Digital Effort Aiming To Unite Multiple Fronts Faces Various Obstacles
By EMILY STEEL
March 26, 2008; Page B6
Over the past two years, Lynda Clarizio has helped build Advertising.com, AOL's ad network, into one of the hottest properties in online advertising. Her reward: She gets to try to clean up one of the Internet company's messiest divisions.
Time Warner's AOL unit is aiming to transform itself from an Internet service provider into a full-service digital-advertising business. To that end, it has spent about $1 billion to buy seven ad-technology firms with different areas of expertise, from behavioral targeting to video ads. The next step is to knit them together with Advertising.com -- an entity AOL has dubbed Platform A, but has yet to take to market.
AOL's future largely hinges on the success of that transformation, which involves aggressively slashing costs, forsaking billions of dollars in overall subscription revenue, and laying off thousands of employees. Time Warner Chief Executive Jeff Bewkes has said that mission is key to plotting a new course for a company whose stock price has stagnated in recent years.
But Platform A is off to a rocky start. In its first six months, it has been marked by failed sales targets, tensions among its different business groups, and, most recently, the dismissal of its president, Curt Viebranz. A number of marketers say they are ready to spend their ad dollars with Platform A, but can't because the disparate units still operate independently.
The idea behind Platform A is that AOL can be a one-stop shop for placing ads both on AOL's own Web sites and on the broader Web, through its ad networks like Advertising.com, which sell ads on thousands of Web sites. So far, though, the company is a long way from that reality. AOL is fourth among the major Web portals -- behind Google, Microsoft's MSN and Yahoo -- in ad revenue, and the pace of its ad-revenue growth has also dropped off. AOL's ad revenue grew 12% in 2007, compared with 37% in 2006 and 38% in 2005, according to research firm eMarketer.
Even Advertising.com, a rare bright spot in AOL's business recently, is facing new pressures. A major part of a two-year deal with its biggest advertiser, Apollo Group's University of Phoenix, ended in January. Advertising.com was University of Phoenix's exclusive online marketing partner, managing its ad buys both on its network of sites and on other ad networks. The deal generated $215 million for AOL in 2007, up $58 million from $157 million in 2006, and accounted for 17% of AOL's ad-revenue growth last year. (University of Phoenix will continue to buy ads on the Advertising.com network, but decided to take its ad buying in-house.)
AOL's biggest competitors are developing their own ad networks, which will make life tougher for Advertising.com. "If I get the inkling they are not innovating, I'm going to look elsewhere and talk to Yahoo or any of the other Web giants," says Tom Hespos, president of Underscore Marketing, a closely held digital agency in New York.
AOL executives have picked Ms. Clarizio, 47 years old, to rescue Platform A, which has the widest reach of any ad network in the country -- reaching 90% of the U.S. online audience, according to comScore -- but isn't able to effectively sell across that spectrum yet. A nine-year veteran of AOL, Ms. Clarizio led the deal team that acquired Advertising.com in 2004 for $435 million. That unit has accounted for nearly a quarter of AOL's revenue and is one of the fastest-growing parts of the company.
Trained as a lawyer, Ms. Clarizio is known internally for an analytical mind and an ability to delegate. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, she came to AOL from Washington law firm Arnold & Porter, where she was a partner for seven years and also worked as an AOL outside counsel.
While AOL is known as a relatively slow-moving, bureaucratic company, Advertising.com has developed a different reputation. "AOL has reinvented itself so many times. It is hard to keep track," says Adam Schlachter, senior partner and group director at Mediaedge:cia, a media-planning firm that is a part of WPP Group's Group M. "(Advertising.com) has been able to grow steadily, consistently and innovate."
Ad.com grew from a cramped townhouse on the outskirts of Baltimore, where brothers Scott and John Ferber opened a digital advertising company called TeknoSurf in 1998. Their idea was to piece together a network of Web sites where they would buy ad space, then resell it to advertisers at a premium. It changed its name to Advertising.com in 2000.
Ms. Clarizio tried to embrace Ad.com's start-up spirit. The company remained at its Baltimore headquarters, instead of relocating to AOL's Dulles, Va., base, 60 miles away. She dressed up for Halloween and competed in relay races.
She also has tried to get the company's various sales teams and engineers working on common goals. During daily 9 a.m. meetings in Ad.com's "War Room," midlevel executives discuss the previous day's results and chart the next day's goals.
Ms. Clarizio wants to replicate that culture at Platform A, which suffers from duplication among its sales, tech and other groups. Different ad units, for instance, call on the same clients -- in essence competing for the business. One of Ms. Clarizio's first moves in her new post was to announce a "leadership team" for Platform A. The new structure puts in place one sales team, one technology team, one product and operations team, one marketing team and one publisher-services team to cut across all the company's different ad units.
Some digital-advertising executives question whether combining sales teams is the right strategy. They fear Ad.com's emphasis on data-driven results will come to dominate Platform A, frustrating bigger-brand marketers used to the tailored campaigns they have gotten from some of AOL's ad-sales teams.
But Ms. Clarizio is moving full speed ahead with the integration. AOL also announced last week that it has integrated two of the companies that provided separate search-engine-marketing services -- Advertising.com and Quigo, a contextual targeting ad firm AOL acquired last fall. "It's an example of what we need to do across the board. It's definitely an iterative process and takes a lot of work to do that," Ms. Clarizio says.