The rumors were swirling during the Cannes Lions festival last week, though I don’t think I expected it to happen so fast. But it did. Yes, AT&T has acquired adtech company AppNexus in news confirmed today. Here are the headlines, from my point of view:
AT&T + Time Warner = plugs and pipes meet content. Before we even talk about the AppNexus acquisition, we need to talk about the acquisition that preceded it. At AT&T, we have a vast network of distribution — i.e., connection points that get media content in front of consumers across channels, formats, and devices — and at Time Warner, we have the very premium, proprietary content that consumers (and the brand advertisers vying for their attention) crave. While this is no means the first, at least at first glance (think Verizon with AOL), this latest, aggressive move into adtech feels the boldest in its ambitions to shape the advertising industry. Why?
- Brian Lesser, AT&T advertising and analytics head, is on a mission, and he’s no slouch. Lesser is a veteran of both adtech and advertising, having entered the agency world through WPP’s 24/7 acquisition and going on to build its trading desk (Xaxis) and homegrown DMP (Turbine) before running GroupM’s North American operations.* Brian’s experience gives him the unique perspective to understand both the mechanics and technical aspects of advertising technology and have a strong, strategic point of view on advertising and the ad ecosystem itself. And, helpfully, he appears to have the full weight and support of AT&T behind him.
- AppNexus gives AT&T an instant access point to digital advertising. In its $1 billion-plus (final price tag as yet unknown) acquisition of AppNexus, AT&T is acquiring its way into digital advertising — ad channels like display and video across desktop and mobile — overnight. AppNexus offers a global footprint, tools for both media buyers and sellers, a massive ad marketplace (AKA, an ad exchange), a roster of existing clients, and integrations with a vast array of other adtech providers.
- A material alternative to Facebook and Google emerges, where data is power. AT&T and Time Warner, individually and collectively, are sitting on a massive pool of first-party data. Even better: accurate, deterministic first-party data. Their direct relationships with millions of consumers means they can build a scaled identity graph, increasingly necessary for omnichannel media buying in a fragmented world where cookies are crumbling and good consumer ad experiences are more important — and elusive — than ever. And what are Facebook and Google, really, other than data-driven, cross-channel access points to a scaled network of consumers?
- “Omnichannel advertising” is the real end game for marketers, and AT&T knows it. Savvy brands know they need to anticipate consumers’ needs, understand them in the moment, and be where they are with the right message, every time. This means doubling down on making marketing experiences that work together by exchanging “channel truth” for “customer truth.” With AppNexus in its adtech stack, AT&T can buy and sell against its high-quality data set (read: Target the audiences that marketers care about) across an array of ad channels and formats — across digital and television, the workhorse of brand advertising — within premium environments. Sounds a lot like AT&T AdWorks’ stated vision of “addressable cross-screen advertising.”
Now they just have to pull it off.
*Fun fact: Brian Lesser also spent a couple of years on AppNexus’ board of directors.