Phuong Nguyen, the head of eBay Advertising in the UK, is clearly a good salesman – at least of rare rap albums. His eBay feedback score is 4,346 – the highest of any employee in the company in Europe.
This was mainly built up by reselling CDs when he joined eBay in Australia a decade ago.
Now, he is tasked with selling eBay to advertisers. Some 300 brands will have worked with the company by the end of this year, including Philips, House of Fraser and BMW.
EBay started life as a kooky second-hand auction website but is now a mainstream commerce platform. Seventy-five per cent of items sold are new and fixed-priced.
Nguyen has led eBay Advertising since 2010. He feels that the rise of programmatic buying has allowed the site to leverage one of its "greatest assets" – with 18 million monthly active users in the UK (and 124 million globally), eBay sits on a wealth of consumer data.
Nguyen says: "I believe you can tell far more about someone’s shopping propensity based on the things they’ve searched for and the things they’ve bought as opposed to the things that they’ve ‘liked’ or commented on."
He feels eBay can introduce advertisers to unexpected insights that can lead to "serendipitous audience discovery". For example, during the most recent series of The Great British Bake Off, as many men were searching for baking supplies on eBay as women. And, in the first five months of this year, over-60s bought more skiing gear than the 25-29 age group.
The majority of eBay’s inventory is now sold programmatically through an in-house team set up by Nguyen a year-and-a-half ago. This year, the format overtook traditional selling, which is outsourced to a team of nine at Ad2One.
Nguyen joined eBay in Australia in 2003 and brings a global perspective to his role. He is of Vietnamese heritage and was born in a refugee camp in Hong Kong after his parents fled the Vietnam War in the 70s. He spent his early childhood in Northern Ireland before moving to Sydney.
Those who have worked with him in the UK describe Nguyen as tirelessly enthusiastic and a persuasive representative for the brand. "He’s very good at creating collaborations and getting our team enthusiastic about eBay,"
Richard Ottoy, the commercial director at Ad2One, says. "He is so passionate about e-commerce and where eBay fits into the digital landscape that it really rubs off."
Among media agencies, however, some feel that eBay – like its rival Amazon – is "recessive" and has a low profile in the advertising community. Nguyen admits it has further to go in selling its proposition.
EBay’s data is being applied well to improve the shopping experience. A click-and-collect partnership with Argos launched this month and a personalised homepage tailored to a users’ interests was introduced earlier this year. Ebay Collections, a series of products curated by "tastemakers", will launch next year after debuting in the US.
On shopping sites, advertising has the most right to exist. You've got an audience in a shopping mindset
In some ways, these ideas are playing catch-up with developments on social media platforms and younger e-commerce sites such as Asos, but Nguyen doesn’t feel eBay is lagging behind.
"I wouldn’t say that we’re late to the game. You find influences from all around you, but it often takes the right execution in order for it to make a difference in a customer’s world," he says. "While there are lots of great examples of online experiences that are inspirational, I’ve often found that a lot of them aren’t particularly shoppable."
Further investment in evolving the site is possible: global revenues for the parent company, eBay Inc (which also owns PayPal), are expected to be around $16 billion (£9.9 billion) this year; eBay UK’s pre-tax profit doubled last year to £12.7 million.
Ad revenue makes up only a small part of the total business and is dwarfed by the money made from taking cuts from sales transactions. This means eBay’s advertising model can afford to be experimental, Nguyen argues: "Because we may not need the revenues, it means that there’s a real drive for an amazing advertising experience on eBay to make sure advertising is relevant and really adds to the shopping experience."
Nguyen’s conviction in targeting and data is backed by a faith in e-commerce sites as valuable media spaces. This is supported by a 2011 eBay study, which found that consumers notice ads five times more often on shopping sites compared with video or social network sites.
"I feel that, on shopping sites like eBay, advertising has the most right to exist," Nguyen explains. "You’ve got an audience in a shopping mindset. Their wallets are practically open, so they are far more susceptible to commercial recommendations through advertising than they are on, say, a social media platform, where they might be there to watch cat videos."