AOL’s Sales Chief: Ad Dollars Are Coming Back To Content

jimnortonThere’s no splashy programmatic AOL upfront at this year’s Advertising Week.

Instead, the company is addressing more serious matters – like the state of integration with Yahoo amid a data breach.

AOL’s senior execs are also talking up consumer-driven content and innovative ad formats.

“We had this giant emphasis on algorithmically driven media over the last two years, but now you see ad dollars coming back to content,” said Jim Norton, global head of media sales for AOL, during CNBC’s Masters of Monetization event Tuesday at Advertising Week.

AdExchanger caught up with Norton after the event.

AdExchanger: You said you’re seeing the emphasis move from “algorithmically driven media” to content. Can you elaborate?

JIM NORTON: A lot of publishers are moving to a syndicated content model, meaning they’re no longer producing their own content and they’re more or less acting as a distribution platform. So as there are fewer professional content producers, there’s still a proliferation of new content being created. But high-end, premium, curated content continues to be scarce.

It’s really difficult to find, and advertisers have quickly realized that in an algorithmically driven world wired to a race to the bottom on both scale, efficiency and pricing, you end up with this real need to get back to a premium ad environment and user experience. 

Microsoft’s sales chief mentioned AOL would love more premium video to monetize for Xbox. True?

We do want more premium inventory [and that process] starts with Xbox developers creating video. From an ad perspective, we want to work with brands to introduce an Xbox video format that works for that audience. And that’s not a 30-second pre-roll, post-roll ad where you just repurpose a TV ad. You’ve got to create an ad for the Xbox environment and the Xbox user. They’re not going to put up with a substandard ad experience. There’s huge desire and demand for brands to activate there.

Can you update us on Verizon’s mobile video service Go90? Word has it that more of its monetization is being delegated to AOL.

They launched a year ago and then pulled back to improve the user experience. They’ve been very active around partnerships with Hearst, AwesomenessTV, as well as activating AOL brands like Huffington Post and TechCrunch across it. But I’d say we’ve been focused on the not-so-sexy side of the business, which is the pipes and plumbing. Where it was once a separate entity delivering ads, it is now being worked into our unified ad stack.

As you grow larger with Yahoo, how do you add incremental revenue without cannibalizing your existing sales structure?

If you organize around the client and put the customer in the middle, you will find the right sales organization. The challenge is how you balance the expertise on the customer with the expertise on the individual products. We’re about to enter a world where our “sales bag” is about to get dramatically heavier. It’s really difficult to know everything about every product, especially the technical components. So what’s the right expertise you can call on when you need it? Especially with the platform and programmatic business, you’ve got to have a very highly technical level of expertise. But when you think about the content, you need the ability to think like an editor. It’s a balance of left brain, right brain.

Speaking of programmatic, what’s the state of your stack, One by AOL?

We moved away from a culture based on announcements. When Bob [Lord] was here, we went through a number of major acquisitions, and with Tim Mahlman, it’s about activating against those acquisitions. One by AOL platform is the vision that Bob set forth and now it’s bringing that vision to life and that is not easy. When you think about display, mobile, video powered by data on a unified, global platform, it’s a tall task that takes many years to bring to fruition.

Would a combined Verizon-AOL-Yahoo be strong because of its ad tech or because of its media?

We’re really devout on our commitment to content. It provides a far more engaging format by which a brand can put their message forth. Premium content provides a differentiated level of data you can then take to a brand and say, “I know you’re working with the Adobes and Oracles and BlueKais of the world, but so is everyone else.” What we can bring is a differentiated set of data that, at the core, is Verizon carrier-level data.

Our mantra is build brands people love. If Google is search and Facebook is social, AOL is brand. You’ve got to have an engaging environment, an ad stack to provide efficiency but data that feeds the creation of content, and the data to optimize the ad campaign to feed back into the content. First-party data is the new owned-and-operated content. And I think there’s a lot of data still being left on the table by publishers.

How so?

Whether it’s a publisher or tech provider, there’s first-party data that should and can be activated. If you think about a print company, what are they doing with subscriber data beyond sending them their monthly subscription? How can you take that level of household data and either link that back to an IP address or device ID? There’s data on connected TVs not being leveraged to its full extent. Think about carriers – Verizon knows a lot about its users, so how do you in a PII-compliant environment, use that to create better content, a better ad experience and a better business and business ecosystem?

Interview edited for length and clarity.


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