Facebook Relaunches Atlas With Agency Sign-On

Updated System Serves and Measures Ads Across Devices, Beyond Facebook

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Facebook is looking to get more -- much more -- out of Atlas, the ad network that it bought from Microsoft in early 2013.

Atlas is getting a facelift with an updated system that enables it to better serve and measure ads across devices and beyond Facebook screens, Ad Age has learned.

Omnicom has signed on as the first customer.

The holding company, which owns media agency network Omnicom Media Group and ad agency giants like BBDO and TBWA Worldwide, has agreed to use the new platform but the terms of a long-term partnership aren't clear. Annalect, the group that houses Omnicom's data-management platform and automated-digital-media-buying group Accuen, will likely play a leading role in helping advertisers use the Atlas platform. Neustar, an Annalect data vendor, will also play a role in the Omnicom-Atlas agreement, according to people familiar with the matter.

Facebook, Omnicom and Neustar didn't immediately respond to requests for comment or declined to comment.

Tech publication The Information had previously reported that Facebook plans to unveil a revamped Atlas during Advertising Week, which begins Sept. 29.

Fewer limitations
With a revamped Atlas, advertisers can send targeted ads to a prospective consumer no matter what device he or she is using leading up to a purchase, and use Facebook data to measure the success of a campaign. This builds on the cross-device reporting that Facebook introduced in August to tell advertisers on what device someone saw an ad and on what device they took an action like purchasing a product. However, that capability is limited to ads shown on Facebook, whereas Atlas doesn't have such limitations.

The move may give Facebook a way to extract more ad dollars from big brands looking to organize their digital ad spend, which can span Facebook, display ads elsewhere, search, video and mobile.

The larger play for Facebook is to position Atlas as the company's rival to Google's ad-tech juggernaut DoubleClick and extend Facebook's display advertising dominance beyond its own service.

When Facebook announced it was acquiring Atlas from Microsoft in February 2013, many industry experts expected Facebook would use the ad server to set up an off-Facebook ad network to sell and measure ads on non-Facebook sites. An advertiser would be able to consolidate the money that would go to countless sites and ad-tech intermediaries with the 1.3-billion-user social network. That's how Google grew from being the dominant search-ad seller to the dominant search-and-display ad seller.

But Facebook execs have de-emphasized Atlas as a plug-and-play ad network. "This acquisition is about measurement, it is not about building an ad network," Facebook Director of Product Marketing Brian Boland told Ad Age at the time of the deal's announcement.

Instead of Atlas being a way for Facebook to sell ads on others' sites, it was a way for Facebook to track the ads sold on others' sites. More importantly, Atlas was meant to help Facebook prove that exposing users to its ads does spur them to take an action -- whether it's providing their email address or making a purchase -- even if they've never clicked on a Facebook ad.

Recent moves
While Facebook execs have downplayed their ad-network ambitions, recent moves and an emerging supply-versus-demand dilemma suggest otherwise.

Facebook's advertising business has ballooned in the past few years. Advertisers are throwing money at the social network to the point that Facebook's average ad price rose by 123% in the most recent quarter. But Facebook hasn't used that as reason to flood users' feeds with more ads. It's actually doing the opposite. It showed people fewer ads in the second quarter of this year even though it had more people to show those ads to. The number of ad impressions Facebook served in the period shrank by 25% while its daily user base grew by 19%.

Facebook doesn't want to overwhelm users with ads, but it also doesn't want to turn away advertisers to the point that they take their budgets elsewhere. So if Facebook the business wants advertisers' money but Facebook the social network doesn't want their ads, Facebook the company needs to find somewhere else to stick them.

And this year it has begun doing just that.

Facebook acquired video ad-tech company Liverail this summer. That company will allow Facebook to sell ads on third-party sites. LiveRail isn't Facebook's first off-site ad business. Earlier this year the company opened up a mobile ad network to sell ads to run in third-party apps.

With video and mobile ad networks already in hand, an Atlas-powered ad network would set up Facebook as Google's biggest digital ad-sales rival.

Earlier this year, Atlas also said that in early 2015 it would partner up with Microsoft to support a direct programmatic tool for advertisers and publishers to streamline the buying process.

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