The Big Question For Many Microsoft Ad Sellers: How Long Will AOL Jobs Last?

Slug-for-AllpurposeusethisMicrosoft and AOL observers have a lot of questions in the wake of the companies' landmark search and display ad deal, announced Monday.

Here's a big one: How will AOL, a company of some 4,500 employees, possibly absorb 1,200 new sales, marketing, biz dev and engineering people? Once the partnership is consummated, AOL will have dramatically ramped up its headcount and cost of sales. What happens then?

The early message handed down from management is that no layoffs are planned, but many are skeptical.

AOL President Bob Lord told AdExchanger, "The amount of people we need on the ground to sell this programmatic demand is pretty important. I see us being able to utilize great talent.”

On Wednesday, AOL delivered offer letters to many Microsoft employees, and senior AOL brass gave presentations at Microsoft offices across the US. The offers were deemed generous by many, including raises slightly higher than a typical Microsoft annual raise, and the rank and file were impressed by the speed of execution. Employees in the US were given 10 days to consider the offer, and anyone signing the letter will officially work for AOL as of July 16, according to sources.

But even those promised a role at AOL expect layoffs down the road.

"I don't think they want all of us," said one mid-level employee. "It's hard to imagine that them with our bloated cost structure is any better than us with our bloated cost structure. They're not going to let everyone go, but they're going to have to let people go."

Another person close to the company agreed, "AOL's not going to be able to keep 1,200 people. You don't need two sales forces. If you and I were both calling on AmEx, who's calling now?"

Meanwhile, for those still waiting for news, uncertainty is taking a toll. For instance, many of the offers to date have covered sales and marketing positions, but Microsoft has a business and technology group that is still awaiting its marching orders, and could be waiting one to two weeks more. Among the options on the table is to transfer that unit to AppNexus, Microsoft's key partner on programmatic sales.

"There has been a deafening silence about what's happening to that group," said the source. "They now have effectively nothing to do."

And in another case, people working on a premium sales ad platform at Microsoft suspect the product will be scrapped, along with several jobs, once the AOL deal takes effect.

AOL is no stranger to layoffs under CEO Tim Armstrong, who has periodically reduced the company's headcount when he sees opportunities to invest elsewhere or increase efficiencies. In 2009, AOL cut close to 1,000 jobs, many overseas, in the wake of its Huffington Post acquisition. In January 2014, it let go hundreds of Patch employees before selling off the local news division's remaining assets. And this past January it shuttered websites and laid off an estimated 150 in its media group.

It's safe to assume AOL will not hesitate to do so again, especially as the company works to execute its strategic vision of powering advertising in a "mechanized" future, to use a favorite term of Armstrong's, under new parent Verizon.

That said, Microsoft's robust sales force has much to recommend it, including a strong presence in overseas markets where AOL has cut back in recent years. Where there are redundancies, AOL will have the option to cherry pick Microsoft's best people – the ones who stick around past September, that is.

And for many Microsoft's people, long used to working for a company with a conflicted relationship to advertising, the chance to try something new is worth risking a pink slip in six months or a year.

Deal Questions And AppNexus Impact

Aside from job security, questions swirl around the deal's terms and the impact on AppNexus, details of which are being held close to the vest.

Sources say as few as five executives were direct party to the negotiations, among them AOL's Armstrong and Lord, Microsoft corporate VP Rik van der Kooi, AppNexus CEO Brian O'Kelley and AppNexus President Michael Rubenstein.

While the rough outline of the agreement is clear, many of its particulars are not. Here are just a few unanswered questions: Will AOL acquire assets from Microsoft, along with the right to sell its inventory? Does the deal come with cash payments? What's the revenue share? And did Microsoft issue revenue guarantees to AOL, as it did under its 2009 search alliance with Yahoo?

For now, the companies have declined to comment further.

With regard to AppNexus, Microsoft's van der Kooi emphasized nothing will change in the near term with regard to the programmatic platform's access to Microsoft inventory. However, there may be a risk to AppNexus in the long haul. After all AOL has an ad tech stack of its own, one that includes a sell-side platform with some of the same functionality AppNexus offers, run by longstanding AOL exec Dave Jacobs.

There was a degree of king-making that happened when Microsoft invested $100 million in AppNexus, back in 2010, and made the exchange platform its partner for all Microsoft programmatic sales across at least 39 markets where it operates. Should that partnership partially unravel, it would significantly hurt AppNexus.

How likely is that to happen? One rumor circulating at Microsoft is that AppNexus is protected for a period of one year, after which time AOL and Microsoft will conduct a review of their programmatic partner options in the nine global markets covered by the deal. After that year, the Microsoft inventory could either stay with AppNexus, migrate to AOL or go to an outside partner.

Should AOL attempt to migrate a portion of Microsoft's supply to its own pipes, it will come as a blow to AppNexus, which is valued at more than $1 billion and is expected to IPO in the first half of 2016.

Meanwhile, outside of Microsoft's top nine markets, Microsoft and AppNexus have expanded their agreement, making all Microsoft inventory in countries such as Finland, Ireland and Austria programmatically traded.

"In our next 10 markets in Western Europe mostly, we're going all in on programmatic,” van der Kooi said, “partnering even more deeply with AppNexus than we are today."

 

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