Kicking off our Game Changers feature is Chris Blaxall, the CFO of Performance Horizon—a leading provider of SaaS solutions for digital partner marketing. As CFO, Chris is responsible for all finance and HR matters in addition to providing support across a range of commercial areas.
He is also responsible for the global payment services Performance Horizon provides their customers. Chris is actively involved in the commercial sales process for larger customers or cases that have complex global requirements across numerous countries and currencies.
How did your career path lead your current position?
My early career followed the traditional route of qualifying as a chartered accountant by joining Touche Ross—a Big 4 practice—in London straight from Imperial College after completing a mathematics degree. I had a brief tenure at the 3i Group, where I learned many of the basics of venture capital investing, before I joined a 3i-funded company that took me out of London and up to the Newcastle area, where I am now based. This company was the Derwent Valley Food Group, which is best known for its Phileas Fogg snack foods. I later ended up managing the company’s successful sale to United Biscuits a few years later.
Starting in 1997, I spent 8 years based in Sydney, Australia, where I first developed the national private equity advisory business as a Deloitte partner. I was later headhunted into a global CFO role for a software business that was headquartered locally, and this was my first real experience in a technology-led company. My work took me all over Australia, to many countries in Asia and across North and South America. My international experiences provided me with great insight into the cultural, structural and business differences in these regions.
I eventually returned to the UK in 2005. After some involvement in an early stage company with some former Phileas Fogg colleagues, I moved to a global business that sold its technology-led product in more than 50 countries world-wide. As combined COO and CFO, I assisted this 75 year-old company to expand its operations across Europe, USA and into China, increase its revenue by more than 400% over 4 years and move from losses to a significant profit.
I came across the Performance Horizon business in late 2013, at which time I was already involved in a different start-up of my own. However, after having helped set up processes and systems and recruited staff to manage day-to-day operations, I stepped back from day-to-day activities to become non-executive chairman. We sold this business successfully in mid-2015 to a major Publicly Limited Company.
When I met Mal Cowley, CEO and Paul Fellows, COO of Performance Horizon, I was really impressed not only by their drive and enthusiasm, but also by their absolute belief that the company was going to succeed and grow into a major global market leader.
Having been involved in a number of companies in my career, I could see that Mal and Paul had identified a major market that was ripe for disruption, knew their market inside out, had the technical expertise with the team to develop the required scalable product and had already attracted interest from professional venture capital investors who were committed to the businesses’ success.
It was an easy decision to join the team since it was clear that the business was poised for some enormous growth. Managing this growth effectively has certainly been interesting and challenging over the last few years!
Please describe the market space in which Performance Horizon operates.
Originally, the affiliate marketing channel was limited to affiliate marketers that drove web traffic and sales to brands and earned a commission in return. Based on our experience, this channel is expanding over and beyond the traditional affiliate programs, leveraging the existing business processes while adopting sophisticated technology enabling new types of partnerships that previously could not be tracked and rewarded. We designate this wider market as “digital partner marketing,” which encompasses the original affiliates as well as comparison engines, aggregators through to apps, blog & media partners, and social media.
There is renewed recognition of the phenomenal return on investment partner marketing drives in comparison to all other digital marketing channels, with a recent 2016 PwC study assessing that there is a 15 to 1 return on investment, i.e. every £1 in performance marketing spend generates £15 in sales, making it an extremely efficient channel.
A conservative estimate of the global market using published figures indicate that just the affiliate market alone amounts to $10 bn. When considering the broader definition of “marketing partners” definition, this figure likely doubles.
Performance Horizon provides a platform that enables large enterprises to drive significant sales through their online marketing partners and affiliates. At present, the Performance Horizon platform is delivering business to our customers from over 165,000 digital marketing partners, with business being tracked in 183 countries; a truly global operation servicing some of the largest companies in the world.
What are all the major sectors that your solutions/services endorse the most? Give us any specific technologies or techniques that you used to assist those sectors in optimizing their marketing plans apart from the existing technologies which you use to implement in your solutions.
We operate globally within the travel, retail, financial services, and digital content verticals. Our flexible range of solutions are tailored to our customers’ needs, based on the challenges unique to their verticals. We have developed pre-configurations of our platform for each of the verticals that encapsulate best practices, scale, custom data provisioning and standard reporting. This pre-configuration enables faster deployment for new customers and drives immediate, positive business impact.
Our work with British Airways highlights some of the key strengths of our platform and the tangible benefits enjoyed by our customers in the travel sector.
Working with five affiliate networks across four regions and more than 20 countries, BA had developed an affiliate programme which sustained strong yearly growth. The programme, however, had become complex and fragmented, leaving BA no way to manage and understand performance across each region or network. BA was also unable to manipulate the data they were capturing and incorporate this into their overall channel strategy.
The main challenges BA faced included viewing global performance holistically, identifying global and local trends in real-time, gaining data and insights from each transaction, developing tailored commission strategies for partners to differentiate their program, protecting their margins and incentivizing traffic.
In addition, they were looking to view meta partner performance alongside their affiliate base and share performance data and insight back to their partner base.
We provided a solution that delivered:
- a global affiliate network tag to track and report on BA’s global network base by partner in one single view, with the ability to compare network performance and partner contribution easily and in real-time
- the ability for BA and its partners to view or consume meta data via the Performance Horizon API
- a private BA network to work directly with top performing affiliates globally
- a single reporting dashboard that groups, tracks and reports on meta search partners
- a global payment infrastructure to pay partners in any currency and country worldwide.
With a 71% increase in bookings on certain routes, it is not surprising that George Gray, Head of Online Partnerships – Acquisition states, “Working with Performance Horizon has given us the flexibility to effectively monitor our global performance and the opportunity to expand the level at which we can market our products. The platform is now becoming an important lever in ensuring the affiliate channel can be used to support overall business and commercial requirements for British Airways.”
How do you ensure warranty on the solutions you offer? How did you keep track of the right ingredients that you wanted to have to build the relevant marketing solutions portfolio?
We pride ourselves on being a technology partner – not just a software vendor. For us, the relationship with clients and their partners doesn’t end once they are on-board with our technology. We’re dedicated to making sure that everything goes smoothly during the initial technology integration as well as providing training and ongoing support to ensure the programmes are a success.
We understand that moving partner marketing in-house and migrating hundreds—if not thousands—of partners across multiple geographies can be daunting for any brand. Having gone through this process many times in the past with some of the largest programmes in the world, we have a unique vantage point and set of best practices for bringing together fragmented programs in-house on a single platform. We provide support to ensure a smooth transition for the brand and all their marketing partners.
The Performance Horizon platform has been built specifically for the performance marketing market by performance marketing experts, utilising the best available technology to handle enormous volumes of data accurately and effectively to provide real-time insights that can be used to optimise performance and therefore spend.
We continue to listen to our customer needs and the changing business environment. Moreover, because our product is API-led, we are able to move swiftly to deliver enhanced solutions utilising our expert development team—including the founders, who were the original architects of the product.
What motivates you most about your role as a CFO?
As a member of the senior management team that drives the business, it is exciting to be in a position to influence and help drive the business as it expands its customer footprint around the globe. My broad role includes involvement in commercial discussions—including significant input into strategic and business planning—alongside the day-to-day running of the business.
Since arriving, I have looked to grow a great finance and HR team that delivers ahead of expectations even as we continue to rapidly grow. Continually seeking to nurture, mentor and motivate the team is top of my agenda. It was great for the team to be recognized for their excellent work and team spirit by winning the “Finance team of the year” at the 2015 North East Accountancy awards.
Since our payments service plays an integral role in the sales process, it is really interesting to work with the sales teams in talking with prospects—mainly FTSE250 or Fortune 500 companies—who are looking to grow their business by using the Performance Horizon platform. This enables me to get closer to some of the operations in the business than would normally be expected of a CFO, particularly in the various global offices in USA, Japan and Australia.
I find that my overall role is enhanced by my active involvement across these many facets of the business, which also certainly leads to a challenging programme of activities!
This role also provides me with the opportunity to help support the drive for the recognition of the tech industry in the north of England, in particular the North East. Through Performance Horizon’s involvement as a member of the Future Fifty programme managed by Tech City, I have the chance to spread this message in London and within Government whenever I can to ensure that we continue to grow and develop the resources we will require as a region to support future activity.
What have been some of Performance Horizon’s major achievements in the past twelve months? What are you most proud of?
Performance Horizon has been recognised as one of the UK’s ‘Tech Businesses To Watch.’ GP Bullhound also recently singled out Performance Horizon as one of the key companies in the North East to watch as it moves towards ‘unicorn status’ with a $1bn valuation. Inclusion as one of the Future 50 companies within the Tech City programme and ranked 16th in the 2016 Deloitte Technology Fast 50 awards all underline the progress being made and indeed the future ambition of the Performance Horizon team.
To gain these accolades means managing a business with:
- global operations in UK (Newcastle and London), USA San Francisco, New York and Baltimore), Japan, Australia, China, Singapore and Brazil
- 125 staff rising to 200 by the end of 2016
- handling hundreds of millions of dollars of partner payments across more than 50 currencies
- the Performance Horizon platform handling $3bn of transactions annually
- working with many of the largest companies in the world; and
- 100% YOY growth in quarterly revenues and annual revenue run rate.
One of our key milestones completed in May 2016 was raising a Series C round of venture capital funding totalling $15.4m from the Greycroft Growth fund and additional investments from existing investors Mithril and DN Capital, as well as individual shareholders. These funds place the company in a strong position to continue its ambitious growth plans globally with the opportunity to now open offices in other locations in the next 12 months.
Over the last 12 months, both the finance team and the HR team have been a great success – they have implemented improvements and developments that have provided us with a very sound foundation for the anticipated future growth.
What do you anticipate for the company in the near future?
We continue to see increasing demand for our product in the key verticals in the key geographical markets on which we are focused. With companies continuing to seek to optimise how best to spend their marketing dollar, we provide the perfect solution to enable them to gain greater control over this area of expenditure.
Better data and more sophisticated technology are shaping the marketing industry, including the digital partner marketing category. However, a lack of transparency into program performance coupled with outdated performance-based models and technology solutions that many advertisers continue to work with can force even the most seasoned advertisers to stagnate. This is exasperated by the steady transition by consumers to the use of multiple methods, including mobile devices, to consume digital content.
While other channels have rapidly transformed to incorporate and leverage ‘big data’ (think ad exchanges, search, and display) to drive the online advertising marketplace, traditional affiliate marketing remains largely reliant on static historical performance as the core program driver to determine commissions. Advertisers who use data to optimize their partner marketing spend are increasingly migrating away from reactive data processed in Excel to proactive real-time data that allows them to escape crunching numbers and return their focus to advertising. In addition, advanced advertisers are using methodologies that help them understand how their customers use multiple devices to complete their customer journey.
To address the current technological trends and help brands adapt and realize more profit from their online and mobile marketing efforts, Performance Horizon offers solutions that enable advertisers to connect directly, at scale, globally to their entire marketing partners on one platform for the first time.
A lot has been made recently of the security systems in place for online currency, data clouds, etc. At Performance Horizon, how do you ensure that fraud is addressed?
Performance Horizon takes fraud extremely seriously. Our solutions currently include functionalities ensuring quality to reduce front-end risks and fraud as well as back-end detection of inappropriate behaviour and partners. In addition, Performance Horizon has experience of working with independent third-party vendors and actually proactively welcomes independent efforts to detect and address fraud. We believe that independent fraud detection vendors are critical in providing the highest quality fraud detection solutions to our advertisers and essentially follow a “trust but verify” approach. Performance Horizon also proactively works on smart technologies that minimizes risks and fraud.
At the company level, our reporting systems are very robust and have been developed with fraud prevention as a key prerequisite. We also use our ability and knowledge of how to manage significant volumes of data on our platform to design systems and processes to manage our in-house activities.
Even the most competent of organizations tend to face market competition. What are the strategies employed by Performance Horizon to thwart this competition, and what according to you are the company’s key differentiating factors?
We navigate the competitive landscape by focusing on enterprise sales within verticals where our solutions are superior to any of our competitors (e.g. large travel companies with global reach, large multi-channel retailers, large financial services firms). We leverage the technology advantages, the global scale, compliance, vertical expertise and our support capabilities all built on our API-driven platform. Performance Horizon’s points of differentiation against direct competitors include:
- digital partner marketing technology on a global scale
- faster, more transparent API that easily integrates into an enterprise infrastructure
- unrivalled ability to collect, ingest, interpret, and maintain relevant data
- our position as a strategic technology partner to clients rather simply as a software vendor
- our global payment processing capability which allows brands and partners to settle across over 50 currencies on a daily basis
- our world-class training and ongoing technical support in 80 languages
- ability to manage truly global programmes
- offering brands direct relationships with partners
- real time information to enable real time interaction and optimisation
Many competitors are geographically restricted (no global networks), do not offer advertisers direct relationships with partners, and are unable to measure performance in real-time.
My time with Performance Horizon has certainly been an exciting period filled with interesting challenges thus far. I’m looking forward to the future as we surge along our rapid growth curve, watch more companies take control of their partner and affiliate marketing, and continue to disrupt the traditional affiliate market space.