First there were the three big acquisitions: Google buys DoubleClick; Microsoft buys aQuantive and WPP buys 24/7 Real Media. Then there was Yahoo's introduction of what was once known as Amp. And today, German-born AdTech makes its big U.S. debut, landing Gannett as its first big client, on the back of new corporate parent AOL.
To fully appreciate the changes, consider Josh Resnik's experience. A year ago Gannett Digital's VP-strategy and business operations decided to seek a new ad server for all of its web properties. Within a month, three major U.S. publisher-side ad servers had new owners. Their marketing messages, he said, were what you'd expect.
"They all touted the benefits [of new ownership], how they had additional resources and technology," he said. "That may end up being true, but we were faced with the decision of do we wait and see what happens or move now? We wanted to move more quickly."
Gannett, which is not part of Yahoo's newspaper consortium, ended up going with the least well-known ad server. Popular in Europe, AdTech had very little presence in the U.S. until AOL purchased it midway through 2007. Now about half of AOL's consumer properties use AdTech to serve their ads; the other half will soon transition.
Freedom from Google
The acquisition certainly reduced AOL's dependence on Google, as AOL was a major DoubleClick customer and has a deal that lets Google sell its paid-search ads. But at the heart of it, all this attention being paid to a relatively backroom technology is a media-business play.
Publishers use ad serving to manage their inventory, help them decide which ad to put where and get information about how ads perform. That means ad-serving companies have a distinct and important view into the quality of a website's performance and inventory. Nobody's getting rich off ad-serving deals (neither AOL nor Gannett would comment on the deal's terms, but a licensing agreement of this size is probably a low-seven-figure annual deal, said one person familiar with the industry). But the Big Four internet players, all of whom are heavily betting on their abilities to sell ads on network sites across the web, provide valuable insight.
Karl Siebrecht, president of Atlas, Microsoft's ad-serving technology, said it's a matter of every party doing what it does best.
"If you're Viacom, your business is creating content and turning eyeballs into dollars," he said. "We want to offer a broad range of solutions to help you do that, an a la carte menu." Microsoft has made acquisitions around that goal, such as its purchase of inventory forecasting tool Rapt.
Added Lynda Clarizio, president of Platform A: "We want to offer a full-scale publisher solution. One piece is to license an ad-serving-technology solution and another piece is the ability to work with us as a network."
The hardest part about breaking into the market, said Dirk Freytag, CEO of AdTech, is that it's very much a reference-selling system. "It's 'Who is using you? Who can I call?'" he said. "Whatever you've done in Europe, that's great, but more important is what are you doing here in the U.S." He also said there are some differences between the regions in terms of handling cookie data, which is a more sensitive issue in Europe.
So why did Mr. Resnik choose the underdog? He said he liked that AdTech allowed Gannett to manage its inventory on both a local and national level.
"Our properties in Phoenix can manage their inventory and have full flexibility over what they do without impacting what a property in Indianapolis might do," he said. "But at the same time, we can centrally look at and manage all of it."