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'Beneath the Beast'


  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 10:00 a.m. May 16, 2014
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
  • Entrepreneurs
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Forget zero to $250 million in sales in a decade. Forget zero to 450 employees, too. Even forget that the online advertising niche didn't really exist when Greg Murtagh founded Triad Retail Media in 2004.

What really drives Murtagh's passion these days is a honey badger. Not just any honey badger, but the star of a frantic YouTube satire video with 67 million views. Or, says Murtagh: “The most fearless animal in the world.”

The honey badger is also the St. Petersburg-based firm's mascot. Triad, run out of a three-story building in the Carillon Office Park, has a stuffed honey badger that's a roving trophy of sorts. A sales team can win it for a few days with a big account victory. Other departments lay claim to it with work that outdoes the competition. A few even take the honey badger and play pranks on colleagues with it.

But beneath the beast is a company with unprecedented growth and a client list of global giants that would make a Madison Avenue executive blush. Names like Wal-Mart, eBay and CVS.
Teams of Triad employees work behind the scenes of those clients, enhancing e-commerce sites and finding new ways for clients to sell products and generate traffic. The firm has 10 offices including its headquarters, with locations in Orlando, New York City, Chicago and San Jose.

Sales at Triad have grown 96.5% since 2011, from $127 million to $249.6 million last year. That comes on top of a 677% increase from 2005 to 2008 that landed the firm on the Inc. 500 list of fast-growth companies. Murtagh projects the firm will surpass at least $320 million in 2014 sales.

“This 10-year ride has been a bottle rocket,” says Murtagh, named an Ad Age magazine Media Maven in 2011 for his pioneering work in online advertising. “It's almost like we haven't had time to take a breath.”

Murtagh, 51, is the Business Observer's 2014 Entrepreneur of the Year. According to people who know him and have worked with him, Murtagh is a rare combination of hard charging and exceedingly nice. He's a born doer who's not a screamer. He's also stubborn and a visionary, a big-picture thinker who doesn't shy away from risk.

Putting all those traits together is how Murtagh took the relatively simple concept of enhancing retailers' websites so the companies can sell more stuff as a global business.

“He has the tenacity of a ferret,” says Chris Hoyt, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based marketing technology entrepreneur and executive who has known Murtagh for 25 years. “He has done an unbelievable job carving out this niche. But he's not driven by money. It's a quest for meaningful change.”

The investment capital industry has noticed Murtagh's success. H.I.G. Ventures, a Miami-based venture capital firm that focuses on entrepreneurs, put a multimillion-dollar investment in Triad in late 2009. The firm, at the time, called Triad a market leader in “the large untapped area of digital marketing.”

More outside investment came in early 2013, when Rockbridge Growth Equity, a Detroit-based private equity firm co-founded by Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, bought a stake in Triad. “Triad can benefit from our family of more than 60 diverse companies - from Quicken Loans to Fathead to the Cleveland Cavaliers,” Rockbridge Managing Director and Partner Kevin Prokop says in a release that announced the deal. “We can also benefit from Triad's extensive online expertise of converting shoppers into buyers.”

'Most boring guy'
A Rhode Island native and lifelong Boston Red Sox fan, Murtagh retained his leadership position and an equity stake in the firm with both investments.

That gives Murtagh a decade in the business, stability that contrasts the first phase his career. Murtagh moved frequently early on, when he worked in sales and marketing at consumer packaged goods companies, including Procter & Gamble. He also was a brand manager for Dial Corp. Stops included Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Phoenix and Pittsburgh.

In the mid-1990s, when he lived in Scottsdale, Murtagh saw an opportunity in online commerce to build websites for packaged goods businesses. He lacked the skills, he recalls, but he went for it anyway. He used $20,000 from a 401(k) to get started. “I knew nothing about building websites,” say Murtagh. “I hired kids who did.”

Murtagh also remembers his startup made him “the most boring guy at the Starbucks.” Others had flashy Internet businesses, like grocery delivery. But Murtagh made up for boring with a business that grew to $5 million in annual sales and 25 employees.

Yet business dropped dramatically after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and Murtagh and his family soon moved to Tampa. They sought a change of scenery, but wanted to stay in a warm climate.
That's where the idea for Triad, originally named Triad Digital Media, came together. Armed with $100,000 in angel funding from industry contacts, Murtagh, in 2004, put his vision to the test at the top of the retail world: He pitched the idea to Wal-Mart.

It sounded simple enough. Murtagh's position was that targeted online advertising works best when the retailer, in this case Wal-Mart, behaves like a publisher. So the retailer could charge brands for ads on websites, just like a publisher does. Even better, those ads could then drive customers to buy products on that very website. This happens, for instance, when a teeth-whitening ad shows up during a search on Wal-Mart.com for oral care products.

Wal-Mart was Murtagh's first big client win. He keeps the original proposal in a binder in his office, where he thumbs through it occasionally for visitors.

Energetic burst
Triad, which makes money on a revenue-share basis with clients when it sells sponsored content on websites and mobile apps, basically exploded from there. Multiple big brands followed Wal-Mart, and in early 2011 the firm hit another jackpot: It won the account to manage online advertising for eBay and eBay Motors.

The online marketplace giant had used Yahoo for online advertising. But Murtagh says eBay was wowed by Triad's ability go high-end and 'beyond the banner' — industry-speak for allowing customers to view content without clicking off the page. Yahoo was more generic and one-size-fits-all. “If you can provide a retailer something special,” says Murtagh, “it's a tiebreaker for you as a salesperson.”

The eBay win didn't surprise Henri Lellouche, senior vice president for News America, a coupon business run by News Corp. Lellouche has worked on partnerships with Murtagh, and he closely follows the firm — News America considered buying Triad a few years ago. “Greg brings a lot to the party when he comes to a meeting,” says Lellouche. “He walks in and has a burst of energy and ideas.”

Lellouche almost worried if Murtagh was too good for his own good. Lellouche and his colleagues, doing due diligence on a potential offer for Triad, worried that the Wal-Mart business could come to an end. Not because of anything Triad did, says Lellouche, but because Wal-Mart traditionally only uses outside vendors for a limited time. When the retailer gets the system right, it tries to bring it in-house.

News America never made an offer for Triad. But a decade later the Wal-Mart contract is intact, which Lellouche says is a credit to Murtagh and his team. About 100 Triad employees work the account, both in the main office and in an office in Bentonville, Ark., near Wal-Mart's headquarters.

“After all this time, Wal-Mart still opts to have Triad service them in a big way,” Lellouche says. “Triad has gone through the gauntlet with them and come out the other side.”

Scrappy approach
Murtagh went through his own sort of personal gauntlet growing up. He was the sixth of six kids, which taught him to fend for himself. “You have to be self-reliant and scrappy,” he says. “That's where my business sense comes from.”

He brings that scrappiness to Triad. While he has dream-big goals for more growth — Europe is a relatively new target, for one — he also guards against getting too big, or more importantly, too corporate. He delivers that message to every group of new employees during orientations, when he gives a “welcome to Triad” speech.

“I tell them I was in corporate life for 15 years and at least five years were miserable,” Murtagh says. “I learned the nuts and bolts of corporate life and how to build a business. But the culture frustrated me like crazy. They didn't value risk-taking and entrepreneurial behavior. That's why I left.”

Triad, on the other hand, remains nimble enough to move quickly on the online advertising industry's shift to data-driven metrics. The firm has gone from four employees in its business analysis and intelligence department to about 20 over the past year. Murtagh says the company also seeks to acquire other data-driven businesses in the near future. The department, he projects, could triple in size within a year.

Another reason Murtagh wants Triad to retain its flexibility is to battle competitors. Many businesses take a shot at doing what Triad does, but it's the big players with deep pockets that he really watches. That list includes Amazon, sometimes Google and a few other firms backed by investments from venture capital stars like Bain and Sequoia.

One of Triad's competitive edges, says Murtagh, is its hunger to win big accounts. Triad even recently targeted Facebook, to see if the social media firm needed help doing online advertising the Triad way. “It takes just as much effort to land a mid-size client,” says Murtagh. “So why not go after big ones?”

Revenues
Year Revenue Growth
2011 $127 million
2012 $171.3 million 34.9%
2013 $249.6 million 45.8%

Employees
2011 307
2012 306
2013 458

Source: Triad Retail Media

This story was updated to reflect the current amount of offices Triad has and some of its current clients.

 

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