Messaging app Viber names mobile ad vet Djamel Agaoua as new CEO

While messaging app watchers are waiting for Snap Inc. to announce its IPO, another app has appointed a new CEO. Viber — the messaging app that was acquired by Rakuten in 2014 — has announced Djamel Agaoua as its new CEO.

This is significant because Viber — which has had a promising 800 million downloads but has seen active user growth stall as others like Facebook’s WhatsApp and Messenger have gained ground — has effectively been operating without a permanent CEO since co-founder Talmon Marco formally stepped away from the role in 2015. (Marco now is working on Juno, a new ridesharing startup.)

Agaoua has already started the job and will be dividing his time between the Bay Area — because Viber wants to rekindle its bid to grow in the U.S. — and Tel Aviv, where Viber is based.

Agaoua is an interesting pick to lead the company for a couple of reasons.

First, he comes from the world of mobile ad tech and had been the CEO of performance advertising specialist MobPartner, which was acquired by Cheetah Mobile in 2015 as part of the latter company’s strategy to move deeper into mobile ads. He stayed on at Cheetah until moving to Viber.

So does his appointment signal a deeper move into mobile ads for Viber?

Viber already has a certain amount of advertising in the form of sponsored stickers and other features (also labelled as sponsored) — which is somewhat in contrast to others like WhatsApp, which originally eschewed paid promotions of any kind, but has, under new owner (and digital advertising giant) Facebook, started to controversially explore this area, too.

It sounds like there will be more on Viber moving forward, albeit with some sensitivity.

“I will of course draw upon my previous experiences as I lead Viber, and I know more than anyone that advertising can be very intrusive,” Agaoua told TechCrunch.

“Viber users want their private conversations to be respected and they will remain private. It is highly important for our users, it is highly important for Viber. But we want to bring more value to our users in allowing them to access external services within Viber. There are ways to promote product and services to our users that can be inclusive, and not intrusive. A promotion can be valuable to a user if it comes at the right moment in the right place. And this place can not be in the middle of a private conversation. We will present new features to illustrate our ideas in a very near future.”

The other area where Agaoua’s appointment is interesting is in what it might mean for another kind of growth at Viber — user growth.

The company has not updated its active downloads number of 800 million in months, and nor has it given a recent update on just how many of them are active beyond “around 260 million” (a figure from last year). Some might infer that as a sign of the numbers being less than impressive.

Agaoua admits that Viber took its eye off the ball with its growth in the U.S. for a while, conceding that crucial, large market to other messaging companies not just like Facebook but newer players like Snapchat, who have completely shifted the idea and purpose behind messaging altogether. (And that’s also considering the fact that the other gigantic single market globally, China, is dominated by WeChat.)

“Obviously after the acquisition, there was a shift of focus,” he said. “Viber and Rakuten decided to focus on places where Viber was already extremely strong like Europe and Asia and we didn’t really pursue the U.S. I don’t think that was the right decision. The usage level was not where it should be.”

He now said that the company will “invest more and increase our resources in the U.S.,” with the support of Rakuten, which also “decided to shift up.”

This will mean not just hiring more, but also potentially more M&A to pick up new features for Viber, if not new users by way of buying other messaging apps, he said. “There are not a lot of acquisitions left to make in this space,” he said of buying or combining with other messaging rivals.

While Viber has recently been building out features like snappier video messaging, messaging encryption, chat bots and business accounts, one area where it has been surprisingly inactive is in e-commerce.

I say surprising because Rakutuen, its owner, is known as the “Amazon of Japan” and has been very keen to expand its presence in the U.S. and beyond, buying companies like Ebates, taking stakes in startups like Pinterest and making big moves into digital content with Kobo and more.

It sounds like under Agaoua, Viber’s role in that bigger strategy may also finally start to take shape.

“I would imagine Viber will become a platform for e-commerce and other services,” he said. To make it different from what is already out there — you can, for example, already buy goods on Messenger — he said that Viber is likely to tap into other features already in its messaging app, “integrating video and other specific features.”