Cannes Lions

AT&T's Brian Lesser lays out his grand ad plan following the Time Warner deal

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Brian Lesser, CEO of AT&T advertising and analytics, AT&T Services, Inc.
Brian Lesser, CEO of AT&T advertising and analytics, AT&T Services, Inc. Credit: AT&T

Every day, AT&T's Brian Lesser tells his team, "If all we do is improve advertising as you know it, we've failed, because our intention is to make advertising matter for consumers."

With the close of AT&T's acquisition of Time Warner (now WarnerMedia) last week, Lesser, who joined AT&T in October to run its new advertising and analytics unit, will now get the chance to act on his vision of making the TV ad business operate more like digital.

Lesser, who previously oversaw billions in ad spending as CEO of GroupM's North American operations, is a popular man at Cannes this week, with many in the industry anxious to see how he plans to effect change.

There was no contingency plan for Lesser if AT&T's proposed acquisition of Time Warner was blocked by the Department of Justice. Lesser was counting on content from Time Warner's portfolio of networks, which include TBS and TNT, in order to execute his vision: an ad platform for TV and video.

"The future state of the ad business is a platform business," Lesser says from a suite in the Carlton Hotel in Cannes less than a week after the acquisition closed. "Google and Facebook prove that platforms rule. When you make it easy for advertisers to efficiently buy at scale and generate performance, that's what they will choose."

Lesser and his team are working toward a buying platform that will include more than TV and digital video ad inventory. "It is our intention to sell every advertising format," like display and native, he says.

As AT&T "furiously" builds a fully automated platform, one of the first tangible opportunities is the ability for the company to share its mobile and TV data with Turner to help them improve their own audience-driven TV ad products, Lesser says.

And in an effort to reinvent how consumers view advertising, AT&T will look to test concepts that can help reduce commercial clutter.

"Because we have DirecTV, we are the only company that knows you are watching a big screen in your living room wall and you have a small screen in your pocket," he says. With this knowledge, AT&T can then have an icon appear on the TV screen during a show that indicates there's a mixed-reality experience on your phone. And without ever interrupting the content, consumers would be able to receive a targeted commercial message on their phone.

"I think we can significantly reduce loads, but it is going to take time," Lesser says, stopping short of predicting just how much commercial time might be cut out of programming.

Moving forward, while Lesser says the TV upfronts – when networks look to secure commitments for the bulk of their commercial time for the following season – will continue to exist, it will be "less significant over time as advertisers have the ability to access audiences with data."

Lesser doesn't view Google or Facebook as AT&T's competition. "Those are pure digital platforms and they are very good at what they do, which is performance marketing," he says. "We have an opportunity to show advertisers that we understand their audiences as well as the digital platforms, but we can find those audiences in much higher quality content that is better for their brand and we can measure performance."

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