A king’s ransomby Karyn Scherer
The invisible world of data mining has been hugely rewarding for one expat Kiwi.
At just 36, Victoria Ransom has become a multimillionaire. Just a few weeks ago, Google announced it was buying her social media marketing company, Wildfire, in a deal reported to be worth as much as US$400 million. That’s nearly half a billion bucks in the currency of her homeland – New Zealand. Down the phone from Silicon Valley, she still sounds a little stunned, and more than a little cautious. “I have new boundaries now about who I talk to in the press and what about,” she explains. Ransom co-founded Wildfire only four years ago with her Swiss fiancé, former professional snowboarder Alain Chuard. The pair met at university in the US, and both worked as investment bankers in New York before quitting to set up a travel company based in Wanaka. It was the software they developed for that company, Access Trips, that morphed into Wildfire.
These days, Wildfire helps some of the world’s biggest brands – as well as some smaller ones, such as Air New Zealand – manage their social media campaigns. It has found itself in the midst of a massive shift in marketing, from spray-and-pray advertising to highly targeted campaigns based on specific slices of society, identified from the digital traces we all leave on the world wide web. In less than three years, staff numbers have grown from just seven people to nearly 400. “When we started Wildfire, social-media marketing was viewed as this experimental thing – maybe even a fad – but within that time it’s become pretty much an important part of the marketing mix, and very much viewed as an important part of the future of marketing,” says Ransom. In New Zealand, her success has naturally been celebrated, but it has also prompted some to question the role of data mining in the infrastructure of the internet. And in the US, a recent online article about Wildfire was titled “One woman’s vision to make social marketing less of a cesspool”.
Earlier this year, General Motors famously quit Facebook campaigns, citing concerns about their effectiveness. Its marketing chief has since been dumped. Ransom believes the shift to social media is still in the early stages of its development. “It’s absolutely continuing to grow, both in terms of companies that hadn’t adopted social media marketing and are now adopting it, and companies that have adopted it and are expanding their activities.” She concedes Facebook is currently struggling to manage the transition from PCs to mobile devices, but refuses to believe that privacy issues are turning people off. “Facebook is the social network that’s most important to our clients and therefore us as well. Honestly, I think their potential is absolutely enormous … It’s just a challenge for them in terms of how they monetise it. But I think fundamentally, Facebook usage is growing, and time spent [on it] is growing, so the opportunity is still strong for them.”
She refuses to be drawn on whether stricter regulation is needed. “My feeling with Facebook is they’ve very much put that control in the hands of consumers and what their privacy settings are. They’re very granular in terms of who you share your information with, and the same with brands … It’s very much an opt-in system.” Ransom grew up in Scotts Ferry, a tiny settlement near Bulls where her parents still grow asparagus. She believes being raised on a farm probably helped her entrepreneurial skills. “The Kiwi way of using your resources well, that certainly came from my upbringing,” she says, chuckling. In her final year at Wanganui Girls’ College, she won a scholarship to attend United World College in New Mexico, part of an international chain that selects students from around the world “as a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future”. She decided to attend university in the US, and also went travelling, which included spending six weeks with a remote Amazonian tribe and six months in a Brazilian favela. “In a former life I used to do lots of travelling,” she recalls, somewhat wistfully.
Along the way she also acquired an MBA from Harvard, and created enough of a stir to be invited to numerous conferences, such as South by Southwest, and appeared on various lists of “people to watch”. Last year she was a finalist in the local Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award. The deal with Google requires her to stay on as Wildfire’s chief executive for a few more years, and she says she hasn’t thought about her next move. But she and Chuard are hoping to briefly return to New Zealand in March to get married, possibly in Hawke’s Bay. They are also keen to get involved in philanthropic causes. “Honestly, everything is still so new for us, so I couldn’t say exactly what that means yet, but I think that’s always been a priority for me. Right back, probably that got entrenched when I was at United World College. It was very much the mission of that school to bring young people together and give them a great two-year experience so they could go out in the world and really make a difference.”
As for how social networking might evolve over the next decade, who knows? Maybe we’ll be so caught in the net that we’ll all be wearing Google’s futuristic glasses, which work like mini-computer screens, delivering everything we could possibly want to know literally right in front of our eyes. Or maybe not. “I guess the medium we use will change a lot,” says Ransom, “but the fundamental way that we interact – which social networking has created – I don’t see that going away.”'
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