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The Battle Of The Titans

  |  September 30, 1999   |  Comments

Last week, the phrase that pays was evidently something akin to "Yes, Mr. Wetherell, I do have an ad management system that I'd be willing to sell." For those who missed it...DoubleClick might want to start shaking in its boots, because CMGi bought AdForce and one of its subsidiaries, Engage Technologies, bought AdKnowledge. Now CMGi can go head-to-head with its rival, right? Well, that depends.

Last week, the phrase that pays was evidently something akin to "Yes, Mr. Wetherell, I do have an ad management system that I'd be willing to sell."

For those who missed it for whatever reason, whether they were immersed fully in a sensory deprivation tank or were otherwise denied access to the news media, the gist of it is this:

DoubleClick might want to start shaking in its boots, because CMGi bought AdForce and one of its subsidiaries, Engage Technologies, bought AdKnowledge. Now CMGi can go head-to-head with its rival, right? Well, that depends.

Engage represents CMGi's foray into analyzing consumer behavior online. One extremely cool function of Engage's product is its ability to take advantage of "collaborative filtering."

It can analyze aggregate behavioral data and attempt to show users appropriate ads and content according to what similar groups of people have responded well to in the past. Engage is able to demonstrate that this method is extremely effective at targeting ads to the right folks, thus improving response rates to those ads.

We've discussed different methods of ad targeting in this space before, and while Engage's ad targeting is an effective feature, ClickZ readers know that there are plenty of ways for the major ad management solutions to take advantage of profiling across multiple sites, should they choose to. The advantage of doing so becomes more attractive as adserving companies begin working together, either as a result of a partnership or of an acquisition.

CMGi and DoubleClick are now the primary powerhouses in the ad management category. DoubleClick has DART, but it also owns NetGravity, as well as a really nice patent that most of us wish we had authored.

CMGi owns AdForce and Engage, which also owns AdKnowledge (which itself was created when Focalink and ClickOver decided to get together).

What if either (or both) of these two companies decided to serve its ads from a single domain? That would give one company a tremendous amount of reach across web users and across multiple sites, increasing the effectiveness of database profiling.

Wanna see who might win that battle? Time for another informal Mr. Wizard-type experiment...

Using my home machine, I signed on to my ISP and started a typical jaunt through some of my favorite sites on the web. Just before doing so, I did a search for files or folders titled "cookies" and obliterated them. (BTW, this will ensure that every single subscription-based site will forget who I am the next time I visit, but what the hey -- this is science.) Then, I turned on my cookie warning so I could see who was tagging me during my journey.

I revved up my trusty copy of Navigator 4.6 and started out at OLAF.net. Since my site is a 24/7 affiliate, it has AdForce tags, which served up a couple ads from various e-commerce sites. Curiously, though, AdForce set no cookies on my machine. Still, since we're keeping track of the potential opportunity for database profiling, score this one for CMGi.

I was itching for some fun, so I headed over to The Onion, my favorite humor site in the entire world. There, I was nailed by adex3.flycast.com and ads.doubleclick.net. Score after my visit to The Onion: CMGi 1, DoubleClick 1.

Next, I wanted to see how my Yankees did against Tampa Bay, so I went to HotBot to search for baseball-related sites. During my search, I was warned again (twice) that ads.doubleclick.net wanted to set a cookie.

On the results page, I found Sportsline and headed over to check the AL scores. At the site, I was hit twice more by ads.doubleclick.net, which served me two ads for MajorLeagueBaseball.com. Score thus far: CMGi 1, DoubleClick 5.

Next, I wanted to check some stocks. I use two sites primarily to follow stocks - Yahoo Finance and Thomson Real Time Quotes. I went to ThomsonRTQ first and was cookied by two ad servers: webfarm.sfo.mediaplex.com and that pesky ads.doubleclick.net again.

Afterward, I went to Yahoo and burned up about 15 page views catching up on the post I've missed on the KTWO message boards. During this time, Netscape warned me about cookies only twice. Both times, the cookies were coming from -- you guessed it -- ads.doubleclick.net. CMGi 1, DoubleClick 8.

Next, I wanted to get directions to my sister's college. I may be visiting her this weekend, so I went to the logical place for driving directions - MapQuest. There, several ads were served by adforce.ads.imgis.com. Curiously, AdForce was setting no cookies. The post-driving directions score: CMGi 4, DoubleClick 8.

It seemed that I couldn't avoid that DoubleClick adserver, no matter where I went. I went to Harmony Central to post a review of a guitar I just bought -- DoubleClick.

To Kozmo.com to check my account balance after returning three DVDs a day late -- DoubleClick.

To the Industry Standard to take a look at the latest e-commerce stories -- DoubleClick. It seemed like ads.doubleclick.net was everywhere.

In the end, CookieFest '99 ended in a DoubleClick blowout -- 36 to 9. I did encounter some NetGravity, Accipiter, AdForce and AdKnowledge ads along the way, and they were attributed to the proper organization. Discarded were the occasional ads from i33, Flycast, Hitbox and a few others.

Does this informal experiment teach us anything? Well, I wouldn't even attempt to draw conclusions from it.

However, the point is clear: Two organizations are responsible for the majority of the adserving across the web. Should either of these companies leverage data across sites, either could become a data mining powerhouse, especially with the integration of post-click data.

I'm not saying that either of these two companies will decide to do this. However, the potential benefits of doing so are escalated after the recent consolidation of the category.

One has to wonder -- could this become a battle for cumulative reach across the web?

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Tom Hespos

Tom Hespos heads up the interactive media department at Mezzina Brown & Partners. He has been involved in online media buying since the commercial explosion of the Web and has worked at such firms as Young & Rubicam, K2 Design, NOVO Interactive/Blue Marble ACG, and his own independent consulting practice, Underscore Inc. For more information, please visit the Mezzina Brown Web site. He can be reached at thespos@mezzinabrown.com.

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