AOL Opens Up Display With Self-Serve Tool

Option Allows Advertisers to Spend as Little as $300 on the Portal's Sites, Ad.com

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The ex-Google execs running AOL are looking to make display advertising a little more Google-like. That means opening up AOL's web properties and its ad network Advertising.com to small- and mid-sized advertisers with a self-service tool for display, called Ad Desk, launching in beta today.

Jeff Levick
Jeff Levick
The tool will allow marketers to theoretically buy and run campaigns on AOL and Ad.com without ever talking to an AOL ad exec. It will also allow more sophisticated marketers to optimize their campaigns on the fly and on their own terms with access to the same analytics tools and insights that the biggest Ad.com advertisers already have.

Underserved market
"We see this as a massively underserved mid-market of agencies and advertisers that have not been given because, of our limitations, access to our inventory," said Jeff Levick, exec VP, AOL advertising.

The self-service tool will be available to all advertisers large and small, but open to advertisers spending as little as $300 over three days, or $3,000 over 30 days. These advertisers haven't been able to buy at scale on AOL or Ad.com in the past, and AOL sales execs are typically focused on accounts bigger than $25,000 a month.

But even large marketers can avail themselves of Ad Desk, which gives them more direct control over their campaigns and allows them to change it as circumstances warrant. AOL has been testing the service in beta with several agencies and advertisers, and they have advised AOL on features

"We want control, we want to be able to bid, and we want premium inventory like AOL," said Chris Hansen, VP at 360i, a digital agency recently acquired by Dentsu. "Having control on the weekend at night to go in and change a bid price or targeting criteria is something we want -- that was interesting to us."

Smaller budgets
Hansen, who has been testing the tool, said most of 360i's clients would likely take a hybrid approach, dealing directly with AOL in some cases and using Ad Desk in others. "This gives us a lot of flex in terms of putting in buys that did not fit into the AOL network model before," he said, adding that it would make sense for clients spending budgets of $10,000.

AOL is far from the first to try self-serve display; Google itself has its own display ad builder, and Yahoo rolled out its My Display Ads last summer. What AOL brings to the table is its own media properties in addition to Ad.com, the largest ad network on the web.

Growing self-serve fray
Building a self-serve tool has been a priority for CEO Tim Armstrong since he came to AOL. He was the leading evangelist for Google's self-serve ad platform when he headed sales there. Engineers at Ad.com began building the tool five months ago after consulting with agencies on what types of features AOL should offer.

AOL's strategy is a realization that online display is a mature market, and many agencies and marketers alike have sophisticated online advertising teams more than capable of running online ad campaigns without hand-holding from Ad.com or AOL sales staff.

Advertising revenue was down 8% in the fourth quarter, to $471.6 million; AOL's strategy is to build content and display ad revenue to offset the decline of its legacy internet access business.

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