by Jessica Thompson
Artificial intelligence (AI) used in advertising can be a touchy subject. Richard Howe is the CEO of the Arkansas-based Internet advertising technology and digital publishing company Inuvo, Inc., which uses its own AI to glean proprietary anonymous consumer information for its clients.
“There are nefarious characters who will misuse information, and we are not them,” Howe says. “Our obligation to protect consumer privacy goes beyond the typical one. The information we get is anonymous. We don’t get information from anyone, and we don’t sell information to anyone.”
It is the company’s AI and the organic nature of the data it produces that Howe believes is the heartbeat of the company’s growth, placing Inuvo, Inc., in a technology class with names like Apple, Google and Facebook. While the company reported revenue of nearly $80 million in 2017 (an 11 percent increase from the previous year), continuing its upward trend in annual revenue since 2009, the outlook has not always been so favorable.
Inuvo, began as an Internet advertising technology and digital publishing company in 1987. When a top shareholder contacted Howe in 2009 to discuss the firm’s future, the company was failing. Upwards of 250 employees, several businesses and a debt of nearly $13 million sapped revenue and left the firm with little hope of recovering.
The financial crisis of 2008 exposed these weaknesses, and it was soon time to implement drastic change or accept complete loss.
“They needed someone to come in and build a real business off of the ashes. It’s the hardest thing to do in business – harder, in fact, than starting a company because you have the additional burdens,” Howe says.
But with an extensive background in machine learning analytics data and a history of turning the tide for struggling businesses, Howe was up for the challenge. The job, he said, was twofold: Fix the problems and innovate.
The problems, however, were multi-dimensional. The number of employees fell from 250 to 30, and Howe chose to keep two businesses that he felt had a future. The debt, though steep, was repaid. Armed with a new team, a new board of directors and new clients, Inuvo, was on track for success.
Howe moved the company from Florida to New York briefly, but he doubted the likelihood of success if it stayed there.
“The culture of these environments was not conducive to startup-like mentality,” he says. “The loyalty was not great, and for legitimate reasons. When you’re in New York City, there’s a lot of demand for talent.”
A solid business relationship with Charles Morgan, founder, chairman and CEO of Acxiom Corporation, prompted Howe to move the firm to Arkansas. Howe worked for Morgan at Acxiom in 2004, and he was confident that having access to people who were familiar with his work, state and local officials, and employees who would be willing to join the firm would increase the likelihood for success.
A grant from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, sponsored by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, funded the costs associated with the move in 2013. In return, Howe committed to hiring Arkansans to the extent that was possible, and he is still committed to hiring from within the state.
While addressing the core issues in business practices, Howe also focused on innovation.
“We didn’t want to use others’ information, partly because of privacy,” he says, referencing recent incidents involving Facebook wherein third parties were able to access and misuse user data.
“We wanted to figure out a way to avoid using anyone else’s information. Was there a tech we could develop ourselves that could, in effect, manufacture the data? The core of our artificial intelligence is that, and the result of that AI is a data source that we can use to help our clients better understand who their customers are, how they can put better messages in front of their consumers and help them understand the actual audience that’s most appropriate for their products or services.
“When you think about where the world is going, everybody’s talking about AI,” Howe says. “There’s a little company right here in Little Rock, Ark., and we have it.”
Now, Inuvo, is located in Little Rock and San Jose, Calif., and attracts clients including Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Toyota and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. It boasts 15 patents with nine patents pending.