TopDog: A Blast from the Past

June 10, 2020

By: Jeff Fowler

I recently got a pleasant and unexpected surprise when I saw a LinkedIn Pulse article written by Abdul Zanabili discussing a product I developed over 20 years ago back when I used to be smart: TopDog. At the time, Abdul – who was smart then and is still smart now – was working for a company called Alliance Data Systems, and I had been running Decision Software for just a few years.

The name ‘TopDog’ came about from one of my first clients: a mail-order gourmet coffee business named Gevalia Kaffe. Shortly after Bill Gates wiped out the dinosaurs and invented the computer, I had built them a whopping 50 million record database loaded on a PC platform, then wrote a program to run simple counts against it. Gevalia decided to name their database using an acronym: The Online Proprietary Database Of Gevalia, so naturally the folks using my program called it TopDog, since those were the screens they actually saw. (To this day, most marketers do not, will not, and/or cannot distinguish between a database and a software application sitting on top of a database. But I digress.) Much to my chagrin, I heard comments like “TopDog is slow today” or worse, “TopDog crashed,” every time the database took too long to run a query or ran out of memory.

I had started DSI in ’89 and spent the next few years building databases, writing software, and most importantly working with direct marketers, where I first learned about something called a Marketing Campaign. This was a complex process in which the marketer decides who to market to and what to offer them. Going further, this Marketing Campaign selects every individual into an appropriate bucket – called a Segment – then remembers everyone it selected and what offer they received, called Promotion History. And so by the early 90’s, I added a TopDog feature called PromoTrak, for “Promotion Tracking.” It ran on a Windows-based PC, connected through a network to a SQL platform, ran queries against the server, and used a single pass to segment the results. It let marketers assign keycodes and generate test/control groups, then generate solicit files. Everyone touched by the campaign was captured in a set of promotion history tables, along with the channel, offer, and summary information about the campaign. In short, PromoTrak was a Campaign Management system – though the term hadn’t been invented yet – and many years later it became the basis of our current MarketWide system.

Alliance contacted me in the late 90’s to arrange for a product evaluation. They had read about TopDog from an industry publication and wanted to see it in action alongside another product called VALEX, by a well-funded startup company called Exchange Applications. The VALEX product segmented the database using multiple SQL Queries, while TopDog used a single SQL query to retrieve the data it needed and segmented it in memory outside of the database. Fortunately for me, Abdul was Alliance’s DBA and conducted a very thorough and fair evaluation. He declared TopDog the winner, and the rest was history!

Today there are several terrific products for running marketing campaigns. Some of them sit on top of SQL platforms and others use their own internal data store. Some are cloud based, requiring you to upload your data, but others can be installed directly on top of your in-house database. Some make you transform your data to “fit” the product architecture while others can work with your data as-is. These are all very important questions when choosing a campaign management system, but unfortunately are rarely asked. This is where someone like Abdul can help you avoid very expensive mistakes.

TopDog has been supplanted by MarketWide, but its heritage still survives. Like TopDog, MarketWide can be installed on your own network, connects to your existing SQL database, and uses a one pass in-memory method for campaign segmentation. This is a huge advantage for companies who run large, complicated campaigns with hundreds of segments against lots and lots of data, especially those who don’t want to upload their data to an external cloud-based system.

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