AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo Fight for Agency Attention

The Web’s top media brands and their troops have invaded New York this week for the annual Advertising Week conference. AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo all have big plans to help win the hearts and minds of agency execs.

AOL will put its original content on display throughout the week as its editors talk up the company’s vertical sites and blogs at the lounge it has set up at the Times Center in The New York Times Building. The 25-year old firm is entrenched in a do-or-die battle to convince advertisers and their agencies that AOL’s properties are fresh and relevant. According to AOL, 75 percent of the company’s content is original, up from 30 percent a year ago.

“The AOL brand turnaround has got to be one of the toughest jobs on the Web,” said AOL CEO Tim Armstrong yesterday morning during a breakfast with ad industry journalists. “I think the strategy is really powerful and is sticking with customers, especially the customers that are here this week,” he noted.

“For us, it’s not going to be successful unless you see AOL everywhere you are this week,” said Jeff Levick, AOL’s head of global advertising and strategy. “Our big point is to make sure that the advertising community knows what AOL is all about and to create more clarity.”

The company runs the Web’s largest ad network, Advertising.com. However, in talks with media and agencies, the network largely has been ignored by AOL execs in favor of discussing custom, integrated offerings for brand advertisers. “Historically, it’s been a lot about our platform or advertising,” said AOL’s new SVP Global Sales Development, Erin Clift, who stressed the firm’s custom branding opportunities over those commoditized products.

To bring home that point, the firm touted its plans to partner with IKEA and its agency Mediaedge:cia to develop branded content for the furniture seller. The effort will include a microsite featuring room planning guides, special sections on AOL Home, and display advertising. Another component aimed at college kids includes an AIM-based “Pillow Fight” game.

AOL is focused on helping IKEA and other advertisers develop their consumer brand strategies, said Clift, who started with the company about two months ago. She is charged with building out AOL’s agency-facing operation, and is hiring “agency evangelists” who will handle relationships with medium to large shops. Clift should be well-suited for the role; she built a similar team of around 50 people at Google, where Armstrong was the top sales exec in the U.S. and Latin America before taking over AOL.

As AOL battles for share of mind among agencies, it will compete head-to-head with Yahoo and Microsoft, both of which hope to make big splashes at Advertising Week. Microsoft will symbolize its presence in the agency world by tracking agency execs during the week-long event through RFID-enabled bracelets. The comings and goings of those “Microsoft VIPs” will be projected on screens at conference locations.

Yahoo has an international PR blitz planned tomorrow when it is expected to launch its consumer-facing branding campaign. The company has invited ad industry reporters to events in New York and London tomorrow, presumably in conjunction with that branding effort.

Yahoo could be considered a more direct competitor to AOL in its quest for agency acceptance. It too has a new CEO with a newfound focus on creating premium content to attract brand advertisers. And both media brands have lost luster in the eyes of media buyers over the years.

Another selling point AOL has in common with its competitors is audience data. According to Clift, AOL plans to productize its audience data and insights, and will work with agencies to better understand what kind of information they want.

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