Former Fox Ad Sales Chief Byrne Joins Zefr as President

Former Fox advertising sales head Toby Byrne is joining ad tech company Zefr as president.

Zefr’s technology targets digital ad campaigns based on the context of content in individual videos on YouTube, but is looking to expand onto other platforms and into international markets.

The company is counting on Byrne’s experience and connections with major advertisers and media buyers to help boost its profile and its revenues at a time when digital media is competing with TV for advertising dollars.

Brian Atwood, executive VP of Zefr, is being promoted to chief sales officer and will report into Byrne.

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In an interview with Broadcasting & Cable, Byrne said he’s first met the founders of Zefr while he was still at Fox.

When he left Fox, they contacted him again and he began consulting with them.

Zefr’s technology enables advertisers to target at the individual video level on YouTube.

“It’s essentially reaching the right audience in the right content,” Byrne said. “For the last 20 years, I was selling the best premium entertainment and sports content there was. The media landscape is continuing to fragment and it presents opportunities on different platforms that have gained incredible scale.”

Byrne said Zefr is growing rapidly, and has a lot of runway to grow further, making joining Zefr an attractive opportunity.

“What we’re able to do is really curate at the video level packages for advertisers and choose the right video for the right brand,” Byrne says. “It becomes a premium advertising opportunity on YouTube. Again that’s not a far distance from what I’ve been selling. It’s not far from how advertisers spend their $50 to $70 billion for television, where they’re very specific about the content they run in.”

Zefr’s technology can ensure brand safety by making sure the videos used in a campaign are appropriate.

“Everyone’s talking about brand safety right now, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Zefr co-CEO Zach James says.

Beyond that, Zefr makes sure that the ads are relevant, which increases the chances the viewer will be receptive to and pay attention to the commercial message. Having to watch an irrelevant ad can interrupt the viewer experience in a way that’s bad for both the advertiser and the publisher of the content.

In the ad-tech world, James said, most platforms have become more focused on audience targeting but have ignored contextual relevance.

“About three year ago, we decided to plant our flag and say we need to bring it back to contextual because we’re losing the users confidence,” James said. “They’re really disliking the experience that’s going on because it breaks that user flow.”

James says working with Zefr eliminates a lot of waste in the YouTube universe, and that’s important at a time when advertisers are spending more on digital, but are becoming more skeptical about the return they’re getting.

“It’s really kind of compelling because brands are searching for alternatives,” he says.

Digital giants like Google, YouTube and Facebook have been very audience focused on audiences and are starting to work on context, James says.

For example, YouTube introduced Google Preferred, which let advertisers put messages on only the most popular YouTube channels.

“We’re looking at every single video on all of youtube and finding all the best gems,” James said. We’re not going to give someone a whole channel because what we find is that 50% of all channels is actually not what that channel says it’s about.”

Even on a great YouTube beauty channel, half of the videos are about the star’s relationships or pets," James says.. “We don’t want that kind of waste."

James says that brands have been receptive to the context message.

“We think platforms are going to try to build offerings, but just like brand safety, brands will really want a third party verifying everything that they’re getting what they’re looking for. We think contextual will have a long life, chiefly run by a third party,” he says.

Zefr now charges brands on a CPM model, but is shifting toward charging a data fee. The company is eying using its technology on platforms other that YouTube and moving beyond the U.S. and James expects Byrne to be a big part of its expansion.

Byrne spent nearly 21 years at Fox, mainly with Fox Broadcasting. He was named president of ad sales for Fox Broadcasting in 2010, and when Fox Networks Group consolidated its broadcast, cable and digital ad sales teams in 2014, Byrne was named president of sales for FNG. He began his career as a media buyer at BBDO in 1993.


Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.