HuffPost Takes More Control of Destiny With New Ad Staff Separate From AOL

Doubling down on premium advertising

The Huffington Post is increasingly looking like a stand-alone business at AOL.

The site got a new CEO in Jimmy Maymann a year ago, and before that, Arianna Huffington took control of some business functions that previously had been handled by the parent. Now, the closely watched news and aggregation site is creating a big, stand-alone ad sales force to double down on premium advertising.

Maymann plans to make another 30 hires in 2014, bringing the number of people selling native advertising to more than 50. This year, HuffPost launched a new division, HuffPost Partner Studio, to create custom content for brands wanting to capitalize on the advertisers-as-publishers trend. With the Partner Studio's contribution, native will account for about 15 percent of ad revenue this year, and Maymann expects it to reach as much as one-third next year.

An ex viral video exec (AOL bought a European company he founded, GoViral, earlier this year for nearly $100 million), Maymann sees another third of ad revenue coming from video and the balance from traditional display. In 2012, the site launched HuffPost Live, a live-video streaming network, which Maymann aims to be profitable next year.

The news site’s combination with the Internet provider has been the subject of much curiosity since AOL bought HuffPost two years ago to reinvent itself as a media company. AOL is betting big on programmatic advertising and will continue to sell HuffPost when advertisers want to buy across both properties. Meanwhile, HuffPost has been trying to position itself with advertisers as a premium site, hiring marquee journalists and doing more original content as it, like publishers everywhere, grapples for a profitable model for online news. "I want to sell as much premium as possible," Maymann said in an interview. "If it's just blue-collar people they're selling their stuff to, [advertisers] shouldn't come here.”

The creation of a new ad sales team could refuel speculation that HuffPost could one day spin off from the mother ship. "This relationship has never really provided what both sides hoped—credibility for AOL and reach/resources for [The Huffington Post],” said Dave Martin, svp of media for Ignited, a digital agency. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they agreed to divest at some point with all the changes happening at AOL.”

Maymann maintained that the sales effort “has nothing to do with a ‘spinoff.’ We just feel it's the best way to monetize the HuffPost Audience in 2014, which will make HuffPost a more valuable brand and in turn add to AOL's overall value,” he emailed.