Two news organizations reported on Friday rumors that Facebook is in talks with Microsoft to buy Atlas, its giant media digital media platform. Could this really change online advertising?
"It's clearly a play for them to get into bed more with the agencies and advertisers by having a buy-side platform," said Martin Wesley, now an adviser at SaaS Venture Partners; he was senior director at Atlas DMT from 2002 to 2004. "It will help them compete with Google's DoubleClick acquisition. It will be great for Facebook to have even tighter integration with everything coming out of its media and data."
Atlas has tools for ad and media agencies to plan traffic, and analyze digital media campaigns; it also includes publisher tools. The buy-side technology integrates third-party ad servers, data analysis and campaign optimization. Microsoft acquired the tech when it bought aQuantive in 2007 for $6 billion.
Atlas first came online in 1998, and it's been evolving ever since. One significant asset is its vast database of cookies that has been accruing all these years, according to Scott Fasser, director of digital marketing solutions at Optify, a B2B digital marketing platform. Fasser was senior product manager for aQuantive from 2000 to 2001 and he's still a fan.
"It's a super-smart and big system that puts them squarely in competition with Google. Atlas is not something you can just build from the ground up; the system has developed over a decade," he said. It's much more than an ad delivery system, he noted. Atlas serves billions of impressions a second, and there is a lot of data associated with that process. "It's not just Facebook using Atlas," he added. "Everybody is using Atlas."
If Atlas is so great, why would Microsoft want to sell it? Fasser's guess is that Microsoft isn't using it as extensively as it expected. He said, "Maybe it's overkill for what they think they need. It's an incredible technology and a valuable asset, so maybe there is value for someone else driving it, but Microsoft still having access to it."
Besides, Facebook is already integrated with Atlas' advertiser and media planning tools.
Atlas became an approved ad tracking vendor on Facebook in August 2012, allowing media buyers to stack it up against its display counterparts in the measurement of influence on search. Atlas Campaign Builder can tell how many cookies show overlap between Facebook campaigns and those on other media. Viewing Facebook tracked data through Atlas’s Engagement Mapping function, advertisers can see where Facebook falls within the purchase funnel.
In 2007, when Microsoft became Facebook's exclusive global ad-serving partner, with Microsoft taking a financial stake in the company, there was speculation that Facebook users' information could be integrated with Microsoft's ad-targeting tech. Facebook ended the agreement early in 2010.
There would be some technical challenges to integrating Facebook Open Graph information into Atlas. Fasser said: "If you think about the unique identifier - the cookie - it's just a way to identify a browser and then have the smarts behind it to serve a particular ad. If you have Open Graph data from Facebook, you would have to work through issues with personally identifying information, but you are essentially adding some behavioral data, which is what they are doing on their own site now. I don't know how far they could extend that, but there is a big push in the industry to start to utilize more sources of data for more specific targeting."
Wesley said that the installed base of agencies and advertisers already using Atlas makes the build-or-buy decision easy. "It's easier to buy that and deal with integration after the fact than to create a new one and sell against it. They will handle it like Google did with DoubleClick, slowly integrating other products over time."
He could see Facebook becoming the Google of social media. He said, "Google's backbone has always been search-term relevancy. At some point, Facebook will release what is basically AdWords and AdSense, but, instead of having ads targeted by keyword, it will be by all the social graph actions. It may be even more effective than the Google keyword relevancy."
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Susan Kuchinskas has covered interactive advertising since its invention. The former staff writer for Adweek, Business 2.0, and M-Business covers technology, business and culture from Berkeley, CA.
March 19, 2014