AOL Debuts A Publisher Platform, Acquires French RTB Shop AlephD

MahlmanAOL rolled a slew of sell-side tools into a unified publisher platform called ONE by AOL: Publishers, which launched Monday, and revealed its intent to acquire French yield management startup AlephD.

It didn’t take long for AOL to make good on an earlier declaration by then-President Bob Lord in late October that AOL would remain acquisitive while considering niche tools on the publisher side.

“AlephD is one more piece we’re adding to this vision of building a unified but open stack,” said Tim Mahlman, president of publisher platforms, who joined AOL in 2014 via the acquisition of his video syndication platform, Vidible.

“This won’t be our last [acquisition]," he added. "For the most part, all of the startups that came to AOL through acquisition are still run independently – nimble, with very aggressive product road maps.”

Mahlman spoke with AdExchanger about how AOL’s publisher platform came together and the motivations for buying AlephD.

AdExchanger: Why the acquisition?

TIM MAHLMAN: AlephD is one of the first deals you’ll hear about in 2016, but it certainly won’t be the last. We had a lot of tools, but when we met this company it really changed the way we thought about how we should holistically look at a publisher.

They built, from a programmatic standpoint, a platform that is all about analytics and floor pricing. The ability to log into an interface and have a complete understanding from an analytics perspective of the demand sources coming in is not something we saw a lot of these publishers had the tools and capabilities to do. 

How do you plan to incorporate AlephD into the larger stack and what capability is it adding?

It’s going to be a company we not only use within ONE by AOL: Publishers, but it is going to be a standalone company, which we will encourage companies not working with AOL to use. I think it’s going to change the way publishers look at how they consume demand, whether from third parties or other vendors we work with. Moreover, it provides an optimization tool that allows you to dynamically optimize your floor price, as well as add better insight into how their inventory is being sold, with more data feedback publishers will ask for.

What’s the core of your publisher platform?

Over seven years, Tim Armstrong has made some very strong acquisitions, many of which fall into the publisher side of the house. If you add up all these deals, it’s in excess of $1 billion. MARKETPLACE, the display SSP AOL built as a result of Adtech and, which we now call ONE by AOL: Video, was a behemoth on the SSP/exchange side of the house and still flourishing inside the business. AOL On was the 800-pound gorilla when it came to video syndication. And I have to be a little biased with Vidible, but we power most of AOL video and AOL On now. And of course, Millennial Media, which just came onto our portfolio at the end of the year.

How will your sales strategy shift?

Each one of these companies, particularly in 2015, has been immensely successful. But the challenge is we’ve just been selling them tactically. Each one has an individual sales team. We weren’t thinking at a higher level about what this meant for the publisher as a solution. But when you add all these pieces, we have a true, end-to-end monetization stack for publishers to create a more consolidated, a more bundled opportunity that leverages all the tools they need to manage their business, whether it’s video, display or mobile. Instead of having to deal with the obnoxious technology tax publishers are challenged with time after time, we are coming to them with one simple solution.

What influenced the publisher rollout? Any early users?

We started testing this within our own properties in 2015 as a publisher ourselves. It went to AOL, Huffington Post and other brands within AOL. Tim Armstrong got us in front of the leadership at A&E and within a few months, we announced this deeper relationship with A&E where they’re leveraging a number of the AOL publisher assets. It wasn’t a formalized product yet, but it was a ONE by AOL: Publishers pitch.

How does that work, since A&E runs LiveRail for private marketplaces and FreeWheel as its ad server?

The work we’re doing with A&E, etc., is still living on the digital side. But this is going to be an end-to-end solution (including linear or OTT). We saw that meaningful publishers in the market were concerned about this new walled garden approach that competitors have come to market with. It’s making it difficult [for publishers to] maximize themselves and it’s made them dependent. Any slip of the algorithm could be detrimental to their livelihood. We’re more open in how we work with publishers and [can customize how] they work with AOL.

Can you give an example of how you’d work cohesively with a publisher’s preexisting tools?

Our video SSP product already has Deal ID enabled. So a lot of companies have said, “We’re using LiveRail, but we want to tap into your publisher stack.” You can essentially build your own Deal ID, add all of the variables that allow you to have transparency in setting the price, as well as knowing the URLs within each of the portfolios you’d like to buy within, and shoot that over and plug that right into LiveRail.

That allows that desk the ability to now buy into our inventory by leveraging Deal ID. We acknowledge we’re not going to win all of the business, but if you still want to take advantage of our platform, we will accommodate and work with you so that we’re representing our publishers and allowing them to expand their breadth of opportunity.

Where will Gravity fit into the publisher platform mix? Or will it, given your new strategic investment in Taboola?

AOL SPOKESMAN GERRY MANOLATOS: When we acquired Gravity in 2014, we bought them for their content personalization and we explored building a monetization engine through that business. We partnered with and also invested in Taboola.

With Gravity, we’re doubling down on a highly personalized engine for content, and we’re moving that team under Bill Pence, who is AOL’s CTO. That team is focused on using personalization across AOL’s products and Go90, and really thinking about how we can recirculate traffic and audience across all different types of platforms, not just the home page, which is what Taboola, Outbrain and all those technologies are now hooked into.


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