AOL Expands Project Devil Units To Mobile -- But Will Advertisers And Publishers Follow?

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Greg Rogers, AOL PictelaAOL introduced its high-def, interactive Project Devil "premium brand" ad units nearly two years ago and while the service has attracted hundreds of third party publishers and nearly 700 campaigns with more than 150 marketers, the offering has been limited to PC-based ads. That's changing as AOL, which saw display numbers stall in Q1 after a year of double-digit gains, expands the Devil program to include mobile.

"We mainly track the Devil ads on AOL's homepage, but we've seen slower adoption than we had initially expected," said Macquarie Capital analyst Ben Schachter in an interview with AdExchanger. "Advertisers don't want to be limited to just one site or one publisher, so that has likely made it a harder sell than it otherwise would be."

AOL appears to have realized that issue. The solution, in theory, is that the cross-platform nature of the Devil units will bring in more advertisers and more third party publishers, said Greg Rogers, CEO of AOL's Pictela, which developed the Devil units after being acquired in December 2010.

AOL is launching "Premium Formats for Mobile," as this Devil effort is called, on its owned and operated sites, Rogers told AdExchanger. The company will be immediately reaching out to its outside publishing partners who already use the Devil units.

"This conversation has been very AOL-centric up to this point," he said. "Our clients don't want to do workflow and only serve it on our sites, we know that. So over the next two, three months, in addition to speaking to marketers, we're going to the hundreds of certified publisher partners we serve through the PC browser to offer these mobile ad units as well."

For its browser-based ad unit, Devil offers advertisers the choice of 25 different boxes or "apps" that can present photos, videos, social media or other content. The mobile version ad units will present up to three of these apps. For example, a single ad unit can hold a video app, photo app and a social media feed for Facebook or Twitter.

"Three apps make sense for mobile -- it'about all that the eye can process on those screens," Rogers said.

The next steps include introducing a self-serve option for advertisers, in addition to the current ability to receive analytics in real-time, as well as the ability to swap out ads that aren't hitting their benchmarks.

AOL doesn't break out specific revenue numbers for Devil. In Q1, display revenues were weak, particularly on the owned and operated sites, while third party network revenue increased $20.8 million, reflecting 14% growth in Advertising.com.

CEO Tim Armstrong, following the company’s Q1 earnings call in May, told us that he was looking to get the display revenue sales back on track, suggesting that things might improve by the end of the year. “We have been moving from a traditional display model into things like Project Devil and video, which we’re in the process of scaling up,” Armstrong said. “The traditional display market is not a growth market. We can do a better job serving our customers and users by having better advertising. We have been working on fine-tuning our strategy, which went through a number of distractions last fall. We got away from the data-centric, ROI and category-specific focus you need in the display market.”

"The premise when we first started Pictela remains the same," Rogers said. "The idea is that brands are becoming publishers and they're spending an incredible amount of money and resources producing content designed to speak to consumers directly. The second concept was that the content management experience may be optimized depending on where it's being served. And it allows the agency to become the strategist for how that branded content should be published. And if you're serving that content across all screens, then the metrics should be the same as well. And that data is the ultimate power of this system."

By David Kaplan

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