a little bit more, and the publisher may choose five or ten key advertisers to have a conversation with, and then they add those, the ones that are happy that conversation outcome, they’ll add that into their pot of ones they want to double down on, and so they’ll end up double downing on those that are going to give them a good outcome at the end of the year.

Steven Brown [00:16:31]:
That’s the quality ones. So they’ve demonstrated the flight to quality in 2024 and they’re just going to continue with the advertisers they have a good relationship with into 2025. So if I have one prediction over and above the obvious ones around deprecation, my prediction is there’s going to be a flight to quality of publishers working with high quality advertisers.

Marshall Nyman [00:16:54]:
I think that’s very true. I think there was a big push of a lot of people into the affiliate marketing space over the last three years because of COVID And so it was very muddy. And now you’re seeing the ones that are doing it the right way, kind of rising to the top. And so I think as an agency we take tracking seriously for our clients. And so if we take it seriously and our clients take it seriously, then that shows publishers we take it seriously. And I think that will lead to more opportunities in the future. Exactly to what you’re saying. So last question.

Marshall Nyman [00:17:24]:
Would just love to know, what is your favorite part about working in the performance marketing industry?

Steven Brown [00:17:28]:
I struggle to leave it, which therefore means it must be the people. And I do think that it’s such a lovely, friendly group of people in the industry that you get 6000 people at affiliate summit, you get 2000 people at PI live. People are making lifelong friends in the industry, in competing businesses as well as the ones in their channel. And it’s just great. You go to PI live and you see lots of people meeting people they haven’t seen for six months and sharing a beer and sharing stories. And it is what makes the world go round is nice relationships. So it’s the people.

Marshall Nyman [00:18:09]:
Absolutely. I couldn’t disagree. And I think just being an affiliate summit, a lot of people I’ve been in the space 1520 years, it’s not like people have been, oh, I just got started and I’m just learning it. So I think with that history, there’s a lot of strong relationships and so always nice to get together. That’s one of my favorite parts about the conference, is just catching up with old friends. And a lot of them are now friends, but they were coworkers before, so it’s just great to see how that bond develops over time. Well, I really appreciate you joining today. Steve, a big thank you for joining the podcast.

Marshall Nyman [00:18:42]:
Amazing background. Some really great insights into tracking and how you can make sure your program is leveraging moonpool. What is the best way for listeners to connect with you.

Steven Brown [00:18:53]:
The best way is by email. So. Stephen Brown@moonpoolpartners.com LinkedIn also works. And if you want to know more before contacting, our blog actually has, I think, some great articles on helping people understand, tracking and understanding, indeed whether they want to be in contact. But we love to hear from you. So LinkedIn, email, you know, contact form on our website, even.

Marshall Nyman [00:19:17]:
Awesome. Well, again, thank you to Stephen for joining us today. If you’ve enjoyed this content, please give us a follow. Thank you for listening. I am Marshall Nyman, host of the performance marketing spotlight, signing off.