Axios Pro Exclusive Content

Smartly CEO Laura Desmond on AI and ad tech deals

Feb 23, 2024
an illustration of Smartly CEO Laura Desmond on a picnic blanket print background

Laura Desmond. Photo illustration: Axios Visuals; Photo: Jussi Ratilainen

The deprecation of internet-tracking cookies supports Providence Equity's investment thesis on ad tech firm Smartly, according to Laura Desmond. She dined with Kerry this week for our "1 big meal" interview series.

Why it matters: Desmond is Smartly's CEO and an operating partner at Providence, which owns a majority stake. She previously served as CRO of Publicis Groupe and CEO of Starcom Mediavest Group. She is on the boards of Adobe and DoubleVerify.

Why we chose the restaurant: Lure Fishbar in SoHo, which is yacht-themed. Desmond started sailing in college and loves the water. "When you live in New York, which I did for 10 years, you forget sometimes that you're on an island in the middle of two rivers leading to the Atlantic," she says.

🍣 What we ate: She drank Grey Goose on the rocks with a twist. I drank the Blood Moon, a spicy margarita. We shared spicy tuna on crispy sushi rice, shrimp tempura and three sushi rolls (Dynamite, Hellfire and Shazam).

This interview was edited for clarity, style and length.

Why did Smartly need Providence?

  • "Our thesis about Smartly was audiences were shifting from the open web to social, that bringing campaign management and creative intelligence together in real time simplified the process and made advertising fast, and that we thought we could ... amplify that. ... Did Smartly need Providence? That was a decision the founders made."
  • "The last couple years of signal losses only have revalidated that thesis. ... Signal loss has meant 'bring creative back to the center.'"

You dropped .io from your name. Why not add .ai?

  • "We debated that. ... In five years, most marketers in the industry are just going to expect AI solutions natively included in any technology platform."

You're passionate about AI. What's hype, and what's real?

  • "There are hypers, there are partners and there are builders. ... Smartly is a builder. Job one is ethical, responsible approaches to AI. ... Job two is respect the rights of creators. Job three is to be enterprise-ready. ... There's a lot of free, a lot of shiny new toys. We don't want to be that. ... It's more powerful for AI to be built in established platforms and workflows."

Do you predict more ad tech consolidation this year, and would Smartly be part of it?

  • "The answer is always, if there's an opportunity to strengthen what we do."
  • "The last two years have not been kind to the ad tech marketplace. ... I'm not going to predict a huge cascade or waterfall. Let's see how the public markets hold up. Let's see how inflation and interest rates skew. ... There's optimism, but I think there's some caution."

🏀 1 fun fact: Desmond is an early investor in women's sports franchises, including the Chicago Sky and the Chicago Red Stars.

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