Ex-About Group Head Named CEO Of Vibrant Media

Cella Irvine, the digital advertising veteran who was ousted as CEO of the New York Times (NYSE: NYT) Co.’s About Group, will now be running contextual ad company Vibrant Media. The move comes two months after Vibrant co-founder Doug Stevenson stepped down as CEO.

Irvine was previously with Digitas before stepping into the About post in July ’08. At Digitas, Irvine had helped oversee acquisitions and their integration within the agency. Her exit at About was largely tied to changes in Google’s search algorithm, which resulted in declining visitors, pageviews and ultimately lower cost-per-click and display advertising. She had put together a reform plan which included hiring 200 more guides to the flagship site, adding more “how-to” videos to its YouTube (NSDQ: GOOG) channel, and unveiling a Spanish version of the guide site.

She comes to Vibrant as the company has been rumored to be considering filing an IPO and is also said to be looking for acquisitions. At time when premium publishers rely more on contextual advertising as opposed to tracking-cookie based ones, Irvine’s relationships with publishing execs and advertisers could come in more handy than at About, which relies mostly on search-related ads.

Updated: For the most part, contextual ads have two great strengths and challenges. While in-text ads can be highly relevant to what a user is reading, it can also be highly obtrusive, as its pop-up ads get in the way of the content that a consumer has sought out. However, Vibrant notes that it has successfully avoided that problem by having its ads entirely “user-initiated,” so someone is making a choice to engage and opt-in.

The trick — a tough one, to be sure — is to make the ads almost as inviting as the main content the person has originally intended to view.

In an interview with paidContent, Irvine said that one of the main reasons she was hired was her background in consumer content, such as when she oversaw Microsoft’s now-defunct Sidewalks city guide network. (She declined to discuss the current changes of the About Group or her departure from that company). In addition to getting Vibrant in front of blue chip advertisers and publishers, Irvine is charged with improving the experience of Vibrants’s contextual ads in the face of web users.

“For Vibrant to be successful, it needs to win over the relationship with the consumer,” she said. “And once we have that set, we can further build the relationship with the advertiser and the publisher.”

David Kenny, the former CEO of Digitas and currently president of content delivery manager Akamai, said that Irvine was instrumental in plotting the agency’s acquisition strategy and following through on the integration of both Modem Media in 2004 and Medical Broadcasting Company, which became Digitas Health, in 2006. “She has great sense of vision and getting organized behind it,” Kenny told paidContent. “I think it’s a great move for Vibrant and I think she’ll be able to scale that business really well and really quickly.”

Aside from feeling an affinity for contextual advertising, Irvine was attracted to the Vibrant for several reasons, including the fact that it has been able to expand to Europe and Australia without doing a single acquisition.

That is likely to change as Irvine plans to explore acquisition candidates. “Acquisitions are a tactic, the way internal development is tactic,” she said. “The main focus right now involves the expansion of Vibrant’s product suite.” The goal is to make the ads, whether in-text or part of the social toolbar, encourage users to opt-in.

While much of the focus in the online ad world is about behavioral targeting and real-time bidding, it’s worth noting that contextual has been quietly growing lately as well. According to a report this summer by Parks Associates, U.S. contextual-based ad revenues will increase moderately, reaching $3.6 billion and representing 9.6 percent of total 2015 internet ad spending.

With the range of possibilities for growing Vibrant’s business being pored over by Irvine and the board, one area that is not on the table, at least right now, is an IPO.

“We don’t see a reason for doing an IPO right now,” she said. “We’re profitable, we’re cash flow positive. We have a lot of other things to focus on.”