Exclusive | Adtech pioneers launch AI startup to empower publishers and brands at ‘crucial moment’

Firsthand emerged from stealth today to build a platform that allows publishers and brands to create and distribute their own AI agents. …

It’s a tough time for publishers and brands, as AI companies scrape their content to train their models, Big Tech controls search traffic, and LLMs spit out articles that are rewritten versions of the original — often without attribution. Now, adtech pioneers who helped build online advertising unicorns like DoubleClick and AppNexus want to give that power back: Today, their startup Firsthand emerged from stealth to build a platform that allows publishers and brands to easily create and distribute their own AI agents to engage directly with consumers everywhere online – while retaining full control of their data and content. 

The New York City-based Firsthand, founded by Jonathan Heller, Michael Rubenstein, and Wei Wei, announced a seed round of $6.65 million today led by AI-focused Radical Ventures, which has also backed Cohere and You.com

“They are the team to bet on,” Radical Ventures partner David Katz told VentureBeat. “It’s almost like the dawn of search again, with history repeating itself, overharvesting, squeezing publishers, and then completely losing control of their monetization and of their data, this incredibly valuable asset — you have this incredible imbalance of power and so they really have no choice but to try to cut deals to monetize their data.”

Now, he explained, “there’s this moment in time where [publishers and brands] can control their own destiny and these moments don’t come often.”

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AI agents: Win-win for publishers and brands?

Publishers and brands can manage Firsthand’s agents like campaigns, co-founder Jonathan Heller, who was previously co-founder and CEO of online advertising platform Freewheel, told VentureBeat in an exclusive interview. They can “operate them not just on their own properties, but also distributed anywhere across other sites where their prospects and consumers have questions,” he explained. 

As a result, he said, consumers get the nuance and information they want, and it’s “incredibly valuable” to publishers because they are giving the customer what they are asking for but also learning more about what the customer wants. “We think that should happen easily for publishers and brands in their own control, they’re the ones doing this direct relationship with their own data,” he said. 

The idea is that the AI agents provide a win-win for publishers and brands, with conversations that go beyond chatting to guided conversation and suggested reading, with the AI agent learning along the way: Say someone reads an article about retirement and they can click into an AI agent where the reader can continue chatting with an AI agent from Chase Bank. The publisher gets more engagement and monetization opportunities, while brands get direct consumer feedback and first-party data.

A ‘crucial moment’ for publishers and brands

Advertising technology, of course, has gone through seemingly endless cycles of reinvention over the past two and a half decades, from simple display ads and the rise of impossibly-complex programmatic online advertising to social media marketing and connected TV ads. 

But all of those options didn’t allow publishers and brands to connect directly with consumers in real-time, with full control over how, when, and where their data and content assets were surfaced to consumers. Old-school chatbots from the pre-ChatGPT era certainly did not fit the bill, and Google and Meta algorithms have always been walled gardens with the power to dictate traffic and monetization. And now, LLM companies like OpenAI have fed fears that the media industry is headed for a complete meltdown.

This is a “crucial moment,” Firsthand cofounder Michael Rubenstein, who was previously president of AppNexus, and founder of the DoubleClick Ad Exchange, told VentureBeat. “AI represents the most powerful technology, wave and opportunity of our lifetimes today and the stakes are incredibly high right now for publishers and brands.” 

If brands miss the opportunity to shape and capitalize on the power of AI as opposed to being shaped by it, “they’ll lose control of their relationships with their customers, their data, their content, and we’re seeing a lot of that play out in the early innings right now in real time,” he added. 

Firsthand says AI agents offer a way to take back power

Firsthand says its platform is the “only solution that allows brands and publishers to engage with their consumers wherever they are by distributing their agent, in context, across any partner’s site in a mutually-beneficial, rights-controlled process.”

According to the company, there are two solutions as part of the platform: Lakebed, the company’s AI rights and data management layer, gives content owners full ownership of their knowledge assets and control over where, when, and by whom their content is used by AI. Second, the company’s generative marketing agents use approved content to enable one-to-one personalized conversations.

Heller also pointed out that the solution for publishers and brands is just the beginning. Firsthand’s platform could ultimately lead to ‘syndicated’ AI agents, said Heller, who said it is essential that power is not consolidated by front-end AI agents that leads to quality content disappearing from the ecosystem.

“We are starting by doing this for publishers and brands because this is very whitespace new,” he said. “But the model is designed to accommodate an open economy where there’s money to be had by everybody, as opposed to something that we think is an unsustainable equilibrium — because if it all just ended up in one front end agent, no one’s going to make content anymore and it just dries up. And that’s not good for anybody.”

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