(Photo by Flickr user Jason Persse, used under a Creative Commons license)
Addressing the employees of AOL’s Baltimore office for the first time following the company’s acquisition of Millennial Media, Don Kennedy described the scene as “surreal.” There, among his new colleagues, were a lot of familiar faces.
In December, at the company holiday party, Matt Gillis saw a lot of people greeting each other like old friends. “For many folks, it was like a homecoming,” said Gillis, who is one of nine former Millennial Media executives to take on new roles at AOL.
Like many reunions, everyone took a different path to get there. It’s admittedly a little complicated, so bear with us.
While the work that comes as a result of the deal is only beginning, the scenes at the end of 2015 underscore how AOL’s fall acquisition of Millennial Media for $238 million in cash represents the latest evolution of Baltimore’s adtech scene.
Advertising.com and AOL’s 2004 acquisition of that startup went a long way toward making advertising one of the four pillars of Baltimore’s startup ecosystem. Kennedy, who is now AOL’s president of advertiser platforms, worked at Ad.com prior to the acquisition. There were others who didn’t stay on but stayed in adtech, like Millennial Media’s eventual cofounders, Paul Palimieri and Chris Brandenburg.
STAQ CEO James Curran, who is also a former Advertising.com employee, calls the crush of startups in adtech the “big bang.” There were companies building tools for advertising across many different verticals like video, display, mobile, audience targeting and others.
“All of those different verticals have been represented by Baltimore companies that have come from Ad.com,” Curran said. “There is a trend now to try to consolidate the ‘big bang’ through acquisitions and technology.”
Independently, AOL and Millennial Media were already examples of that trend as both operations grew in Baltimore. Both made a host of acquisitions as they sought to take on more market share in a space that is dominated by Facebook and Google.
Over the last few years, AOL has been making acquisitions and last year moved from Tide Point to a bigger space in Natty Boh Tower. Millennial Media went public, and built an office that expanded in the former Emerging Technology Center in the Can Company.
In that time, AOL’s ad-focused Baltimore operation revamped, and Millennial was adapting its mobile ad experiences that took into account quickly-changing phone and network technology, as well as viewing habits.
As the two companies grew side-by-side, there was continued familiarity. While growing and trying new ideas, Gillis said the two companies even hired from each other.
Now, the two groups are under one, even larger banner of Verizon, which acquired AOL in May for $4.4 billion in a deal where AOL’s adtech business played a big part. With the combined capabilities, the company appears to be making a push to go after Facebook and Google.
In all, there are about 500 employees split between the two offices. In terms of physical space, Kennedy said the final arrangement hasn’t been settled. In terms of the software the employees are building, he said the addition of the former Millennial Media’s capabilities brings on missing pieces in mobile.
AOL’s Baltimore office is part of AOL Platforms, the company’s adtech operation. Many of these apps rely on automated and targeted advertising campaigns, known as programmatic, rather than traditional display advertising. As it becomes easier to release an app and more common that apps are available for free, AOL’s advertising unit helps products monetize those products. Early in 2015, the division released a new platform called One that helps companies through the process of building ad campaigns, targeting users and analyzing where it’s working.
The platform is also aimed at helping advertisers reach eyeballs across whichever device they happen to be using. Through acquisitions over the last two years, AOL added video capabilities with Vidible and Adap.tv, native advertising with Gravity, and analysis across channels with Convertro. But a lot of that technology was focused on advertising for desktop, said Neil Alperstein, a professor in Loyola University Maryland’s Communications department.
“What Millennial Media provides them is access to mobile,” he said. And that’s what former AOL Platforms President Bob Lord said in the acqusition announcement.
As mobile devices become more ubiquitious as a place where content is viewed, AOL is looking to Millennial Media to add tech capabilities for mobile advertising. Millennial Media built a network of 65,000 mobile apps, and the tech that allows ads to display in those apps.
“What they built is really hard to build,” AOL’s Kennedy said, adding that the acquisition fills a void in both product and talent.
But there’s a more holistic way to look at it, as well.
Millennial Media’s network will be part of AOL’s existing adtech offerings, which include campaigns to run with content from AOL properties like Huffington Post and TechCrunch, as well as third-party producers. Another ingredient is data from Verizon’s sea of mobile subscribers.
For Verizon, the deals point to a desire to go beyond being just a telecom company.
“They want to be much more than that,” said Ant Ozok, a professor in UMBC’s Information Systems department. Combining subscribers and their data, content offerings and the ability to deliver ads with that content points to a strategy to be “more or less a comprehensive information company for consumers,” Ozok said.
Anyone looking for an early sign of how all of this fits together may look to go90.
— go90 (@go90) October 7, 2015
Launched in the fall, its Verizon’s free mobile TV service supported only by ads, and not subscription fees that cable companies traditionally rely on. Known as “Over the Top” (OTT) TV, the model mixes cable TV content and internet video from sources like YouTube.
The ability to view that content across multiple environments means there’s an opportunity to advertise there as well. AOL was tasked with handling ad sales for go90, the Wall Street Journal reported in the fall. The article also mentioned plans to sell at least some ads for the service through AOL’s programmatic platform.
“AOL wants the ability to connect from desktop to mobile, or from a browser to an app. That’s certainly in AOL’s long-term interest,” Alperstein said.
In Baltimore, Kennedy indicated the new task could mean more hiring.
In the acquisition, 18 high-level Millennial Media employees did not continue with the new company in a mix of golden parachutes and layoffs. When we asked if there would be more layoffs, Kennedy said the company is in an overall “growth mode” with recruiting efforts.
“The need for talent is going to grow in this market,” he said.
For the workers already there, the focus will be on bringing together the teams from across all of the acquisitions, Kennedy said. The One platform unites the different segments in one place strategically, but the integration continues each day.
“It isn’t just about bolting them on,” Kennedy said of acquired companies. “There’s a lot of work that goes into it.”