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Taking The Helm At Thinknear, Hillberg Blends Network And Data Disciplines

After immersing himself as a strategic advisor, Loren Hillberg is pondering the right moment for Thinknear to take on beacons and programmatic.

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Thinknear’s Loren Hillberg

When Thinknear named Loren Hillberg to the role of president and general manager in October, the move appeared to represent the unification of the brand into location services provider Telenav, which acquired the hyperlocal ad network and data platform two years before.

Hillberg replaced Eli Portnoy, the man who founded Thinknear in 2011 and left the company to start another company in the location space called Sense360, which is billed as venture designed to “unlock the power of sensors.”

As Hillberg settles into his new role, following almost six years as Telenav’s VP and general counsel, he is slowly putting his stamp on Thinknear. But for the most part, he views his mission as an extension of the strategic advising he had done for Thinknear after the acquisition. Among his immediate goals is advancing the understanding of data quality with the quarterly Location Score that Thinknear initiated last year.

The score is meant to reflect the greater demands on the part of marketers for geo-targeting, and by offering an index detailing how the accuracy of the industry’s performance with respect to “lat/long” marks on mobile phone maps, Thinknear is aiming for a greater role in shaping and expanding the use of location analytics.

GeoMarketing: In moving over to Thinknear, do you still have any responsibilities at the parent company, Telenav?

Loren Hillberg: The way I like to describe it is I’m 100 percent focused on our advertising business and then my weekend and nighttime job is to continue to do some of the things that I had done for Telenav before. I’m part of the executive team at Telenav, so I’m engaged in certain activities that relate to that. I’m still called upon to use my historical background as an attorney with respect to some corporate issues.

But my time and energy really right now is pretty much 100 percent focused on what the Thinknear team can do, what we can deliver, and how we can build it out to be a much bigger company to address the market opportunity that’s growing in leaps and bounds. The work these days is to ensure that our customers understand how location-based advertising can increase store visitation and related goals, but also in a broader way from a branding perspective in terms of what they can do in the industry.

I feel well-positioned to come into this role, because starting at Telenav, where the major focus has been location-based services, primarily around navigation capabilities. We also have an area that deals with the automobile industry and navigation and cloud services and that business.

Over the last two years, I’d been working closely with Eli on a range of activities from an oversight and corporate support perspective. Certainly, it’s given me an insight into what we’re doing and where we’re going. Quite frankly, he let us know, being the entrepreneur that he is, he had a new idea and the calling was there and he had to go and try it out.

Thinknear can be seen as having two sides. One is as an ad network for location-based ads and the other as data and analytics provider. How do you see those two areas evolving? Do see a blend or do you see Thinknear veering in one direction?

I’d say we will definitely be blending those disciplines. We have a very powerful technology platform and I think it delivers a lot of value to our clients today in the form that it is. And then as you say, on the analytics and data side, we’re continuing to expand what we can do there. Our relationship with Telenav is a key element of that. Telenav has a number of clients out in the marketplace that capture data, because they’re primarily navigation related. Obviously they’re collecting a lot of key performance data that we can use and look at and help us to better deliver value to our customers.

We also have partnerships now in place and we’re trying to figure out different aspects of how we can further improve the results in terms of closing the loop for the campaigns that we’re running.   So to be clear, we’re focused on both ends of the equation, not really just looking to be a platform-only play or something of that nature.

One area where Thinknear seems comparatively absent is in the micro-location, indoor marketing arena that is, at least for the moment, largely concentrated around beacons. Do you have any plans for looking more towards those kinds of in-store activations as opposed to looking more widely at geo-fences and related capabilities?

Yes, micro-targeting is not in our wheelhouse right now, but we’re keeping a very close eye on that particular aspect of the industry. We have some technologies I think that could be applied in that context, depending on which way it evolves.

Right now, we’re not seeing much substance there. There’s a lot of different pieces in the micro-targeting space right now and it’s still a little unclear exactly what the winning formula will be, at least from our perspective. So we want to make sure we jump in at a time when we feel like we can deliver clear value that will reach across the client base in a way that’s powerful for them. So that’s kind of where we are on that “micro” level.

The notion of “location programmatic” is also something that a number of companies, such as Placed, NinthDecimal, Verve Mobile, and others, have been pursuing in the past year. Does Thinknear have any broader plans to partner with demand-side platforms or others in the automated media buying space?

We’re having conversations with different players in that context in a way that we think that could be meaningful and could give our customers and clients opportunities to take advantage of unique types of inventory that could be made available in that context. But it’s a little bit early in the process in terms of our conversations about what those things can be. Again, I think it’s still a little bit early. The thing that is most exciting about this space is sort of one of the things that you were saying early on, which is highly dynamic and changing very rapidly.