Ad Buyers on AOL-Microsoft-Yahoo Deal: What’s in It for Us?

While analysts pan reported pact as too short-term

Apparently applying the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” philosophy, AOL, Yahoo, and Microsoft are reportedly working on a deal to sell each other’s online advertising inventory. But while the plan may help the three tech giants compete with common rival Google, ad buyers say they want to know how the new arrangement could help them.

Citing anonymous sources, the tech blog AllThingsD said that under a “new pact,” the three companies have agreed to sell each other’s “class 2 display” inventory. The plan is that they will share revenue from the ads, with the intent of earning more than they would if a third-party ad network sold the inventory, the report said.

But ad buyers who would potentially buy that inventory said they don’t immediately see how the new scenario is in their best interest.

“We have an ample opportunity to buy this kind of inventory,” said Dick Hurrelbrink, president of Minneapolis-based media agency company Compass Point Media. “If it’s essentially a joining together for their benefit, they’re going to have to demonstrate to us what the benefits are for us and our clients.”

In separate statements, AOL, Yahoo, and Microsoft neither confirmed nor denied the reports.

“We believe that choice, openness and competition help drive innovation in the market.  As such, we are always looking for ways to partner with others in the digital advertising ecosystem to offer innovative solutions that benefit advertisers and publishers. However we have nothing specific to share at this time,” a Microsoft spokesman said in a statement. AOL and Yahoo expressed similar sentiments.

Presumably, the three companies will share more details about the plan, and its advantages for ad buyers, when they formally reveal the pact. But, on first reaction, some media executives said it seemed as though the new deal had a whiff of desperation about it.

“In doing this it seems like they felt it was the only way they could combat the combination of Google’s display and the big ad network industry that’s out there,” said Adam Kasper, EVP of digital investments for Havas Media’s Media Contacts unit. “But from an ad buying perspective, it seems like you’re just slicing the same thing a different way.”

If a buyer wants to buy inventory on any one of the three sites, he said, it’s because he wants that specific kind of inventory. The arrangement might make it possible to do a single bid with one vendor to get a bigger reach, he said, but media buyers have plenty of ways to streamline the buying process to effectively get the reach they want.

“As a buyer, I’m not going to increase the amount of money I’m spending in aggregate on those three publishers because they’re selling each others’ inventory,” he said. “It’s not going to change my perception of the value of advertising on any of the three properties because I can go to one person instead of two or three.”

From an execution perspective, he said, there could be strategic upsides to buying inventory in one place—for example, if a product launch required the same execution on the homepages of each site on the same day. 

But, in general, Kasper said, “I’d like to hear more from them on what is the value added [for me]? … Is there a pricing advantage?… Are there efficiencies to be gained there?”

Early reviews from analysts were decidedly mixed.

“My initial reaction… was that sounds bold,” said Joanna O’Connell, an analyst with Forrester Research. “And then I thought, ugh, but actually, not really.”

Although the companies are all tech giants that tout scale and audiences of scale, beyond that they have different priorities, sales processes and advertiser needs, she said. A plan like this presents both operational and business challenges.

“This feels like a short-term step in between the old way of doing things, where you had premium sold by sales people and remnant sold by networks, and the new way, which is premium sold by sales people and remnant sold through technology, like ad exchanges,” O’Connell said. “It’s almost like they’re saying, ‘we believe in the ad exchange thing but not enough to really commit to it so we’re going to do this in the meantime.’”

David Hallerman, an analyst with eMarketer, said that while the deal seems to emulate private exchanges, which is an important growth area for selling online ad inventory, getting the three companies to work together could be challenging.

“It’s a good idea with a major sticking point,” he said.

A private exchange could give a brand safety because it’s not being sold across a whole network, he said, but getting major companies to align themselves technically and strategically is not a simple process.

For example, he pointed out, the Yahoo-Microsoft search deal has still not helped Yahoo’s bottom line in search.

“They’ll be able to do it if they want to, but sometimes it seems that making things work when it comes to big companies working together takes too long,” he said. “I can only imagine that there are people right now at Google who have been laughing today.”