Media Forum: Is Platform A a milestone?

Will AOL's integrated operation deliver all it promises?

In the UK, at least, AOL's all-singing-all-dancing integrated digital advertising sales operation has been a long time in the making. Platform A launched in September 2007 in the US and has been rolled out across (in alphabetical order) Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden. There's also a joint venture in Japan with Mitsui.

There was even a sort of soft launch in the UK back in July, when it was confirmed that Michael Steckler, the managing director of AOL UK, was also to head up Platform A and that Kevin Cornils, the head of AOL's existing ad sales brand, Advertising.com, was to leave the company.

At this point, Platform A's senior management line-up was unveiled, with Duncan George, formerly GCap's commercial director, being named the head of agency sales. Louise Green and Sarah Perry were appointed to client-facing roles; and Lucy Burton was made the head of trade marketing.

So last week's announcement that Platform A was now "open for business" in the UK, was not exactly earth-shattering. On the other hand, it may turn out to be a rather significant milestone in the development of the online ad market.

Digital has always known that it needs to put more effort behind developing its credentials in formats other than search. Platform A, in which performance, behavioural and brand advertising inventory are to be sold side by side, might just be a significant step in that direction. Particularly as other players, such as the Yahoo!, ATP and Microsoft Advertising platforms are heading in the same direction.

Sam Taylor, the head of advertising and sponsorship at T-Mobile, says he likes what he's seen so far. He explains: "It will take a while for the benefits of the system to be established - but we'll be looking for three things. When we buy display, we buy capped frequency, but that's not always meaningful when you're on a number of sites. This will enable that to be managed much better and wastage will be minimised. And that, in turn, has implications for the effectiveness of behavioural targeting. Third, there will be more consistency of format. The market has been trying to address that - but it has been painful. So if you were looking at running a rich format across 20 sites, you might be looking at production costs for each one, which would cost megabucks. If the medium is to increase its share of media budgets, it has to start competing production-wise."

Kevin Murphy, the joint managing director of Zed Media, says it's interesting that most of the big online media owners are looking at a more integrated way of working. But he adds: "The big question will be whether they will all adopt the same approach. Yes, the idea is that this will help you get greater access to inventory and, from their point of view, use of technology will save on costs - but there are also questions about whether a loss of personal contact will enhance media owner-agency relationships."

Much of this is echoed by Norm Johnston, the chief executive of Mindshare Interaction EMEA - though he doubts whether the initiative will stand the industry on its head. He says: "It will give advertisers a simplified way to improve the targeting and reach of their display, mobile and video ads across a large selection of online destinations. The behavioural targeting aspect is particularly compelling during a downturn as it enables us to make a good case that, via online, we can deliver less wastage and better results."

And Damian Blackden, the president, digital, of Omnicom Media Group EMEA, says that, to make a real difference, Platform A will have to offer true integration. He concludes: "Platform A is an aggregate of all of AOL's assets - but they can only be leveraged if they can be linked. I want to track consumers as they move between their assets. If they can be linked together, they can be leveraged. But I'm not convinced they're totally there yet. It's an integrated sell but it's not an integrated solution."

YES - Sam Taylor, head of advertising and sponsorship, T-Mobile

"I think we can be confident this will deliver. And it will make life easier. One of the benefits will be flexibility. We'll be able to come off one site and move to another without it costing the earth, as it does now."

MAYBE - Kevin Murphy, joint managing director, Zed Media

"Ad exchanges allow access to a wider range of sites and consumers - so people are going to be interested. And if more are interested, there's a chance more people will look at testing it as a medium."

NO - Norm Johnston, chief executive, Mindshare Interaction EMEA

"It all sounds great but whether Platform A really delivers in such a seamless fashion will be the big question. Is it good it exists? Yes. Is it a milestone? No."

NO - Damian Blackden, president, digital, Omnicom Media Group EMEA

"I'm not entirely convinced it's there yet in terms of the integration you need. Nor am I convinced Platform A is consistent across different markets. So if you're asking whether this is a milestone moment, I'm afraid I'd say no."

- Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haymarket.com.

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