Ana Milicevic will tell you that ad tech runs in her blood. Born in Serbia to a television-director mother and an engineer father, she found early on that she felt most at home at the middle ground of both the glamorous world of media and the hard-wired world of technology. That passion led her to start a software company in her dorm room, snatch a position at the UN and take roles at a handful of global leaders in the ad-tech space.
“I get a little antsy when I’m in one place for too long,” she confessed, adding that those moves have ultimately made her a better marketer. “I’m comfortable with startups, scale-ups and large companies—but I also understand that each one of those requires you to speak a different language.”
Today, Milicevic brings that bird’s-eye view of the market with her aptly named consultancy, Sparrow Advisers, that she co-founded with her sister Maja in 2015. “I think that where we really excel is with the super-challenging business problems,” she said, “ … and then breaking those big concepts down.”
As a consultant, Milicevic’s focus isn’t just on her clients, but the audiences they’re trying to reach. “As advertisers, we’ve done a very poor job advertising the value we bring to the internet as a whole,” she said. “Everywhere you look online, it’s ads, ads, ads. You can only process so many of them before they become irrelevant.”
Making these ads relevant means telling stories that reach far beyond the myopic mindset of programmatic marketing. Brands, she said, should be able to communicate their value to every channel available—from brick-and-mortar stores to mobile apps to how users might perceive what they sponsor, or what sites their content appears on. “These things all add up, and we know that they do,” she said. “But for some reason, we’re still hyper-optimizing each specific channel.”
Right now, she said, too many marketers are taking the same approach cited by Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park—a character she finds herself quoting often. “As an industry, we’re always so focused on whether or not we could do something, that we never stop to think if we actually should,” she said.
Sticking around a dysfunctional company for far too long because she loved the idea behind it, rather than leaving when she realized she wasn’t a good fit. “It’s a hard lesson to learn, mostly because traditional business books and advice don’t really help here,” Milicevic said.
“As soon as you realize you’re in a toxic environment, don’t wait,” she said. “Don’t listen to the [people saying], ‘Give it a year, it’ll get better’—it rarely does, especially if you’re a woman or an underrepresented minority.”
How She Got the Gig
Milicevic said she started Sparrow to bust out of the one-track mind she saw pervading ad tech. “Most of ad tech and mar tech starts with trying to solve a very specific problem, and build a solution around that,” she said. “But to me that’s treating a symptom without understanding what the full extent of what the disease really is.”
She stressed that everyone in advertising needs to think outside of their own U.S.-centric bubble—especially if they’re on the tech side, which can skew more myopic than most. “There’s a reason that different markets are different,” she said. “The media that we develop here has a life cycle that’s very, very different in Southeast Asia or Latin America than Manhattan.”