Microsoft Scales Back TV Ad Ambitions

Plans to cut 15 to 30 percent of its sales force in June

Remember when Microsoft and Google were going to blow up the TV business? Well, Google’s TV stumbles have been well chronicled. And now, Microsoft is curtailing its ambitions. The company has quietly begun shuttering its Microsoft Advertising TV Network, a division focused on selling TV ads using set-top box data for smaller cable networks owned by NBCUniversal and Viacom. A handful of associated staffers have recently received severance packages, while some executives have been redeployed or have left for other jobs, said Scott Ferris, gm of emerging media and video.

There are rumblings of more bad news to come, as multiple sources told Adweek that Microsoft plans to eliminate 15 percent to 30 percent of its sales force in June.

As for the TV Network business, it stemmed from the company’s acquisition of Navic Networks in 2008 for upwards of $200 million—a move some saw as a signal that, like Google, Microsoft wanted to get a piece of the $70 billion TV market by blowing up the upfront and bringing digital tech to the tube.

Four years later, Microsoft has been shopping Navic, making serious overtures to Comcast as well as some of Navic’s original founders, according to sources. There was also talk in the company about killing the unit and taking a major write-down before the end of Microsoft’s fiscal year in June, but officials have denied that is the case.

Since the acquisition, Microsoft has gradually scaled back its ambitions for Navic and its TV-buying platform Admira, which more recently was touted as a complement to traditional TV buying.

While that linear TV sales business sunsets, Microsoft isn’t completely putting Navic’s technology on the shelf. According to Ferris, the company plans to use its set-top data and targeting technology to bolster Internet-delivered video ads, including Web video ads on MSN as well as video ads delivered via Xbox, where demand is far more robust and the complications of the TV world can be sidestepped.

“This is about skating to where the puck is,” said Ferris. “This is a tough decision, obviously. But there’s been a tremendous change in the ecosystem since we made the purchase. We’ve listened very intently to our customers. The question we’ve had to ask is, ‘Do we sacrifice on building for the future to try to rectify the past?’”

In other words, the TV buying model of the past doesn’t need or want as much fixing as the nascent Web video market. “Navic’s challenge is that TV buyers just aren’t looking to buy narrow audiences like digital buyers do,” said Michael Bologna, director of emerging communications for GroupM. “They’re definitely not looking to blow up the upfront or shift to an auction model any time soon.”

And with Xbox’s star rising, why bother? Plus, said sources, cable companies have always kept Microsoft at arm’s length, making it more difficult for the business to gain traction.

Meanwhile, insiders are bracing for the anticipated sales force layoffs in the weeks ahead. Sources said the company has delayed the date when bonuses are awarded, from June to September, fueling the impression that it’s trying to cut costs by laying people off before bonuses are paid. Microsoft declined to comment. 

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