Why AT&T bought AppNexus and the deal's likely outcomes

AT&T's purchase of AppNexus is similar to Verizon's purchase of AOL and Yahoo in its goals

AT&T’s purchase of AppNexus has been perceived as a landmark development for the adtech sector and one that is likely to have far-reaching implications in terms of catalyzing more M&A activity in the space.

For now though, the jury is out on whether or not it will have the desired impact of significantly impacting Facebook and Google’s dominance of the digital advertising market.

AT&T confirmed its purchase of AppNexus, in a deal estimated to be worth anywhere up to $2bn, on Monday (June 25). It's arguably the adtech story of the year so far with the move clearly indicating the scale of the US telco’s ambitions in the media space, especially since it comes soon after its $85bn purchase of Time Warner.

Well-placed commentators on the sector believe the M&A activity is unlikely to cease there with Terence Kawaja, chief executive of investment Luma Partners, telling The Drum in the wake of the approval of the Time Warner takeover that a deal of such a scale would likely unlock a flurry of subsequent, smaller, deals. Especially, he says, as scaled players attempt to fill out their digital advertising capabilities.

“An approved deal will create positive deal momentum generally. M&A is an art that relies on market sentiment,” says Kawaja.

Rob Webster, Crimtan, chief strategy officer, describes the move as an “ideal fit” given that AppNexus has a demand-side platform (DSP) which AT&T can offer to programmatic advertisers the option to buy its ever-growing content library via the AppNexus sell-side platform (SSP).

“First of all its an ideal fit, AppNexus is outside of Google – the biggest company that operates both an SSP and a DSP [via its DoubleClick suite]. So it offers solutions for both publishers and advertisers,” he adds.

“This ties in well for AT&T who are both a huge publisher and content owner but also a big advertiser and a company looking to grow fast in advertising technology and services.”

Webster believes the latest acquisition from AT&T has long been planned given Brian Lesser, the chief executive of AT&T’s advertising division, for many years given his earlier board membership of AppNexus – a role made possible after WPP (where he rose to be chief executive of GroupM) invested $25m in the adtech outfit.

“Where this acquisition goes further is the number of companies that use AppNexus as a base for their media operations, including several agency holding companies,” Webster adds.

“Combined with publisher relationships this allows AT&T to tie together the demand side and supply side publishers and challenge Google's dominance of this space. This end-to-end solution also allows AT&T to onboard their data in a powerful fashion with much less risk of leakage.”

'Same strategy' as Verizon's Oath takeover?

Wayne Blodwell, chief executive at The Programmatic Advisory, says AT&T’s decision to purchase AppNexus, on top of its earlier $85bn blockbuster purchase of Time Warner, resembles the strategy of its US telco rival Verizon Wireless which has gone about constructing its own ad stack over the last two years in the guise of Oath.

“Same strategy, just different tech, media and data that sit behind it which they must think bringing all together can be competitive versus Google, Facebook and Amazon,” he adds.

Similarly, Webster points out that APAC-based telco Singtel, is also amassing its own adtech stack with its purchase of Adconian and Turn in recent years.

In terms of further M&A in the adtech space, Jay Friedman, chief operating officer of Goodway Group, believes that more deals are afoot, and identifies DSP-provider MediaMath as the next “big one that is still out there”, and that publicly-listed The Trade Desk is “not off the market.”

He also points to DataXu plus other mobile/video-specific outfits that are likely to prove attractive to other telcos – such as the soon-to-be merger (pending approval) T-Mobile and Sprint – that are likely to emulate the strategy of the aforementioned telcos.

The entry of Oath – the sum of the combined content and adtech assets of merged entities AOL and Yahoo – into the digital market has been universally welcomed, especially its sizable efforts to lead further transparency in the programmatic media trading space. However, sources close to the UK’s digital media buying landscape have claimed that Oath has thus far not significantly disrupted the status quo.

“Clients who we work with who use holding companies, we never see Oath on their plans,” said one source speaking upon the condition of anonymity.

This is despite Oath’s Tim Armstrong claiming some small victories over the likes of Facebook and Google when it comes to ad spend, especially in light of increased scrutiny from advertisers in light of the 2017 brand safety and measurement uproar.

However, in recent interviews with The Drum Brian O'Kelley, chief executive of AppNexus, and Andrew Casale, chief executive of Index Exchange, spoke their of their shared belief that the adtech sector's Advertising ID Consortium – a consortium backed by more than 15 ad tech companies – could help move the dial in terms of ad spend.

“So I think that's sort of where we are is realizing that the opportunity is bigger than we thought. It's not just a bunch of adtech companies trying to figure things out. This is actually potentially a standard ID for the industry,” according to O'Kelley.

Speaking separately with The Drum, Andrew Casale, Index Exchange, chief executive officer, and board member of the consortium, explained that the addition of a non-commercial ID meant that participating members could now do so in a manner that was ‘conflict-free’ and one that could shift spend.

“There was a bunch of feedback on the original proposed design of the Advertising ID Consortium, one of the things was that with only one domain [for targeting] that was not enough and could potentially create a conflict of interest,” he adds.

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