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 Kevel’s Chief Alchemist: James Avery Turns Retail Media into Gold

James Avery doesn’t see the world quite the same as the rest of us. Where we see obstacles, he sees opportunities. This visionary CEO has transformed Kevel (formerly Adzerk) from an under-the-radar ad tech player into a formidable force in retail media. And he’s done it all while maintaining a grounded perspective, preferring substance over champagne showers.

When Adzerk transitioned to Kevel, it was akin to swapping a tricycle for a Harley. It wasn’t just a name change; it was a metamorphosis. Adzerk often was mistaken for an ad network, a notion that irked Avery. “We’re like the anti-ad network. We don’t harvest data or sell ads. We’re all about the technology,” he explains. By adopting the name Kevel, the company shed the baggage and confusion, stepping into a future where they could more accurately represent their capabilities and ambitions.

James Avery, Founder of Kevel.

A Leap of Faith
The leap from Adzerk to Kevel wasn’t just a rebrand; it was a calculated maneuver to redefine their identity. “Adzerk was often confused with being an ad network, which we’re not. We’re an ad tech company that focuses purely on technology,” Avery states. The name Kevel, chosen with the help of a professional naming firm—yes, the same genius minds behind Swiffer and PowerBook—signified a fresh start without the historical baggage. Kevel refers to a nautical fixture used to secure boats to docks, symbolizing stability and strength.

This change was more than skin deep. It marked Kevel’s evolution from a simple ad server to a comprehensive retail media platform. “We’re more than just an ad server now. We’ve announced our retail media cloud, and the new name allowed us to start fresh without misconceptions,” Avery says. The transformation allowed Kevel to cater to an expanding market with innovative solutions.

The Early Wins and Roadblocks
Every great company has its watershed moment—the point when potential becomes reality. For Kevel, that moment came when they signed Stack Overflow as their first customer. “Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood saw something in us before we even raised any money,” Avery recalls. This wasn’t just validation; it was a signal that Kevel was solving real problems in a market desperate for innovation.

Kevel’s flexibility is one of its biggest selling points. The company’s APIs are a dream come true for engineers looking to build custom solutions. “Our API documentation often has engineers’ eyes lighting up,” Avery chuckles. “It’s like a playground for them, and none of our competitors offer the same level of flexibility.” This ability to customize and innovate is what sets Kevel apart in the crowded ad tech space.

However, the journey wasn’t without its challenges. Scaling their system to handle millions of active ads was one of the toughest battles Kevel faced. “Retail media is different from traditional ad tech,” Avery explains. “We had to keep our systems running while scaling to meet the demands of our clients, which sometimes meant late nights and weekend scrambles for our engineering team.” But Kevel’s resilience paid off. They now comfortably manage millions of ads without breaking a sweat, a testament to the robustness of their platform and the dedication of their team.

Kevel’s journey from Adzerk to its current status as a leader in retail media hasn’t been smooth sailing. The company faced numerous challenges, from scalability issues to market misconceptions. However, Avery’s leadership and vision have steered Kevel through these turbulent waters. The company’s ability to innovate and adapt has been crucial to its success.

One of Kevel’s most significant achievements is its ability to handle the immense scale required by retail media. “We have customers with millions of active ads, and it’s no longer a problem,” Avery states. This capability sets Kevel apart from many competitors who struggle with the demands of modern ad tech.

Culture: More Than Beanbags and Free Snacks
Building a company culture isn’t about beanbags or free snacks; it’s about creating an environment where people feel trusted and valued. For Kevel, that means treating everyone like adults. “We’re here to get a job done, not to micromanage,” Avery asserts. He leads by example, leaving at 3:30 PM to pick up his kids and working a couple of hours in the evening. “If someone can’t handle that level of autonomy, they’re not a fit for us.”

Kevel’s culture emphasizes trust and autonomy. “We’re all adults here. Don’t ask for permission to go to a doctor’s appointment—just put it on your calendar and go,” Avery says. This approach fosters a sense of responsibility and ownership among employees, creating a productive and positive work environment.

The North Star: Customer Revenue
As Kevel charts its course through the retail media universe, the North Star guiding their journey is customer revenue. This guiding principle isn’t just a metric; it’s a philosophy deeply embedded in the company’s DNA. For James Avery, the success of Kevel isn’t solely about their bottom line; it’s about the tangible impact they have on their customers’ businesses. “We measure our success by how much revenue our customers generate using our platform,” Avery explains. This approach reflects a broader vision of creating value that transcends traditional revenue goals, emphasizing a symbiotic relationship where Kevel’s growth is intrinsically tied to the prosperity of its clients.

This customer-centric philosophy ensures that Kevel remains consistently aligned with the evolving needs and goals of the retailers they serve. By prioritizing customer revenue, Kevel positions itself as a partner invested in the success of its clients rather than just a service provider. This alignment means that Kevel’s innovations and product developments are driven by real-world needs and feedback from its user base, fostering a cycle of continuous improvement and mutual benefit. It’s a strategy that keeps Kevel agile and responsive, capable of adapting quickly to market changes and customer demands.

The focus on customer revenue also sets Kevel apart in an industry often criticized for prioritizing quick profits over long-term value. This long-term perspective cultivates trust and loyalty among Kevel’s clients, who see the company as a true ally in their business journey. By aligning their success metrics with those of their customers, Kevel creates a robust foundation for sustainable growth. It ensures that every innovation, every strategic decision, and every resource allocation is made with the customer’s success in mind, fostering a culture of shared achievement and collaborative progress that benefits all parties involved.

Innovating Retail Media
Kevel is at the forefront of retail media innovation, working with the IAB to develop open RTB standards for promoted listings. This initiative could revolutionize how brands like Procter & Gamble run their campaigns. Imagine being able to promote products across multiple retail media networks with a single, programmatic bid—this is the future Kevel is helping to build.

Avery sees retail media moving into the programmatic ecosystem as a game-changer. “The next phase of retail media is about bringing it into the programmatic ecosystem, making it less about walled gardens and more about open access,” he says. This vision involves creating a system where large brands can seamlessly run campaigns across various retail networks, driving efficiency and effectiveness.

Building a Resilient Team
Avery understands that a company is only as strong as its team. Kevel’s culture of trust and autonomy has been instrumental in attracting and retaining top talent. “We’ve built a team that thrives on responsibility and innovation,” Avery says. This environment allows Kevel to push the boundaries of what’s possible in retail media.

The company also places a strong emphasis on work-life balance. Avery leads by example, demonstrating that it’s possible to be both successful and present for family. “I leave at 3:30 PM to pick up my kids from the bus stop and work a couple of hours in the evening. It’s about getting the job done, not micromanaging when people work,” he explains.

Looking Ahead: The Future of Kevel
As Kevel continues to grow, Avery is focused on maintaining the company’s innovative edge. The partnership with the IAB to develop open RTB standards is just one example of Kevel’s forward-thinking approach. Avery sees a future where retail media is fully integrated into the programmatic ecosystem, creating new opportunities for brands and retailers alike.

Avery’s ultimate goal is to empower retailers to avoid the pitfalls that many publishers fell into in traditional ad tech. “Retail media has the opportunity to keep power at the retailer level,” he says. It’s about creating a sustainable, profitable ecosystem where retailers don’t just survive—they thrive.

The Personal Journey of James Avery
James Avery’s journey from coding his first website in high school to leading a company that’s shaping the future of retail media is a testament to the power of vision, resilience, and relentless innovation. “I started the company in high school, building a website for my dad’s company. It was six pages of HTML—no CSS back then, just table layouts and images,” Avery reminisces.

This early experience sparked Avery’s passion for technology and entrepreneurship. Despite working in various “normal jobs” after high school, Avery always knew he wanted to start his own company. “I loved the idea of starting my own thing and using what I know to make something of it,” he says.

Avery attributes much of his success to the support of his wife. “She’s always been super supportive of what I’m doing and pushing me to do more than I thought I could,” he says. This support has been crucial, especially during the early days of Kevel when financial risk was a significant concern.

A Legacy of Innovation and Empowerment
As Kevel continues to expand, Avery remains focused on the company’s mission to innovate and empower retailers. “Our goal is to change the industry so we don’t repeat the mistakes of traditional ad tech. We want to keep power at the retailer level,” he asserts.

From the early days of hand-coding websites to leading a company that’s revolutionizing retail media, James Avery’s journey is a testament to the power of innovation and determination. Kevel is not just another company; it’s a flagship navigating the vast, often tumultuous seas of ad tech, charting a course that others will undoubtedly follow.

In a world where staying still is not an option, Avery’s vision and leadership ensure that Kevel will continue to ride the waves of innovation, transforming challenges into opportunities and setting new standards in retail media.

Pesach Lattin
Pesach Lattin
Pesach "Pace" Lattin is one of the top experts in interactive advertising, affiliate marketing. Pesach Lattin is known for his dedication to ethics in marketing, and focus on compliance and fraud in the industry, and has written numerous articles for publications from MediaPost, ClickZ, ADOTAS and his own blogs.

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