Nick Pinks was working on the BBC’s Glastonbury festival coverage when the idea that spawned Covatic came to him.
“Wimbledon and the British Grand Prix were also on that weekend and the viewing figures for the tennis were absolutely trouncing Glastonbury’s,” says Nick, whose job was to explore the future of the industry and identify the threats it would face over the coming years.
“I realised it was because the festival coverage was set around the times of the performances, not around people's lives, whereas Wimbledon viewers were jumping in at the time that suited them. It showed that our content didn’t match our viewers’ lifestyles."
While the Googles and Facebooks of the world had already been identified as the key competitors to traditional broadcasters such as the BBC, Sky and ITV, even their data collection tools couldn’t solve this issue. Search history and social profiles might be able to tell you what a person likes to watch, but they can’t tell you when they like to watch it. Instead, Nick hit upon a much smarter, less invasive way to paint an accurate picture of a person’s day-to-day life.
“The only bit of kit that you religiously keep with you all the time is your phone,” he explains. “You plug it in when you go to bed and unplug it in the morning, so it knows when you wake up, when you get up to have your breakfast, and, in pre-pandemic times, how far you travel to work.
“By using data on that device we can predict what tomorrow's going to be like for them. If you understand what tomorrow's going to be like for a person, you can then provide the best content for them.”
Nick talks about ‘windows of opportunity’ – chunks of time when a user is likely to be open to receiving particular types of content, whether that’s a 60-minute playlist, a 5-minute highlight reel of last night’s game, or a short news article. If you make a journey of the same duration every day, it’s even possible to serve content that exactly matches the time available – and all without any personal data ever leaving the device.
“If you understand when the best time to engage with someone is, you can get the most positive response from them. Moving them from a free user to a subscriber, for example,” Nick explains. “If you know the amount of time they have, then you can identify who is at risk of churning if they are not using it in those times."
In 2015, Nick left the BBC and went to work for Imagine Communications, an American company that helps media companies to make and monetise TV – but he couldn’t stop thinking about this idea he’d had while working for the BBC. After 18 months he left to start Covatic. “I was looking at an industry that wasn't moving fast enough,” he says. “The opportunity for Covatic just seemed huge, and this felt like something that the industry needed."
Initially part of Oxford University Innovations, an initiative run for entrepreneurs, the company was spun out to go it alone in January 2017. It took the 12-person team about three years to get the model to a place where it could be used to pull out insights and data in a way that's usable for advertising and content ecosystems, but Covatic’s SDK can now be found in apps on over a million devices in the UK, including those from KISS, Absolute Radio, and Magic.
“A lot of people have been burnt by academic spin-outs,” says Nick. “Is this just an idea or is it actually real? Just because we spun out of Oxford doesn't automatically mean we have a better broadcast product, but it does mean that our data purity is better and shows the quality of thinking behind it. Everything we've built has been from fundamental research; we haven't taken stuff off a shelf and plugged bits together.”
Covatic doesn’t have as much day-to-day contact with the university any more but its influence and support shouldn’t be downplayed. "We still adhere to the academic excellence of the three founding professors,” says Nick. “They were from the university’s computer science department, whose fellows include the likes of Sir Tim Berners-Lee. We wouldn't be here without them.”
The connection has also helped to attract a “truly phenomenal” engineering team and the company has kept close to the university’s startup ecosystem. In fact, one of Covatic’s investors, OSI, also helped to fund the company behind the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine.
The University of Oxford isn’t the only big name Covatic has got behind it. In 2020, it was the only company outside of North America to be selected for Comcast’s LIFT Labs Accelerator programme, which was based in Philadelphia and run in partnership with Techstars.
Throughout the 12-week course, Nick had to present to Techstars co-founder David Cohen in front of 150 people (“It was awful, but we learned so much"), was interviewed by CNBC’s Jim Cramer (“He crucified me for my choice of tequila on the shelf behind me”), and received feedback from the likes of Comcast CTO Matt Zelesko and the president of advertising, Marcien Jenckes. What’s more, Nick did it all over Zoom thanks to the ongoing situation with COVID-19. “The time zones meant the rest of my family were asleep while I was there at 2am pitching to the management team at Comcast,” he says. “It was certainly a challenge.”
Lack of sleep aside, Nick describes the experience as “exceptional” with access to an incredible range of organisations across the US and the rest of the world now open to him and the company. “Having their senior leadership team involved in our planning, and helping us understand how Comcast sees the world was brilliant,” he says.
Of course, the pandemic hasn’t just affected Nick’s nine-to-five – it has completely changed how we think about a daily routine. “Every consumer now has a different schedule than before,” he says. “Their schedules are also more individual and are always changing. I can’t see us going back to a situation where so many people do the same things at the same time."
These changes in the way people lived their lives and consumed content opened up a huge opportunity for Nick to pursue opportunities in other sectors and verticals, including sport – and it’s these that are now showing the most traction and momentum. “I was very wedded to the broadcast space when we first started and that was probably a mistake,” he admits. “They were much slower to pick up in this field than I thought they would be.”
From Nick’s point of view, the challenges for these industries are exactly the same as those a broadcaster faces – and with many sports teams and brands starting to focus on growing their direct-to-consumer propositions, Covatic can really help them get the most out of their content.
“I think it's fair to say that in the next few years major broadcast deals will change,” he says. "There's going to be a transition to first-party platforms, and part of the reason for that is going to be the data. The Premier League and other big properties will still be wanted by the broadcasters, but you are already seeing a move to direct-to-consumer for other sports with smaller but very engaged fanbases."
So what does the immediate future hold for Covatic? For starters, Nick plans to expand the team and raise some more funds to capitalise on the momentum it has managed to build over the past six months. That should only increase when the company’s new self-serve product launches later in Q1, which will allow any developer to add a select few of Covatic’s features to an app for a lower price than the full package.
And it’s not just about media and content either. Covatic’s tools are also being used by a sustainability company to power an app that works out a person’s carbon footprint based on their movements and habits. At the end of the week, it'll tell them how much to pay if they want to offset all the carbon they’ve used, while automatically telling all their social media followers that they’re carbon neutral.
“It's just another interesting take on what we're doing,” says Nick. “We can help with any app that’s competing for somebody’s attention, whether it’s a game, music, video, or reading. Our long-term vision is to become the world leader in personalisation.”