Revival of TV advertising – Interview with Michel De Wachter, Co-founder of Spott.ai

Jonas De Cooman and Michel De Wachter.

Founded in 2014, the Belgium startup Spott.ai is taking product placement to a whole new level. The AdTech & e-commerce company is using machine learning to automatically detect products featured on your TV screen and enable customers to just click away from ordering the product online. Offering enormous marketing opportunities for brands, retailers, and social media influencers, Spott transforms the traditional TV watching into interactive digital engagement and shopping.

It seems to be working quite well, since Spott.ai already operates offices in Brussels, Lisbon, Rio De Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Los Angeles – with a team of about 50 employees. To learn more about the startup, the product and the future plans for Spott.ai, we talked to Michel De Wachter (on the right), Co-founder and Co-CEO of Spott.ai.

In 2014 you and Jonas De Cooman embarked on the journey called Spott. What is Spott’s founding story and where are you now, four years afterwards? 

When Jonas (Marketing Coca-Cola) & I (Product Strategy BNP Paribas) were still working at our former employers, we had a non-profit called YouBridge. We believed to be very lucky to be born in a country like Belgium that offers you all the possibilities to develop yourself to the fullest and make your mark on the world. Sadly enough, this is not the case in many parts of the world, so we believed we had/have to give something back based on the luck we had. YouBridge basically identified ‘changemakers’: people with drive, ideas and the willingness to improve the world how we see it. We supported them by offering hardware and a platform where they could find support to validate a marketing plan, set up a financial plan,… . We had projects in Europe, Bangladesh, India, Congo, Uganda,… and supported more than 2.000 people directly and 10.000 people indirectly. To bring those stories to life, we went to the slums of Kampala (Uganda) to interview those changemakers. We were so inspired and almost (strangely jealous) how people can make such an impact on their environment with only limited means, that we then & there concluded that -while we loved the work we did- we decided that we are quitting our job and should start our own company to create that same impact. In order to focus on making Spott a success, we had to stop YouBridge. The agreement we made, is that once the company is successful, we will restart YouBridge and make it bigger and better than before.

Spott transforms any visual content on the TV screen into an interactive and shoppable experience for the viewers. What is the technology behind it? 

It is a combination of 3 elements: a structured worldwide offerings database of more than 300 million products (including Amazon, eBay, Alibaba, Asos, Farfetch, Nordstrom, Disney, Macy’s,…), a fully proprietary CMS and a unique sequence of different machine learning algorithms creating a chain that allows automated enrichment and product tagging of video files. The interactive videos and pictures can then be published on all social media platforms with that same interactivity and can also be embedded on any third-party website and most video players.

What type of solutions are you currently offering? 

We offer a SaaS solution with 6 packages based on the need of the user. Starting from €49,99 per month to more than €15.000 per month. Next to that, we have a PaaS solution as some clients prefer that we make their content interactive.

The idea around Spott is to take product placement to a whole new level. Tell us how you plan to achieve this. What are the benefits for your target customers? 

Today existing advertising solutions do not work anymore. 80% of TV advertising gets fast forwarded on non-linear viewing, people watch more online video every day than TV and 1/3 of all browsers have ad blocking installed. So as an advertiser the challenge is to know how to reach your clients and prospects and as a publisher or broadcaster it is still to prove your relevance to advertisers (offer other solutions than banners) and your audience (remove disruptive advertising like banners and in video advertising). For those that make relevant content, it is the biggest opportunity ever. When you know who is watching your content, it is ‘only’ about understanding which brands are interested in your audience and offer something more than eyeballs (= clicks & conversion).

From a consumer, the interactivity removes the search cost. When you are inspired based on a certain content, you have to go to ‘Google.com’, construct a query good enough with the hope to get the brand of that pants or shirt in that content and where you can buy it. We believe this to be super inefficient and it is much better to allow the consumer to convert immediately (a click) based on the inspiration.

Today we offer interactivity on video players, social media, publisher websites, television (via second screen where we sync over sound), apps and billboards (via QR code). For our SaaS & PaaS, we have worked with Corinthians (football team), Marcelo (Brazilian footballer at Real), Ikea, Lidl, AH, Asics, Paramount, Fox, VT Wonen, Roularta, De Persgroep, VRT, RTL Group,…). We have also a B2C platform, called Spott.tv. This allows consumers to become inspired and soon to make their own content interactive and earn money with it (affiliates). Spott.tv allows us to better understand what consumers need, adapt Spott.tv accordingly and take these lessons along for our SaaS solution. We have more than 200.000 downloads of the Spott app and more than 300.000 unique users per month. Our aim is to reach 1.000.000 unique users per month and of Q1 2019.

Where are you currently active and which markets are you looking at for further expansion?

The world is our market. We have no home market. That said, we pay specific attention to Benelux countries, France, Italy, UK, The Nordics, Portugal, Brazil, Canada & the US. This is based on a combination of where our main prospects are, the attractivity of the market itself and if Y/N we have a network there. Our HQ is in Aalst (Belgium), but we have people in London, Paris, Lisbon, Sao Paulo, Rio De Janeiro and Los Angeles. In 2019, we want to expand to New York, Milan and we are looking at partnership opportunities for China and India. We keep development in Belgium and all other cities are sales houses. Next to that, we are proud to say that we have a worldwide co-sell deal with Microsoft and a European partnership with Publicis. Also, we are since 2 weeks live as a third-party service on Azure (cloud solution of Microsoft).

Coming from the Flemish city Aalst, tell us more about your experience with the Belgium startup system and its current status. 

I can only say good things. I believe the government did a lot to support entrepreneurship with some efficient fiscal benefits. As the ecosystem itself, it is amazing to see that everybody helps each other. There is a natural ‘pay it forward’ culture. We have had and still have a lot of support from people like Jurgen Ingels (SuperNova), Louis Jonckheere (Showpad), Pieterjan Bouten (Showpad), Jonathan Berte (Robovision), Walter Van Uyten (Awingu), Lorenzo Bown (StoryMe) and Pieter Casneuf (Aprimo). All people that are much further than we are and still take the time to support us where needed. I absolutely believe that this ‘new’ generation of leaders and also new kind of entrepreneurship (not focusing on the problems, but on creating solutions and value creation) will be one of the leading factors creating economic growth for Belgium.

We are now also working on a second R&D project on AI together with IMEC and the Universities of Ghent & Leuven. Having an R&D hub like IMEC and the government funding it makes live from R&D side a bit easier. Next to that, we are fortunate to have received a European H2020 subsidy for our omnichannel project. Once live, people using our products will be able to know which stores in their neighborhood sell the products that they saw on TV or online and directly contact the store. Facilitating this, we allow (measurable) conversion from online inspiration to footfall in the shopping street. If I can say one working point, is that it is very difficult to find the right profiles. There is a mismatch between what people learn on schools and the skills needed on the job. Aligning both would make a huge difference for all companies in Belgium.

Last year Spott.ai received several national awards and just recently it was named a Red Herring 100 Europe winner 2018. With acknowledgments coming from all sides, what is next for Spott? 

Well, the 3 coolest ones we won, were:

  • 2017: being the only Belgian company ever to be named as one of the 100 most disruptive products in the world (Disrupt100).
  • 2017: Named Rising Star by Deloitte
  • 2018 (this week!): not only Red Herring 100 Europe winner 2018, but also Red Herring 100 Global winner 2018

What’s next is very simple: growth. The tech is ready, the added value is proven and the market sentiment is there. In 2019, we want to take EU market leadership as interactive content marketing solution and have a growing business in the US and Brazil. We are now focusing on maturing our relationship with Microsoft and Publicis and are scouting for new natural partnerships in the market.

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