AOL Goes Smaller During the NewFronts But Has Big Data Goals Ahead

CMO Allie Kline weighs in on Oath, Yahoo and Verizon

AOL held a dinner for around 50 people on Tuesday evening. AOL
Headshot of Marty Swant

“The future is now.” “Cutting edge content.” “Closer to culture.” “Know what’s real.”

While those phrases might sound like marketing taglines, AOL would rather you think of them as oaths.

On Tuesday night, the Verizon-owned company held an intimate, invite-only event for clients and potential clients inside of a three-story townhouse in Manhattan to showcase what brands might want to buy into for the coming year. The goal: to explain in a closed-door setting why brands should sponsor content created by the likes of TechCrunch, The Huffington Post and Makers Studio.

The atmosphere was entirely different than the event AOL held last year during the first week of May—a formal, IAB-sanctioned NewFronts event—at the South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan, when the company took over several blocks to throw a massive concert for thousands featuring Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa and Demi Lovato. This year, there were only 50 people in attendance instead of 5,000. There were cocktails on the roof rather than long lines at drink carts. And instead of Snoop and Wiz, there was a dinner presentation from CEO Tim Armstrong that was followed by a conversation with President Obama’s former senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett.

"There is a really important message to deliver that we felt was hard and unfair to deliver in this big, massive megaphone setting."
Allie Kline, AOL Chief Marketing Officer

On the second floor, there was also an indoor pool and a dimly lit “Hall of Brands,” featuring sizable posters for TechCrunch, HuffPo and Makers Studio.

According to AOL CMO Allie Kline, the smaller setting allowed for more candid conversations about what the company is planning with its potential future with Yahoo, pending the close of the deal this quarter. (It’s also holding similar dinners in San Francisco and London—two other key markets for media buyers, brands and content partners.) Executives also wanted a chance to better explain Oath, the recently unveiled umbrella brand for AOL and Yahoo’s media and ad-tech properties.

“There is a really important message to deliver that we felt was hard and unfair to deliver in this big, massive megaphone setting,” Kline told Adweek on Tuesday evening.

In an interview, Kline talked about Oath, how the company is planning for the big Yahoo merger and what’s next for the content-and-data giant. Here are some of the highlights from the conversation.

Adweek: How will AOL compete with Google and Facebook?
Allie Kline: Probably the most interesting thing from a differentiation standpoint is our investment in content and brands. What you won’t see at any of those other companies’ NewFronts are big brands on the wall that are investing in original content and journalism, that are investing in very strong editorial points of view. You see aggregation, with Google you see search is still a dominant priority—whether it’s through YouTube or the search portal. With Facebook, it’s an awesome utility that is a gateway to the relationships and content that you want, but it is not a curated creation engine.

So we deeply believe in original content and we deeply believe in brands. When you look at the technology side of our business in the ad platforms and the data, and you also look at the editorial and content and brands side of the business, trust is probably the biggest gap that spans both in our industry. Certainly, brands deeply matter, and we know that from our clients because that’s what they invest in.

How are Oath and Verizon approaching data with Congress changing data-sharing laws for internet service providers?
I think when you speak to Oath’s opportunity from a data standpoint even before Verizon, the notion of the assets in our portfolio from a subscription standpoint, as well as the billions of ad moments that go through our system, [you can see that] the algorithms are extremely powerful. And so we feel very, very strong about that.

We’ve been very bullish and optimistic on that and have been optimistic about data since the early days of ad networks. So we have an awesome way to think about that from both the brand but also as a content optimization engine. We were very early in buying companies like Gravity and other organizations like that. And then in the Yahoo assets, assuming we close, you see things like Flurry, you see things like Gemini and their assets that are just incredibly smart at generating those types of data events. From a Verizon standpoint, we make a commitment to not talk about Verizon’s standpoint on any of our business.

Speaking of the Oath promise, how do you balance data with privacy for users?
I think you have a really firm policy and you’re really clear on what that is. It’s more and more about the transparency around trust in what we talked about. That’s one of the reasons why brand is so important in my mind. If you’re going to curate content for me, recommend things for me to watch and engage with, doing that based on something that’s valuable and from a brand I trust is very different than me seeing white supremacist ads in a search engine. It’s a totally different deal.

What else do you plan to unveil in terms of content?
I think you’ll see us go post-close into a very strong vertical strategy. We’ve got a lot of very strong assets in news, sports, lifestyle and entertainment, as well as our communications and search products. And I think you’ll see us double down on that, and you’ll see a lot of vertically led content, you’ll see a huge investment in partnerships.

We’ve done quite a lot of partnerships across the Verizon content investment ecosystem as well as us. So you can imagine the sports vertical will obviously get a lot of content from Yahoo Sports, Yahoo Fantasy… Combine that with a lot of the investments that Verizon has through partnerships with the NBA and the NFL, and you can start to imagine a really heavy content point of view-driven powerhouse with high consumer engagement because of a fantasy subscription play. We’re not announcing anything tonight, but you can let your mind wander.

How much is Yahoo factoring into the pitch?
I think it’s really important. I mean, that’s why we’re doing the small thing. It would make everyone very uncomfortable to get up in front of 3,500 or 5,000 people or whatever we wound up with last year and be like, “OK, everyone, Snoop’s coming on in a minute, but here’s our detailed strategy.”

Right? So I think the goal is to be as transparent as we can of our strategy, which is legally very much allowed. We’re doing tons of planning, and talking about that planning is fine. But actually selling anything [is something] we can’t do right now, but we feel like both businesses are doing great. We feel like we can take a side from the selling moment.

That’s the essence of who we want to be. That’s why we have a name like Oath. If our commitment is to create brand love, which is to build brands people love, if that’s our promise and the oath, we have to be transparent about where we want to head and to get that feedback.

@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.