Advertising Exec Adam Gerber’s Evolution

After a long career in digital media, alum is helping Netflix rethink its advertising as the company creates more live programming

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April 4, 2024
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Advertising Exec Adam Gerber’s Evolution

In the 30-plus years since he graduated from BU, Adam Gerber has seen the media landscape undergo a complete transformation—and he moved right along with it. Gerber, who started out in the business with a typewriter on his desk, is now head of ads commercialization for Netflix, where he develops new ad models for the company’s recent venture into ad-supported streaming.

Adam Gerber. Courtesy Adam Gerber

Gerber studied journalism and international relations at BU, thinking he wanted to become a foreign correspondent based in Moscow. But when he saw the very issues he wanted to report on break down as he approached graduation, he decided to pivot. “I was watching the Soviet empire fall apart,” says Gerber (’90). “So, that kind of changed how I thought about what I wanted to do.”

A chance suggestion from friends to try an advertising job has led him to the forefront of the latest digital communication and advertising technologies at major companies including Disney, where he helped the company advance its advertising models as streaming began to explode. 

Now, as Netflix has debuted live content—a Chris Rock comedy special, an exhibition match between tennis greats Rafael Nadal and Carlos Alcaraz and a golf tournament played by Formula 1 drivers and PGA Tour pros—Gerber is working to update approaches to advertising for this next phase of streaming along with considering alternative advertising models for Netflix’s other programming.

“Every step I’ve taken has been driven by fascination around how the TV landscape was going to change from an advertising perspective,” he says.

COMtalk spoke with Gerber about his experiences working in digital advertising and what he is up to at Netflix.


With Adam Gerber

COMtalk: What was that first advertising role that your friends introduced you to?

Adam Gerber: I’d like to relate that question back to another incredibly astute BU alum who graduated from COM: Howard Stern. [Laughs.] His first job out of school was assistant media planner at an agency called D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles. And that was my first job too. It was one of the largest global full-service agencies. They handled clients like Procter & Gamble (P&G), Kraft, Burger King and GM. It was based on a whim, starting with my friends in New York who worked in advertising saying to me, “Hey, you should give this a try.” And now I’ve had a 34-year career working in advertising.

COMtalk: Where did your career take you from there?

Adam Gerber: When I started in the media business, it was 1992. At that point, I jokingly say the consumer internet didn’t exist. But it really didn’t exist. I did not have a computer on my desk at work. We had a computer room, and I had a typewriter that I used to send correspondence to my clients. 

And the media landscape was completely different. In 1992, the television marketplace was still dominated by the three major broadcast networks. Print was an exceptionally viable medium. Radio was a completely different type of medium; satellite didn’t exist, and more people listened to their local radio stations. 

So, I started out in the ad business in the ’90s, when the early stages of the transformation that we’re still going through today really took root. When platforms like AOL and CompuServe and Prodigy started to scale in the mid-90s, I took notice. I was fortunate enough to be put on an assignment for P&G at the time, one of their first initiatives looking at how they market on the web. That inspired me to shift focus.

COMtalk: You wanted to be in on the ground floor of this new communication platform.

Adam Gerber: Yes, and I actually went to work for AOL in 1996 because I didn’t know anything about the internet, and I wanted to soak it up and learn it. I figured this was going to be important to anyone who’s in advertising and anyone who’s in media.

I was at AOL in 1996 and 1997, and then came back to the agency side and focused primarily on early digital work at some of the larger media agencies in New York. A lot of the work that I did in that early phase of the web was focused on video. 

COMtalk: What was that early video work like?

Adam Gerber: Back around 2000 to 2002, the big portals, which were Yahoo, AOL and MSN, were launching video platforms or channels. Those video channels were primarily short-form video—news clips, music videos. It was short-form content, but nothing like what we see today on social media. It was packaged and produced by the big media companies. And it was the first video content that was distributed widely on the internet because broadband speeds had accelerated, and you were now able to deliver that video content. I spent a lot of time building out those capabilities from the advertising side and got fascinated by just how much promise there was in internet distribution of video. 

COMtalk: What kind of promise did you see?

Adam Gerber: I saw it as a kind of unshackling of content from the television and the living room. If content could be distributed over the web, it could ultimately be distributed to any device. I saw that and really believed in what could happen if streaming scaled and was actually possible. 

So, as with my AOL decision to go off and learn about something, I made the decision in 2005 to learn about video distribution on the web and went to work for a Boston-based startup called Brightcove, which is still around today. I was one of the early advertising folks who joined the company to help them think about how they needed to build their video distribution platform to support advertising. What hooks did they need to build in to connect to ad serving platforms? What types of measurement did they need to provide? Should they build an ad network? I worked with them for almost two years, and I became fascinated by the amount of data that was just being discarded by digital media. 

COMtalk: I’m guessing that fascination informed your next career move?

Adam Gerber: There were just tremendous amounts of user level data that existed and that potentially could be used for targeting and measurement and all sorts of things that advertisers never had in the traditional TV ecosystem. Because in traditional linear TV, all you had was a Nielsen rating. And all that represented was the total aggregate number of viewers, and it was typically provided in very bulk kinds of definitions of age and gender, such as men 18 to 34 or even just adults 18 to 49. When you think about it, from a marketing perspective, those buckets are fairly vague, and it doesn’t get to how consumers act. There are people who buy based on a whole host of other things that don’t have anything to do with age and gender. 

So, this was all fascinating to me, and I ended up leaving Brightcove to go to a company called Quantcast, which is also still in existence. At the time, it was positioned as a new measurement service for digital media. Not to get too much in the weeds, but the old way of measuring things like Nielsen was always done with a panel. With television measurement, Nielsen had a panel of 20–30,000 households, and then they used statistical modeling to project that out to the total US population. But, as something that you’re measuring with a panel becomes much more distributed, the panel concept breaks down. You have less and less ability to accurately predict and project to a large population. 

If you think about the internet versus broadcast TV, that was the problem. You were going from measuring three major networks and maybe 20 cable networks to, literally, measuring millions of websites. The concept of the panel broke down in that world. That’s what Quantcast initially aimed to solve. They were aggregating data from millions of websites through their tag platform. Instead of using panel data, they were collecting census-level data and building a much more robust data set that they used to estimate audiences on the web and across digital media. I spent four years at Quantcast as their chief marketing officer. I joined about 12 or 18 months after they launched, building it as a measurement solution for digital media. I left in 2010 for interesting reasons.

COMtalk: What were those reasons?

Adam Gerber: It was right around the time when Apple launched the iPad. The iPhone was becoming a big thing. And it was also at about the same time when 3G cell speeds proliferated. My perspective at that point was, that was going to be the catalyst for changing the television industry: all of a sudden, you have devices in people’s hands that actually can deliver video elegantly, and you have delivery speeds over wireless networks that can get the content anywhere.

I believed the traditional TV ad ecosystem was finally going to change, because it was no longer going to be about the big broadcast networks delivering content to TV sets in the living room. I wanted to be at a big media company that had lots of content that was going to be disrupted. I thought I could help them think through changing how they operated. So, I landed at Disney. 

For the next six years there, my focus was on helping the sales team think about how digital distribution was going to change the way they had to sell advertising. It was no longer about one commercial reaching everyone at once. It was now going to be about one-to-one delivery of ads in streamed content, and the ways that you have to think about that from a sales perspective and a measurement perspective. 

It was probably the best six years I could have been doing that work, because over that period is when Disney shifted to their Hulu distribution and had sizable audiences for their primetime shows on digital. By the time I left, I think there were primetime shows that were generating 40 to 60 percent of their audience not through traditional live linear distribution, but through their delayed on-demand viewing across video on demand, DVR, Hulu and [its streaming platform, then called] Watch ABC. It was fascinating.

COMtalk: And so how did you make the leap to Netflix? It sounds like all of your experiences primed you for what you are doing there now.

Adam Gerber: My whole career has been about the evolution of TV. Every step I’ve taken has been driven by fascination around how the TV landscape was going to change from an advertising perspective. So, when I was offered an opportunity to join the largest global streaming company that is trying to figure out how to launch an advertising tier, it was the perfect fit for everything I had done up to that point.

COMtalk: Take me through some of the work you’ve done at Netflix.

Adam Gerber: When I joined Netflix, they were just starting up their advertising group. My role was focused on client development, which was a broad kind of assignment. It involved everything from helping our sales partner Microsoft think about how they should be engaging with different kinds of categories and clients. It included leading the initial launch of what we called our client counsel, which was a group of clients who helped inform us about what they wanted and needed from us. It was helping the internal strategy team think about how the TV upfront market works, when a large portion of the video advertising is transacted every year. We needed to be a part of that, and we needed to have a strategy. I also worked with the product team within Netflix to help them think about what ad products we needed to build to support our advertising clients. 

I like to say that the first six months or so of what I was doing was very Swiss Army knife-like. I had done a lot in my career across both the buying and sales sides. So, I had the ability to lean into different things that needed to get done. When you’re in an entrepreneurial environment, which this ads group was because it was a startup within a bigger company, we needed to have people who could switch around and lean into different things quickly.

COMtalk: And now you’re helping to innovate advertising and sponsorship models across Netflix’s content, including live events, from comedy specials to sporting events. What has that been like?

Adam Gerber: Ultimately, it became clear that a new area of opportunity for the company was to look into live programming. We’ve announced our partnership with WWE, which starts in January 2025. We’ve already broadcast live sporting events: we had the Netflix Cup [golf tournament]in November, and we recently had the Netflix Slam, with [tennis players] Alcaraz and Nadal playing an exhibition match in Las Vegas. And in May, we’re going to host our Netflix Is a Joke Fest around LA, which happens every two years. It’s 400-plus comedy shows over 10 days at more than 35 venues. It’ll have some of the biggest talent in comedy. One of the events that we’ll be hosting is a roast of Tom Brady, which will be broadcast live. That’s one of the initiatives I’m working on for advertisers. We’ve also announced our Mike Tyson versus Jake Paul boxing match that will be broadcast live in July from AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. There’s lots of really interesting stuff that we’re doing.
It became apparent as we started thinking about live events that we needed a team focused on how we’re creating opportunities for marketers within those events. How are we creating ways for advertisers to participate in those events and engage the audiences, but also make sure that we do it in a way that really recognizes our member expectations? 

Netflix’s North Star is all about the member. We want to make sure that we respect what they’ve signed up for. We now have this kind of bifurcated world where we have members who are in a non-ads plan, we have members who are in an ads plan, and now we’ve also launched this new live content that is very different from what existed in the on-demand space. So, we need to think about all those things. A lot of the work that I’m doing is thinking about how advertising comes to life in those live environments and working closely with the rest of the organization to do it in the right way.

COMtalk: Is that something you’re still figuring out as Netflix does more live events?

Adam Gerber: Absolutely. And I think a big thing we’re also focused on is recognizing that advertising in a streaming environment should be a better experience for viewers than what it’s historically been in linear TV. It should also be a more impactful solution for marketers. I think the whole industry is focused on figuring out how we make advertising better. Because when you’ve got the ability to dynamically change the content experience at the user level, you can create a lot more value for advertisers and a lot more relevance for viewers.

COMtalk: Where else do you see room for innovation?

Adam Gerber: The other piece is ad formats and how things show up within content. There’s tremendous opportunity to innovate there. We don’t need to live in a world of 15- and 30-second ads when time is no longer a constraint. If you think about broadcast media, the reason that the ad model existed the way it did is because everything had to fit into a 30-minute or 60-minute package. I think that’s another area that the industry is just starting to scratch the surface on.

COMtalk: What approaches to advertising have you taken with live events thus far?

Adam Gerber: All of the live events that we have aired to date have not been traditional ad unit–based sponsorships. If you watch, say, the Netflix Cup now, you’ll see ad breaks, but when it was broadcast live, there were no traditional 15- and 30-second ad units in the experiences. It was about feature integrations in the programming—in The Netflix Cup, we had “Unforgettable Moments” presented by Nespresso, on-air mentions and on-site activations like Heineken’s bar that was stationed in “Pit Lane” for attendees of the event. Those are just early day approaches we’re taking. One of the things we’re looking at—especially in live sporting events or in live, unscripted content—is how we appropriately and authentically bring brands to life. A key part of that is balancing the member and the experience and not over-commercializing content.