16th January 2024

4 minutes reading time

Richard Harley, Ventures Director, shares the thinking behind illuma being named Portfolio Company of the Year at the recent Blackfinch Ventures Portfolio event

What makes the Blackfinch Ventures team believe that illuma is worthy of portfolio company of the year?

illuma’s approach to programmatic advertising has set new standards in effectiveness. Its customers are enjoying exceptional return on advertising spend, as illuma has continued to improve its technology throughout 2023. This has driven strong year-on-year revenue growth, placing the company at the top of the Blackfinch Portfolio. The company has also won a host of marquee customers over the last 12 months, including: P&G, Lego, Meta, HP and Pfizer.

How has illuma changed since Blackfinch Ventures invested in them, compared to today?

When Blackfinch first invested in illuma in 2021, we saw a company poised to capitalise on a cookie-less world for online advertisers. The company already had strong technology in place, including an artificial intelligence (AI) infrastructure that allows for super-fast identification of context-driven performance and recommendation. Since then, the company has executed its enterprise go-to-market strategy effectively, setting up a US sales team and building a large pipeline of companies worldwide that are testing the product. Follow on funding in 2022 ensured the roadmap could continue at pace.

What are you most excited for, when you look ahead at the future for illuma?

illuma is on track to be a leading online ad targeting technology and within a few years could be deployed within a large portion of the world’s largest companies.

Peter Mason, illuma, on the advertising industry and working with Blackfinch Ventures

How has the advertising industry changed, from traditional targeting to AI-led insights? Where does illuma fit in with that?

Traditionally, there have been two ways for marketers to find relevant audiences for online advertising campaigns - contextual targeting, and behavioural targeting. Contextual involves placing ads in same-topic content, for example motoring ads on motoring pages. Behavioural targeting on the other hand focuses on the individual themselves, using personal information predominantly gathered by third-party tracking cookies to target them around the open web.

Google is now disabling third-party cookies, meaning marketers are pretty soon going to know very little about who is looking at their ads. This is impacting publishers, too, who sell those ad spaces. Considerable effort is going into developing alternatives - whether that’s new encrypted ID methods or better ways to do contextual.

AI is now helping by bringing live behavioural insights into contextual targeting, without breaching user privacy, and it’s really improving outcomes for brands and publishers. illuma pioneered contextual-AI back in 2014 before privacy became a concern, and when AI was considered too geeky to discuss! We now use this technology to support some of the most influential brands and publishers in the world.

Who are the key team members behind the success?

We founded illuma in 2014 and today, the senior team is largely from the early start-up gang - Dr Yu Liu leads the technical team, Sonia Pham heads operations, Maitane Torca leads client success, and Rong Gu is our platforms expert. We’ve been joined along the way by industry experts Kevin McElroy from Grapeshot, who’s our CRO, David Evans our EMEA sales director, and most recently by former Oracle exec Ryan McBride, who leads strategy.

They are supported by brilliant colleagues in sales, business development and client success, and of course, we have a large in-house tech team.  

What most excites the Illuma team when you look ahead at the future of AI and advertising?

One of the most exciting things for us is seeing brands cautiously walking away from cookie-based targeting and everything they’ve known about running ad campaigns. And then that lightbulb moment when the results come in, and they realise cookies weren’t that great in the first place.

If you consider this at scale, and with continuing development, we can see a time when the entire online advertising system operates on a stronger, more efficient and equitable basis, delivering a quality experience for everyone involved.

We’re also very excited about the work we’re doing with premium news publishers, using AI to support their journalism by better-monetising their content and ultimately, creating a fairer online exchange.  

What has the partnership with Blackfinch meant to illuma?

Blackfinch was the first VC to join our journey, in 2021. Adtech is a complex world and it can be hard to spot winners, particularly back in the volatile Covid years. But with careful analysis, Blackfinch was able to cut through the noise and see the huge potential and growth ahead for illuma. They are an ideal partner for us, as the team has particular expertise in software and technology, and they spent considerable effort really understanding our AI and its impact on the industry. To my mind, this passion goes a long way in explaining their own success.