AOL Goes After Google’s Display Business with Self-Serve Platform

AOL is taking a stab at competing more directly with Google in the display ad sales department. The operator of the largest online ad network, AOL will now make display inventory from its and owned properties available through a new ad management platform. AOL built the self-service Ad Desk platform to give advertisers and agencies more control over campaigns.

“I think it’s really going to help AOL along,” said Chris Hansen, VP of Performance Marketing at digital agency 360i. “Frankly, before…we were probably limited in some of the spends that we were doing because we didn’t have as much control, and [the new platform] gives us that.”

Stressing that the product is in an early stage, Jeff Levick, executive vice president at AOL Advertising, suggested that advertisers will have more insight into campaign data through the platform. “We think that we’ve got an incredible amount of data…that will be launched through this tool in the coming months,” he said.

Google allows advertisers to buy display through its self-serve platform, which is also used for text-based ads, while Yahoo and Microsoft have self-serve opportunities through their ad exchanges. Yet, until now, AOL has really only offered self-serve display buying on and AOL sites through its BidPlace platform, introduced in 2008. That provided a base from which the company built the more robust Ad Desk system, which now replaces BidPlace.

Ad Desk is a bid-based marketplace, selling CPM and performance-based ads. Advertisers can target by site, category, geographic location down to the DMA level, demographic, and behavior. Retargeting, or what AOL calls lead-back targeting, is also available.

According to Levick, the company believes the new system is superior to others because it has been built specifically for display ad buying and management, rather than retrofitted to suit display.

“Now AOL is trying to get in the mix. It kind of lends itself to two big players, [AOL and Google],” said Hansen. While MSN is missing from his list, Microsoft has planted a stake in the search ad category with its focus on Bing. Yahoo, however, despite its stated commitment to leading display advertising, does not offer a self-serve platform comparable to AOL’s or Google’s.

AOL’s network draws the most unique visitors among the big ad nets operated by Yahoo, Google, ValueClick, and Microsoft, according to comScore Media Metrix.

Though it is too early to tell whether AOL’s new offering will truly help turn around the firm’s somewhat stodgy perception among agencies and advertisers, Hansen suggested, “I would hazard to guess at this point that it will” spur more spending by agencies on AOL.

The key, said Hansen, is the transparency and control enabled by the platform when it comes to making quick changes at any time of day or night, adjusting bids, and determining targets, particularly in relation to buying AOL’s owned and operated properties. “It allows us to put more dollars against great inventory,” he said. 360i has tested the platform for performance campaign buys for retail and travel advertisers.

The platform is geared towards medium-sized ad agencies and advertisers. “This is not about trying to automate our business,” said Levick, who said the company also will continue to service agency clients through its strategic sales team.

Follow Kate Kaye on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.

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