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With $830 million in pay, this Ventura tech exec boasts highest CEO compensation in U.S.

A view of the Ventura coastline from the Ventura Botanical Garden.
A Ventura ad-tech company awarded founder Jeff Green pay valued at more than $830 million, according to a recent filing.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
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It’s not a googol, but Trade Desk Inc.’s nine-figure compensation package for founder Jeff Green is the largest yet disclosed for any chief executive in 2021.

The Ventura ad-tech company awarded Green more than $830 million in pay, according to a recent filing. That’s more than the compensation for each of KKR & Co.’s new co-chief executives, Joseph Bae and Scott Nuttall, or Blackstone Inc.’s Stephen Schwarzman.

Green’s compensation is largely tied to an options award granted by Trade Desk’s board in October that vests at eight successively higher share price targets. If the stock rises about five times above its current price and the company hits other goals, Green stands to collect more than $5 billion, according to Bloomberg calculations.

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The pay underscores a make-or-break moment for the internet and for Green’s company, which is among the largest buyers of web-based ads. Alphabet Inc.’s Google absorbs as much as 42% of all online ad revenue but faces lawsuits that threaten parts of its business. Meanwhile, advertisers and publishers of all sizes are navigating changes in privacy norms such as cutting back on the digital trackers known as cookies.

“We are not interested in controlling the internet,” Green, 45, said in an interview last month in New York. “We’re just interested in keeping it free.”

‘Existential threat’

Little known outside the ad-tech world, Trade Desk’s clients include Conde Nast, NBCUniversal Media and the world’s largest ad company, WPP. Green’s 10% economic interest in the company constitutes the majority of his $3.5-billion personal fortune, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Trade Desk has launched a new privacy-neutral feature aimed at replacing third-party cookies, which Google is phasing out, as well as another feature that bypasses Google’s lucrative role as a middleman in the online buying and selling of ads. It has also said it plans to stop buying ads on behalf of clients in a popular Google-run product called Open Bidding.

It’s one of the few times in recent years that a major ad-buying company has attempted to break out of Google’s orbit, according to industry experts.

“Smaller ad-tech firms need to adapt and expand because if they don’t, they’re basically dead,” said Oliver Latham, a consultant at Charles River Associates. “It’s both an opportunity and an existential threat.”

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A spokesperson for Google didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Green is old enough to remember the early days of online advertising, when there were no rules to structure the buying and selling of ads. After graduating from college, he worked at a Los Angeles agency called 411 Web Interactive, where his job was to buy ads on behalf of clients. Those that he’d place on websites such as Yahoo would perform phenomenally on some days but tank on others.

“You’re like, ‘Oh, my God, what happened?’ ” Green said.

Open path

Intent on building a rules-based approach to online advertising, he started a firm in 2004 called AdECN, which he soon sold to Microsoft Corp. He stayed on for a couple of years but eventually felt that Microsoft wasn’t giving his corner of the company the attention it deserved — even as Google was spending billions on acquisitions to cement its early advantage.

“I still admittedly had a chip on my shoulder,” Green said.

With Microsoft colleague David Pickles, he started Trade Desk in 2009. It focused on a basic proposition: helping clients buy ads in online auctions more efficiently.

It worked. In 2021, Trade Desk reported income of $138 million on sales of $1.2 billion. The company’s stock has climbed more than 3,500% since its 2016 initial public offering.

One of the ways it’s trying to take on Google is by clearing a more direct route between buyers and sellers of ads with a portal called Open Path, largely bypassing Google as the middleman. Bloomberg, the parent of Bloomberg News, is testing a limited version of the product.

“This is consequential,” said Ratko Vidakovic, founder of Toronto ad-tech consultant AdProfs. “Trade Desk did not just cut off one of Google’s products, it also told advertisers that there was a more efficient way to buy media from publishers — by cutting out the ad exchange altogether.”

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Trade Desk has also launched Unified ID 2.0, which is its answer to the phase-out by Google and Apple Inc. of third-party cookies. Green says the loss of such trackers is the biggest challenge the industry faces.

Moonshot options

In October, Trade Desk’s board awarded Green options valued at about $830 million, giving him the right to buy millions of shares should the company’s stock hit successively higher price targets. If the stock achieves the top target of $340 and the company meets other goals, such as beating most companies on the Nasdaq 100, Green is eligible for a $5.2-billion payout.

Its shares closed up 7.8% to $66.89 on Tuesday.

Although the award may reflect the board’s confidence in Green as a leader, to shareholder advocates it’s another demonstration of the fallacy that only gobs of cash can sufficiently motivate leaders. It’s also part of a lawsuit from one of Trade Desk’s shareholders, Miami’s pension fund for firefighters and police officers.

“To give somebody who owns 10% of the company such a massive stock grant in addition to very generous cash compensation is truly egregious,” said Rosanna Landis Weaver, a manager at corporate social responsibility nonprofit As You Sow.

A Trade Desk representative declined to comment on the suit, beyond saying the company has sought to have it dismissed.

About a month after being awarded the new stock, Green signed the Giving Pledge, vowing to give away more than 90% of his wealth.

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