Interview: ExoClick – The Fonzé Brothers On Their Rise and Rise

March 21, 2015
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Interview: ExoClick - The Fonzé Brothers On Their Rise and Rise

It’s good to be King. Or in the case of Belgian brothers Benja and Adrien Fonzé, CEO and COO of ExoClick, the world’s fourth largest ad network, it’s good to be two of the leading Crown Princes amid the hustle and bustle of the internet’s clicking classes.

But unlike their would-be noble alter egos, the Fonzé brothers haven’t been handed everything on a silver platter. Like any story worth telling, it includes hard work, the grasping of opportunity and the general litany of close calls and hard luck tales that permeate life.

From quiet beginnings in the country that represents the administrative heart of the European Union, Benja, Adrien and ExoClick have pushed and pulled their way to a position of prominence. Rapid growth has seen them become a set of keys to unlocking the myriad secrets held within Big Data, and optimizing growth for their clients too.

Benja Fonzé moved from Belgium to Barcelona, Spain straight after his studies and began his career as a web developer at Electronic Group Interactive. With his passion for technology he rapidly moved up the ranks to become CTO. In 2006 he saw a gap in the market for a digital ad network to compete with Google and Yahoo and developed a proprietary ad-serving technology called EXADS™, that allowed advertisers and publishers to trade online advertising space, and ExoClick was born.

Adrien Fonzé had spent six years climbing his way up the ladder of the Belgian division of digital communication agency Emakina, implementing and directing various tech projects. In 2011 he moved to Barcelona to join his brother at ExoClick.

2014 seems to have been their best year so far. Having grown to 125 billion impressions a month, doubling their workforce and launching their own Android app that allows advertisers and publishers to control their admin panels from their devices, there appears to be no stopping ExoClick. Anybody who attended their big bash on Sunday night at the European Summit can attest to that!

“I was working for a billing company here in Barcelona and was running my own adult sites at the same time,” opens Benja. “That’s what made me realize that the advertising spaces were very badly optimized and I saw a big opportunity. Being a developer, I started to build software for a basic ad network. I tested it out and it worked, so I offered it to some friends who were very happy to see that their revenues increased. A couple of years down the line my brother Adrien joined me as COO and helped scale up the company to become the global business it is today.”

If any of the doom-mongers and naysayers think that ExoClick is some Shakespearean tragedy waiting to happen, siblings conducting a night-time rapier battle on a cliff’s edge; well, that won’t be happening anytime soon. It’s the differences between them, combined with their biological link, that has served them well all this time. Apart from a few childhood mishaps but hey, that’s life. As Adrien has it:

“As children, we used to fight all the time so it was an amazing surprise for both of us to see how successful our cooperation is today. We both studied Computer Engineering so we kind of speak the same geek language; the interesting aspects are our differences which actually work to complement each other. Benja is highly skilled on the technical side and has the vision of where we should go whereas from my side, I am highly organized and will always get things done.”

Interview: ExoClick - The Fonzé Brothers On Their Rise and Rise
The Fonzé brothers celebrate their success.

So here we have two Belgian brothers running an adult ad network based in Barcelona. It runs against the typical narrative, that’s for certain. BaDoink has discussed many times how adult-based companies and individuals continue to face high levels of discrimination from the business world, and yet the Fonzé brothers appear to have both subverted the norms and have dodged the worst of the 2008 recession and its after-effects with neat sidesteps.

“Being based in Barcelona did not always help our international growth because of the image a Spanish address can give versus one in San Francisco. This weakness though became a strength as our location allowed us to hire a team of over 21 different nationalities gaining us extensive localized knowledge within the global marketplace. Today, in a country that is still struggling to recover from the financial crisis we are proud of being the only Spanish company listed by Deloitte Fast 500 for three years in a row.”

In this day and age you’d be forgiven for thinking that profits are achieved as a result of austerity i.e. screwing the workers, cutting corners and make desperate monetary land grabs. But as you’ve probably realized by now, the Fonzé brothers don’t follow convention when it comes to business, and it certainly doesn’t apply here.

Voted as one of the top 20 PYMES companies to work for in 2014, ExoClick use the carrot rather than the stick and it pays off. We often read about the cool, fun culture at tech companies, from in-house chefs to ping-pong tables. It’s all part of time moving on.

“This is a big focus for us,” says Adrien. “We are convinced that keeping our team happy will lead to positive results. We invested in a modern office situated in a famous tower of the city, giving a stunning view of the beach every day. Some of the benefits are flexitime, free language classes, fresh organic fruit, coffee, health insurance, gym and restaurant discounts. More than anything else, we always try to remain accessible to all team members so that communication flows. Innovation comes from everywhere inside ExoClick!”

The future, as you would expect, looks bright. Having made their name in the adult industry, ExoClick is casting side-eyes toward making moves into other markets. The biggest question remains: what exactly is next for the all-conquering Belgian brothers?

Adrian begins. “We started to monetize mainstream traffic around a year ago. The idea is to apply the same successful recipe that we did with the adult industry. We are hiring experienced talent and also adapting our technical and sales skills. Obviously we are not yet competing with giants like Google but we plan to take some market share in specific niches. This is one of our main objectives for 2015.

“North America has always been our main market and we have been attending all the adult shows for years. The expansion is definitely on the mainstream part. Of course we have a global brand name and we are the 4th largest ad network in the world and so far the results have been very positive and very exciting! When we tell businesses that we manage more than 125 billion monthly ad impressions, they sit up and listen to us.”

And so it all seems in place, a neat little package. Hell, they don’t even need Google, the giant too busy tossing and turning in its sleep and making odd choices when it comes to their own unique, fingers-in-ears, brand of adult censorship. Google’s restrictions on their AdWords service (followed by the Blogger debacle) has caused no shortage of consternation for users, particularly within the adult industry.

The Fonzé brothers regard Google’s flim-flamming as another business opportunity. Their loss is another’s gain, according to Benja.

“For adult ad networks like ExoClick, the new measures from Google are a business opportunity. We also have our own rules & guidelines such as banning malware ads and fraudulent campaigns, but with regards to the general adult business we are happy to drive adult sales via our network.”

For the brothers who run the rule in the cut-throat world of ad networks, but count qualification as a sailing captain and a Belgian youth basketball championship medal to their domestic achievements and recommend something as simple as “drink special beers and eat real French Fries” should you be fortunate enough to visit their home country, it’s comforting to see such success hasn’t eradicated their sense of normality and openness.

After all, an empire like this is but a few clicks away…

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