Well it was a busy week last week, what with WPP agreeing to buy 24/7 and Microsoft agreeing to buy Aquantive. I was on vacation overseas, so didn’t get a chance to post my thoughts on it as it happened, but there was a lot of thoughtful coverage.
Since these deals came hard on the heels of Yahoo’s acquisition of Right Media and Google’s acquisition of Doubleclick last month, most of the coverage was in the vein of “watch everyone play catchup to Google”.
I have a slightly different take on this spate on transactions. I think that in the case of Yahoo and Microsoft, they are actually playing catchup to AOL’s acquisition of Advertising.com in 2004. This happened under Jon Miller’s watch (I was his chief of staff at the time). It has since proved to be a prescient deal.
It is no accident that AOL was the first big portal to move to acquire an ad network as they were the first to experience the trend of deportalization. The big three portals (Yahoo, MSN, AOL) are losing share (of total US pageviews), as the chart below shows.
They will likely never regain their lost share – their tried and true techniques of recycling traffic into their own sites don’t work anymore. Users want best of breed content and, thanks to search, they can get it – within or without the portals. Its been well documented that both Yahoo and MSN have seen flat/negative advertising revenue growth in the last few years. See the below chart from Valleywag for a comparison of Google vs Yahoo gross revenues for the last few quarters.
AOL has fared better because it opened up its proprietary content, so its year on year comps look better, but it took its traffic hit earlier and will likely start to see similar trends once the growth spurt generated by opening up AOL’s content to the web slows down.
Public companies must show growth.
If you can’t grow by selling your own inventory, then you’re forced to sell other people’s inventory. That was the driver of AOL’s acquisition of Advertising.com, and it’s the driver of Microsoft and Yahoo’s recent acquisitions as well. It also explains the prices that they paid, which some fear to be too high. Fear of loss is always a greater motivator than the prospect of gain. The big portals are looking down the barrel of a loss of their share of total pageviews, and are willing to fight hard (i.e. pay up) to avert that loss.