Advertising.com’s Ad Desk: Well Beyond Self-Serve

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aol.jpgADOTAS – “So self-service is the centerpiece of the Ad Desk?” I ask innocuously.

Advertising.com Senior Vice President of Publisher Services David Jacobs, the overseer of publisher partnerships, glances over at his colleague Don Kennedy, senior vice president of network sales, and they share a grimace. Jamie Fellows, who heads production management and hails from the network side, even seems to join in on the sour looks although he’s phoning in from Baltimore.

It’s Monday afternoon in San Fransisco — ad:tech has just kicked off and industry pros have flooded the streets surrounding the Moscone Center North. I have a birds-eye view of the digital marketing traffic from the 31st floor of the W Hotel — the Aol/Advertising.com suite, where I’m chatting with the three Advertising.com veterans about the Ad Desk display portal, which in it beta release is focused on midsized agencies and advertisers.

We’ve all been up since 4 a.m. EST, opting out of the video, and there has been a tinge of grogginess to the proceedings until the mention of “self-service.”

Finally Kennedy breaks the silence: “Every time that term comes up internally, someone yells, ‘No! Can’t say self-service!’”

“This isn’t sending advertisers down a channel where they can never talk to anybody,” Jacobs chimes in. “Ad Desk is about enhancement and facilitating and scaling our current approach.”

The Advertising.com team views Ad Desk less as a standalone system than opening its vault of capabilities to advertisers, offering them the ability to directly manage campaigns while also giving access to advanced media planning and reporting tools. The ad network supports all of Aol’s owned properties in addition to a publisher network with 70 of comScore’s 100 largest publishers. Advertising.com’s had a total estimated reach of 184 million uniques in March, according to comScore.

As one of its chief goals this year is broadening its base of advertisers, Ad Desk shoots to please larger advertisers that want more access to reporting and make adjustments to buys on the fly while attracting mid-tier advertisers that are best able to get attention through self-service tools but find account representation handy.

“We don’t want to position it as set it and forget it,” Kennedy says.

Jacobs adds that they might have some clients that use it occasionally as well as those that stick to self service 99% of the time and never talk to anybody within Advertising.com. But hopefully advertisers will take advantage of the service as a true hybrid model.

Advertisers for years have said we’d love to have more access to the tools, and get some more transparency, and “we said, ‘hey, this all fits together.'” Kennedy says. Conceptually it was there, he claims, as previously Advertising.com had a less substantial tool used by a limited pool of advertisers.

Since they began rebuilding the system from scratch in December, Advertising.com has worked directly with advertisers to build an open platform centralized around display advertising. Development of the platform stretched across eight areas of Aol Advertising.

While its still able to monetize substantial swaths of inventory across publisher set, Advertising.com has switched from acquiring inventory on a bulk basis to being dynamic buyers of inventory. Ad Desk gives access to purchased inventory as well as RTB-enabled partners. In effect, the network is passing on its investment in RTB tools to improve advertiser ability to seek out a target audience.

“We’ve done the heavy lifting in a way,” Kennedy quips.

Aol has had a tumultuous six months to say the least after splitting off from Time Warner. Most recently sources reported that by the end of 2010 the company was selling or shutting down the Bebo social network, which Aol acquired in 2008 for $850 million.

The ad side of the equation has also seen some shake ups: Platform-A is gone and affiliate marketer Buy.at has been sold. However, rumors that the Advertising.com network would no longer have access to premium Aol spots were exaggerated at best. Aol has removed some ad placements, leaving fewer nonreserved impressions as well as fewer ad units in general. However, significant amount of premium content is still available to users of the Advertising.com network.

As Aol has realigned its goals with the production of widely disseminated content, Advertising.com too has made linking content and advertising an essential piece of its strategy, Fellows said. At the heart of Advertising.com and Aol Advertising is AdLearn, which serves between 40 and 60 billion impressions per month and makes 10 billion transactional placement decisions daily through analyzing thousands of variables.

“If you look at the math behind it and the scale and complexity of what we’re already doing,” Kennedy says, “It is analogous to being able to monetize vast amounts of content moving forward.”

Ad Desk is only the first step in a dramatic re-imagining of Advertising.com. The team is looking forward to future improvements from the feedback garnered through the initial giving advertisers access to the network’s internal capabilities.

“Networks over the years — and especially us — have had a black box mentality; advertisers would claim we keep a lot of data in and the communication is one-sided,” Kennedy says. “The way we’ve looked at it over the last 12 months… is that we have so many great tools and technologies and access to so much data — so many insights that we can derive from the campaigns we run for our advertisers -– that we really need to be much more external with this.”

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